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Ernest O. Lawrence

Ernest O. Lawrence Image

Ernest Orlando Lawrence (1901–1958) invented the prototype of the cyclotron in 1930, barely two years after arriving at the University of California. He was called the “Atom Smasher”—the man who “held the key” to atomic energy. The invention that rocketed him to international fame started out as a sketch on a scrap of paper. Lawrence had found a method for obtaining particles of very high energy, without the use of any high voltage. The first model of his cyclotron was made out of wire and sealing wax and probably cost $25 in all. When Lawrence applied 2,000 volts of electricity to his makeshift cyclotron, he got 80,000-volt projectiles spinning around. He had discovered a way to “smash” atoms.

In 1939, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the cyclotron and its various applications. He went on to build one of the world’s greatest scientific laboratories on the Berkeley campus, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Following his death, the University established the Lawrence Hall of Science as a living memorial to his genius. Outside the Hall, on Centennial Drive, is a 65-ton electromagnet that was used to provide a large magnetic field for the 27-inch cyclotron in the early 1930s. Read what the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has to say about Ernest Lawrence.