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There & Back Again: A Cyclotron’s Tale

This post was written by Andrea Widener, an associate editor for C&EN’s government and policy group.

The cyclotron in its box. Credit: University of California/LBNL

The cyclotron in its box. Credit: University of California/LBNL

When Ernest O. Lawrence lent a cyclotron to the London Science Museum in 1938, he thought it would be back in eight months.

But it took 75 years for the 11-inch cyclotron, one of the first built by the future Nobel Prize winner, to return to the hills of Berkeley, Calif., where it was originally created.

The cyclotron survived a war, a bureaucratic tussle, and a security challenge before it was finally returned to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the research institution founded by the cyclotron’s inventor.

The cyclotron's original patent.

The cyclotron’s original patent. Credit: LBNL

When it arrived last month, the 11-inch cyclotron was an instant celebrity, drawing crowds as though Lawrence himself had walked in for a photo op.

“They were coming down the hallway in a stream,” says Pamela Patterson, who serves as an unofficial historian and manager of the lab’s website. “Everyone was there. The director had his iPhone up taking pictures. It was cute.”

At the time Lawrence loaned the cyclotron to the science museum, he was still a young, ambitious researcher trying to convince others that the device was a major breakthrough. An invitation to display it in such a prestigious spot was likely an important step, Patterson explains.

But when the cyclotron was supposed to be returned in 1939, Lawrence received a letter from the museum saying officials had moved the cyclotron to a rural district for safe keeping because they feared London would be bombed during World War II.

Letter to Lawrence from London Science Museum, dated Nov. 15, 1939. Credit: LBNL

Letter to Lawrence from London Science Museum, dated Nov. 15, 1939. Credit: LBNL

Lawrence thanked the museum’s director for protecting the cyclotron. “We all hope the war will not last long and that soon the world will return to sanity again,” he replied.

Instead World War II went on for seven more years, Patterson explains. “The cyclotron was just forgotten,” she says.But not everyone had forgotten. Patterson started her quest for the device’s return 18 years ago, when the president’s office at the University of California, which operates LBNL for the Department of Energy (DOE), asked her to take up the challenge.

Letter in reply to museum, from Lawrence. Credit: LBNL

Letter in reply to museum, from Lawrence. Credit: LBNL

At first, the London Science Museum wanted to keep the cyclotron, in part because officials there couldn’t decide to whom they should return it, DOE or the university. Apparently, no one could find it on an inventory list.Patterson thought she was home-free, though, once the museum finally agreed to return the prized device in 2010. Museum officials packed the cyclotron up in its original shipping box, complete with PanAm and TransWorld Airline stickers, reflecting the last time it had been shipped.

Soon after, she got the call that the cyclotron was a security threat and that customs had stopped it at the border. Patterson was crestfallen. “I said, ‘Have you looked at it? It’s obviously not working. It’s a historical piece,’ ” she remembers.

After a year-and-a-half of appeals from DOE and the university, the cyclotron was finally deemed safe to return to its home. It is now on display in LBNL’s main building.

And Patterson can finally rest. The lab deserves to be home to this important piece of science history, she says. “The cyclotron is such a consummately American invention. It spawned a golden age of physics here.”

For your viewing pleasure, Lawrence describes how a cyclotron works in the clip below:

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