Atom Smashers at Notre Dame

If you’ve been around campus lately, you may have noticed the construction around Nieuwland Science Hall.  Notre Dame is currently in the process of installing a new nuclear particle accelerator.  Such research has been a part of Notre Dame’s history since the late 1920s when electrical engineering professor Jose Caparo requested a 40x40x40 space in Cushing Hall of Engineering (completed in 1933) with the intention of using the space for a high-tension laboratory.

Along with physics professors George Collins and Edward Coomes, Caparo set out work to acquire a Van de Graaff particle accelerator.  With limited funding and the lack of commercially available equipment necessary to complete these new, cutting-edge experiments, Notre Dame physics and engineering professors had little choice but to build their own accelerator.  Work began in 1935 and the accelerator was modeled after the Tuve and Hafstad open-air machine.

Notre Dame faculty members constructing their own Van de Graaff particle accelerator (popularly called an atom smasher in the 20th century) in Cushing Hall of Engineering, Summer 1935
The finished product: Van de Graaff particle accelerator in Cushing Hall of Engineering, c1937

“Atoms are smashed, as might be supposed, by hitting them with high speed projectiles.  The projectiles in our case are electrons, and to speed them up, it is necessary to have a very high voltage.  That is where the generator pictured [above] comes in.  This generator is charged by two endless belts and after it is charged, electrons liberated in the big ball are driven down the long tube which in the picture is seen surrounded by numerous hoops.  This tube extends into the adjacent room, where the electrons then strike whatever material has been selected for the experiment” [Collins, page 8].

While other similar labs were accelerating protons, the Notre Dame lab focused on electrons.  In 1939, Notre Dame scientists became the first to show electron bombardment could disintegrate an atom.  This and other successful experiments propelled Notre Dame to continue to fund the projects as well as develop a graduate level physics program for the first time.  However, this first accelerator had limitations — high humidity was problematic for experiments and the scientists desired a higher voltage machine.  A second accelerator was built in Science Hall (now LaFortune Hall) in 1941.  This accelerator, modeled after the one at the University of Wisconsin, was horizontal and used a pressure tank, which ameliorated the humidity issues and allowed for more concentrated voltage in a smaller space.  With the start of World War II, the United States government quickly commandeered this new accelerator for experiments with the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb.

Physics faculty member George Collins working in the electrostatic particle accelerator in the Science Hall (LaFortune Hall) laboratory, 1940s

After the World War II, Notre Dame was still committed to nuclear research, but changed their focus to study nuclear reactions for peaceful ventures, from energy sources to cures for cancer.  The third accelerator was constructed in 1955 in the newly completed Nieuwland Science Hall.  While still “homemade,” this 4-million electron volt accelerator was possible due to funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Notre Dame’s first major “store-bought” accelerator came in 1968 (the Radiation Chemistry Project also bought an accelerator in 1950).  This fourth accelerator was an 15-million electron volt FN tandem accelerator, also located in Nieuwland Science Hall, purchased from High Voltage Engineering Corp. with funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  At this same time, the Radiation Laboratory acquired a 6-million electron volt pulse accelerator and housed it in an underground addition to the Radiation Laboratory building.

Dr. Sperry E. Darden, Brother Cosmas Guttly, and Dr. Cornelius P. Browne in front of the new particle accelerator in Nieuwland Science Hall, July 1968

In the 1980s and 1990s, NSF cut back its funding for such research and threatened to eliminate the accelerator laboratory at Notre Dame.  Fortunately, Notre Dame was in a position with a strong faculty and long history of successful nuclear research and continued to receive funding from NSF:  “the Notre Dame Nuclear Structure Laboratory was selected as one of the four midsize research accelerator laboratories in the country to be continued” [M. Wiescher].  Installation of the newest accelerator should be complete in the next few months, marking the next chapter in Notre Dame’s long history of ventures in nuclear physics research.

“Atom Smashing at Notre Dame:  The Department of Physics is Constructing a 7,000,000-Volt Generator,” by George B. Collins, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics, Scholastic, October 1940, pages 7-8
PNDP 83-Nd-3s:  “Atom Smashing,” by Bernard Waldman, Notre Dame, Fall 1949
PNDP PR 66/56:  University announces plans to build an underground addition to the Radiation Research Building In order to install a 6-million electron volt Pulse Accelerator, 1966, Nov. 1
PNDP PR 68/36:  Notre Dame’s new $1.8 million Electrostatic Accelerator is first Notre Dame “Atom Smasher” not to be “homemade,” 1968, Aug. 7
FN Tandem Van de Graaff Accelerator Operator’s School,” by Larry Lam, Research Professor and Technical Director of the Nuclear Science Laboratory, March 2009
UDIS 65/27
UDIS 204/22
UDIS 205/14
GWAL 1/28
GDIS 48/49
GPHR 35/00430
History files at the Institute for Structure and Nuclear Astrophysics website:



One Reply to “Atom Smashers at Notre Dame”

  1. Notre-Dame has a really rich history of launching these sorts of nuclear physics ventures. It’s a shame that in the end though, everything always seems to come down to money. Nevertheless, it’s truly admirable to see that there are still institutions out there that truly care about science for science’s sake.

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