Atom Smasher

It was quite a busy day today and in the middle of it I had reason to dig around looking for old Physics Department stuff. One of the things I found pulled me back to my old friend, the 1937 Owl map. Just for a refresher, here it is:

What I’m interested in this time is the “Atom Smasher–U Find Em, We Smash em!!” I’d never really seen anything that spelled out exactly what Physics Professor H.A. Wilson was up to out there (or more likely I just hadn’t had reason to pay attention to what was in front of my face). Today, though, I found this February 1939 article from the Houston Press about Wilson and his atom smashing. You have to zoom in a couple of times to read it. I leave the entire front page for your amusement:

I realize that they’re talking about the construction of this machine in 1939 and the map  is from 1937, but if you take a look at the article you’ll see that there is reference to an earlier machine that Wilson had built. It was all being done in “a frame structure behind the Physics Building.” There had been such a structure since the completion of the building. Here’s a shot from 1915, the year it opened:

I originally scanned this picture because I was interested in the tennis courts.

And here’s another, probably from only slightly later:

I’m boggled by the idea that Wilson was “smashing atoms” in there, but I don’t really have any ideas of where else it could have been.

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7 Responses to Atom Smasher

  1. Grungy says:

    Maybe a smaller-scale Van de Graaf generator (smaller as compared to the one that Bonner was built around?

  2. C Kelly says:

    This is great – never heard of it. (I agree with Grungy. I don’t understand it clearly, but Wilson’s design sounds like a VdG generator.)

  3. Mike Ross says:

    From the description in the article — an endless belt “carries” the “juice” — it’s definitely a Van de Graaf, and not an “atomic whirligig gun” (i.e. cyclotron) mentioned in the national story on the left by David Dietz, one of the founders of the National Association of Science Writers.

  4. effegee says:

    The use of the site for experiments on radioactive materials survived as what was considered by many an “urban myth” into modern times. An asphalt-topped parking lot had replaced the “frame structure” by Fall 1969. When the parking lot was eliminated in the 1990’s, it was checked for radioactivity before work started just in case the “myth” was true. Then an army of spacesuits descended on the parking lot…

  5. James W. Hajovsky says:

    Not having a scientific mind, I love the article about the atom smasher and in today’s world a lot of things have happened because of what was started back then. What I love most is the ads in the papers from our days of old. I have a few papers from earlier times and National Geographic magazines from the 1910 era and it’s unbelievable to see some of the ad’s from then and then the development of color pictures as they became part of news reporting. I’ll just have to keep reading the comments from others and maybe I’ll learn more about “atom smashing”.

  6. Tom Bonner says:

    Certainly no myth. To quote from Dr. Houston’s biography of my father from the National Academy of Sciences biographical memoirs series (1965): “In 1937 also it was decided to build a Van de Graaf accelerator at Rice, and Bonner’s work was associated with such accelerators from then on.” He spend the 1938-1939 year at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and the summer of 1939 with Ray Herb at Wisconsin who had built the first pressurized Van de Graaf. Similar machines were built at Rice and Cal Tech before the war according to Ward Whaling, one of my father’s first graduate students after the war (Whaling, Ward. Interview by Shelley Erwin. Pasadena, California, April-May, 1999. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved Jul 27, 2009 from the World Wide Web:

    Continuing from Dr. Houston’s biography; “When he returned to Rice in the fall of 1939 the machine was essentially built and Bonner was given the responsibility of using it.” and later “When Bonner returned to Rice in 1945… And so with the relatively primitive Van de Graaf accelerator, in a green shack behind the physics building, he took up again the work he had left in 1941”.

    I suppose there aren’t many of us left who were ever in that shack but I remember being in it on a few occasions probably in the early 1950’s. My recollection is that it was a dark, probably windowless building that was in the same general location as the building shown in the pictures but located more or less equidistant between the road and the main axis of the Physics building. It would have been more or less in front of the elevated door seen at the far left of the last picture which at the time opened into the Physics department shop.

  7. A photo of the Van de Graaf “machine” is included with a description of Rice in a 1953 Owls Football brochure from my father’s scrapbook. I”ll bring in the pamphlet.

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