Did you know that Robert J. Van de Graaff was born today in 1901? He was an American physicist and professor. He is best known for creating the Van de Graaff generator. A Van de Graaff generator is often used to demonstrate and teach about electricity. Classic experiments include creating ‘lighting’ or making someone’s hair stand up. The largest Van de Graaff generator in the world is on display at Boston’s Museum of Science’s Theatre of Electricity.
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Robert J. Van de Graaff earned a BS and master’s degree from the University of Alabama. He also studied at the Sorbonne and then Oxford University while on a Rhodes Scholarship.
Robert J. Van de Graaff taught at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The first Van de Graaff generator was built with a small motor, tin can, and silk ribbon. It could produce 80,000 volts. Robert J. Van de Graaff requested $100 from the head of the physics department at Princeton University to build a better device. He built a new generator for $90 that could produce 1.5 million volts.
While normally built with a hollow metal sphere, the generator terminal does not need to be spherical.
More than a simple science tool, the Van de Graaff generator was designed to accelerate subatomic particles to high speeds. Until the cyclotron was created in 1930 the Van de Graaff was the most powerful type of accelerator. It is still used to create x-ray beams for research and nuclear medicine and medical imaging.