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Robert Jemison Van de Graaff (1901-1967)
Portrait by Viktor Korotayev, presented to the Jemison Van de Graaff Mansion by Van de Graaff 's niece, Pat Hanson

Dr. Van de Graaff received a patent for the electrostatic generator in 1935. In 1937, Harvard Medical School used a medical version of the Van de Graaff generator to treat cancerous tumors. This marked the first time radiation therapy was used to fight cancer. For this reason, Dr. Van de Graaff made an unparalleled contribution to the medical research community and consequently, modern-day science.

Robert Jemison Van de Graaff

          Robert Jemison Van de Graaff studied engineering at the University of Alabama earning his Bachelor of Science degree in 1922, and his Master of Science degree in 1923. After a year at the Sorbonne, Van de Graaff accepted a Rhodes scholarship at Queen's College, Oxford, where he was awarded a Ph.D in 1928 and where he conceived the invention of a belt-charged electrostatic high-voltage generator. As a National Research Fellow at Princeton, Van de Graaff constructed the first working model of the generator in 1929. While a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he refined and enlarged his invention to obtain precisely controllable acceleration of charged nuclear particles and electrons. As director of MIT's high voltage radio graphic project during World War II and as co-founder and chief of physics of the High Voltage Engineering Corporation after the war, Van de Graaff and his associates "made a succession of advances in accelerator technology for nuclear physics, radiation therapy, and the industrial applications of electrons and X-rays."

Suzanne Rau Wolfe, The University of Alabama, A Pictorial History, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1983. (Page 150)

75th Anniversary Celebration of the Invention of the Van de Graaff Generator

          The fall of 2004 marked the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Robert Jemison Van de Graaff's invention of the belt-charged electrostatic high-voltage generator at Princeton University in 1929. To commemorate this momentous event the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation hosted a dinner at the mansion. Honored guests included members of the Jemison and Van de Graaff families. At the event, lectures were presented by noted physicists from across the country. These included:

Dr. L. Seagondollar, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University, who discussed his research in critical mass experiments and the usefulness of the Van de Graaff Accelerator in nuclear physics experiments and Van de Graaff's work with the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Complex.

          Dr. Samuel L. Tabor, Professor, Department of Physics, Florida State University and Director, who discussed the use of the Van de Graaff Accelerator in industry, research, and education.

          Dr. Mark A. Riley, Associate Chairman and Professor, Department of Physics, Florida State University, who discussed his work with the world's largest Van de Graaff accelerators at Daresbury, England, Niels Bohr Institute, Denmark, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He also discussed the influence the Van de Graaff generator has had on world culture-even including an English musical group named the "Van de Graaff Generator."

          Dr. Karl C. Mamola, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Appalachian State University and Editor of The Physics Teacher. Dr. Mamola discussed the use and influence of the Van de Graaff generator in education.

          The seventy-fifth anniversary of the invention of the Van de Graaff Generator was also marked by an article in the November 2004 issue of The Physics Teacher.

THE PHYSICS TEACHER * Vol. 42, November 2004

The cover of the November, 2004 issue of The Physics Teacher featured Robert Jemison "Tee" Van de Graaff, along with images of his legacy. The year 2004 marked the 75th anniversary of his invention, which paved the way for advances in nuclear and particle physics. The technology is now used in medicine to treat cancer and in industry for materials analysis. However, it is physics teachers who are responsible for making Van de Graaff's name so famous. His brother's daughter, Pat Hanson, commissioned the portrait painted by Viktor Korotayer. The foundation overseeing Van de Graaff's original home has permitted this picture, as well as figure 1 in the article, to be published by The Physics Teacher.

Robert Jemison "Tee" Van de Graaff: From Football Fields to Electric Fields

M. Talmage Graham and James Young, Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion, Tuscaloosa, AL


Fig. 1. In the fall of 1917, while playing a football game his senior year at Tuscaloosa High School, Robert was severely injured. In December the leg cast came off, and Robert celebrated his first day wearing long pants again.
©2004 Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation Inc.

          Robert Van de Graaff's three older brothers made the family name famous in football, and it seemed that Robert was also headed toward being a sports star. Unfortunately, his football career was cut short by an injury. However, it is interesting to note that principles involved in his most memorable invention have some remarkable analogies in that sport. Few details of Robert's early life have heretofore been published. The purpose of this paper, during the 75th anniversary year of the invention of the Van de Graaff generator, is to provide some of this interesting historical background.
          Adrian Van de Graaff Sr., Robert's father, was a native of Alabama. In 1880 he was a substitute-player on Yale's first 11-man football team. After college, Adrian returned to Alabama, eventually to marry the granddaughter of a former state senator, Robert Jemison Jr. in 1890. Adrian and his wife Minnie Cherokee later moved into the Jemisons' mansion. The next year, Adrian became a professor of law at the University of Alabama (UA) The next year UA fielded its first football team. Adrian and Cherokee had one daughter, also named Cherokee, and four sons: Adrian, Hargrove, William, and Robert, the youngest, born on Dec. 20, 1901, in the Jemison mansion. Although Adrian Sr. wanted his children to attend Yale, the Van de Graaff family couldn't afford that, so they went to UA, where all the boys would play football. Adrian and Hargrove earned positions on the Alabama Crimson Tide's varsity football team in 1910 and William joined them in 1912. Sports articles celebrated their achievements, making the Van de Graaff name famous throughout the South. In 1915, in a game against UA's then-greatest rival, Sewanee, William scored the winning touchdown. At the end of the football season, several sportwriters named William to the All-American football team, the first southerner ever. Robert, a sophomore at Tuscaloosa High School, played on the Black Bears football team, which was coached by his brother Adrian. Hopes were high for Robert's promising football career.

Fig. 2. In the fall of 1920, Robert Van de Graaff, third from right in back row, was a member of the University of Alabama "Scrubs" football team.4

Second Chances4

          Adrian and Hargrove fought on World War I French battlefields, but it turned out that Robert came to more harm on the Alabama football fields. In the fall of 1917, during his senior year, while playing quarterback, his femur was broken and his back severely injured (see Fig. 1). The rest of his senior year he was laid up in the mansion recuperating and reading about engines to pass the time. He never graduated from high school. However, Robert enrolled at the University of Alabama in the fall of 1918, remaining on crutches for much of his freshman year and lamenting to his physics professor that he really wished to excel at football. Soon, Adrian and Hargrove returned from the war unharmed and highly decorated. They assisted in coaching UA's football team, "the Scrubs," known today as the "B" team (see Fig. 2). Robert played for the Scrubs as left end on a limited game schedule that included Georgia Tech and Mississippi A&M. After his season as a Scrub player, Robert came to the realization he was not destined to become a football star. One day a young woman asked him how football was going. He replied, "It's not my game." She gave him a cynical look and asked, "Well, Robert, what IS your game?" He couldn't answer and later recalled this to be a very depressing moment.5
          His increased interest in engineering dates from about that time. In February of 1921, Robert petitioned with 11 other students to become charter members of the UA engineering fraternity Theta Tau. During the coming year, Robert became very studious and made the honor roll for the first time. All the brothers had nicknames, and Robert's, "Tee," which stayed with him for all his life, derived from his habit of drinking tea to stay alert while studying all night before exams. Robert worked during the summer on steamboats navigating the Black Warrior River on the northern boundary of the UA campus, further cultivating his interest in engines. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering. For his master's thesis he developed an improved system for mining lower grades of iron ore. The ore moved on a conveyer belt and the more ferromagnetic components were extracted by the high magnetic field at a sharp metallic tip. After graduating from UA in 1923, Van de Graaff worked on high-voltage equipment for Alabama Power.6
          With a grant from the state of Alabama, in 1924 Tee continued his education at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he saw Marie Curie demonstrate that single emissions from a nucleus produce clicks on a loudspeaker. That experience inspired his life's work. In 1925, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Queen's College of Oxford University in England, and told his former Scoutmaster, Floyd Tillery, over lunch before going, "Till, there's enough energy in this glass of water to blow up Birmingham [Alabama]. My one purpose in life is to try to learn how to release such energy. That is why I wish to go to Oxford, to study there under two of the greatest living physicists." He did not mean to imply that he was interested in developing nuclear weapons. Later in the same conversation he added, "My ambition is to make some contribution for the good of all mankind." At Oxford, Tee felt intimidated by the erudition of his colleagues, who typically spoke three languages fluently. He continued to participate in sports. He played lacrosse, but the leg injury still impeded him. Later, the brothers became immensely proud to all be recognized finally as top athletes when Tee was awarded a University blue letter-in rowing.

Fulfilling His Greatest Potential7-9

          After receiving his bachelor's degree in physics at Oxford in 1926, Van de Graaff continued there for his doctorate under J.S.E. Townsend. Right after WWI, Rutherford disintegrated small nuclei using natural radiation of sufficient energy to reach the nuclear surface, proving that the chemical elements themselves could be altered. To disintegrate larger nuclei would require higher energy radiation. Rutherford challenged the community to produce more energetic beams of particles, "which could not fail to provide information of great value, not only on the constitution and stability of atomic nuclei but also in many other directions."10 If a high enough voltage source could be made, then charged particles accelerated by it could penetrate the largest nuclei.

          Van de Graaff received his physics Ph.D. in 1928, and in 1929 he returned to the United States to work as a National Research Fellow expressly to develop a high-voltage source at Princeton under the Head of the Physics Department, Karl Taylor Compton. In his earliest scientific experiments, Compton made use of an electrostatic generator designed by Lord Kelvin. This electrostatic machine dripped charged water into a simple configuration of cans, generating up to 10,000 volts.11 Van de Graaff realized that at high enough voltage, eventually the electrical force would exceed that of gravity and the drops could not fall. Charge would have to be moved by some mechanical means in order to make more progress. Electrostatic machines had already been invented in which charge was forcibly conveyed to a metal surface,12 but they didn't generate the megavolt potentials that nuclear physics requires. At that time, the highest voltage machines used electrical pulses to accelerate charges barely into the nuclear realm.13

          After doing some work on his school's football field, Mark Payne recognized some interesting analogies between the motion of charges in an electric field and the motion of players on a football field. He described them in an interesting note in this journal.14 It is not unreasonable to assume that Van de Graaff's experiences in football contributed in a similar way to his appreciation of electrostatic charging. In both, the task is to move an object of interest (charge/football) against an opposing force toward a "goal." In Van de Graaff's first setup, the object to be charged to as high a potential as possible was an empty metal can as in the Kelvin generator. The opposing force was due to the charge that had already been placed on the can. If additional charge could be carried from a source and somehow pushed across the "goal line" (the open end of the can), the opposing force would disappear in the "end zone." If this charge was deposited on the inside of the can, it would quickly migrate to the outside. Van de Graaff's charge source was a dc power supply connected to sharp metal points that "kick off" charge onto a belt. The charges were moved toward the metal can "goal" by the insulating belt. The belt passed over two pulleys, one located near the source and turned by an electric motor, the other located inside the can. Later he found it was not necessary to directly charge the "kickoff" with a power supply, because the electrostatic charge made by friction between the belt and pulley was enough. Because pure silk is strong and an excellent insulator, it was found to be an excellent belt material. However, to make dyeing easier and add sales weight, vendors would sometimes impregnate it with metal compounds, weakening its strength and insulating ability. Robert searched many fabric shops for pure silk, and sometimes made a scene by burning samples and observing the ash to determine if the silk had been compromised.

          The rapidly moving (3500 ft/s) silk belt was enclosed in an insulating cylinder that supported the can. Once inside, there is no field other than that created by the intruding charge. Attached to the inside of the conducting can were thin metal wires having sharp points (something like miniature goal posts). As the charge carried by the belt approached the wires, it would induce charge of opposite sign on the metal tips. The resulting large electric field at the tips would cause the charge on the belt to be drawn to the metal wires. Note that this is quite analogous to the magnetic ore processing system Van de Graaff devised for his master's thesis. The collected charge would quickly migrate to the outside of the can and the process would continue. Because the belt transferred the charge to the can without directly touching the can, unlike preceding designs for otherwise similar electrostatic generators, the belt could run very fast and maintain higher potential.

          In the fall of 1929, Van de Graaff's first electrostatic generator kept 80,000 volts on the tin can, which was built at practically no cost. The edges glowed as the charge that was crowded onto them streamed into the surrounding air. His next improvement was to use a smooth round metal shell (dome) built inside a vacuum tank, which, if successful, could immediately be used to accelerate particles, which must be done in vacuum. When the dome reached only a disappointing 50,000 volts, he more greatly appreciated that the gas enveloping the dome serves an important function of insulating the generator, allowing it to run at much higher voltage. In the 100-ft tall Van de Graaff accelerator used for nuclear experiments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so much heavy inert gas surrounds the device that personnel are trained to run outside and stand on the nearby hill when gas leaks, lest they drown in an invisible flood. Van de Graaff's next setup was an open-air machine. Costing only $100, it produced twice the voltage of any earlier steady source. He demonstrated it at the 1931 inaugural dinner of the American Institute of Physics in Schenectady, NY.15 There, he set up two machines, each with a 2-ft diameter metal sphere. A 10,000-V power supply provided charge of opposite sign to the two machines (see Fig. 3). They did not work well at first because a pipe inside a nearby wall was discharging them. Upon moving the setup away from the wall, an arc leapt over a foot between the two spheres across 1,500,000 volts. Compton lauded Van de Graaff's machine as "the most important development that has ever taken place in the field of extremely high voltages."11
In 1930, Compton became president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Van de Graaff followed him there. He reached higher potential differences (of 5.1 million volts) between a pair of spheres so gigantic that an airship hangar housed them. These are now demonstrated at the Museum of Science in Boston.16 Technicians could actually work safely inside the charged spheres because there is no field inside, other than from the charge entering the sphere.

Fig. 3. Robert J. Van de Graaff (left) poses with his electrostatic generator and his former Princeton mentor who helped him invent it, Karl T. Compton, MIT president, shortly after his demonstration at the APS meeting in 1931. (Photo: MIT Museum and Smithsonian Institution, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

In later versions of the generator, Van de Graaff was able to eliminate the need for the charging belt by using multiple stages of transformers that had no continuous electrical connection to the high-voltage dome. It was years before, while working at Alabama Power, that he first encountered the important principles involved.6 He considered this development to be a greater effort than the invention of the generator itself.5 In 1946, Van de Graaff started his own company, the High Voltage Engineering Corporation (HVEC). With computers having pervaded modern-day lives, we note that the ability to manufacture microchips by firing atoms into silicon was made possible by beam-control techniques developed at HVEC.17
Van de Graaff dreamed of projecting a uranium nucleus into another with just enough energy for each to reach the other, which he called a "nuclear soft landing."18 He tried to complete this project in the 1960s. However, poor health was exacerbated by his football injuries, exhausting service in WWII applying his generator to x-raying warheads for inspection, and an automobile accident in the 1950s. Robert Jemison "Tee" Van de Graaff died of a heart attack on Jan. 16, 1967, leaving his wife Catherine and two sons, John and William.

          The Van de Graaff generator is heralded as one of the most important scientific instruments of the 20th century, having too many applications to discuss here.19 On the Moon, in the Sea of Ingenuity, a crater was named in honor of Van de Graaff by the International Astronomical Union. That crater is in the company of others that are named for those whose work has revealed the fundamental nature of matter. Robert Van de Graaff may not have achieved fame as a football player, but educators have made his family name more famous than that of any contemporary sports star. By the 1950s, his generators were used in most physics classrooms and now those literally hair-raising demonstrations are part of the world's popular culture.

Special thanks are expressed to the Yale Athletic Department Archives; Clemson University Library; Paul W. Bryant Museum Director, Ken Gaddy; Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation Inc., Robert Mellown; University of Alabama Library; William Van de Graaff's daughter, Pat Hanson; Cherokee Van de Graaff Rountree's son, Asa Rountree; Robert Jemison Van de Graaff's sons, John Van de Graaff and William Van de Graaff; friend L. Worth Seagondollar, Professor Emeritus of physics at North Carolina State University; family friend Camille Maxwell Elebash; Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Ronald Townsend et al.; Queen's College Library; and Scientific Instrument Commission President Paolo Brenni.

1. Jim Young, "Open House with Robert Jemison Van de Graaff," 124th AAPT
National Meeting (Philadelphia, Winter 2002).

2. Robert O. Mellown, "Jemison Mansion and Long-wood," and Camille Maxwell Elebash, "Jemison Mansion family histories," Alabama Heritage 26, 24-34, 35-43 (Fall 1992).

3. Winston Groom, The Crimson Tide: An Illustrated History of Football at the University of Alabama (The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa & London, 2000), p. 21. Many parallels may be made of the Van de Graaff family history to Groom's more famous fictional work, Forrest Gump.

4. Anthology of documents on Robert Jemison Van de Graaff (unpublished, Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion, Tuscaloosa, AL).

5. Interviews with Tee's sons, William and John Van de Graaff, and friend L. Worth Seagondollar.

6. E. Alfred Burrill, "Van de Graaff, the man and his accelerators," Physics Today 20, 49-52 (Feb. 1967).

7. R.J. Van de Graaff, K.T. Compton, and L.C. Van Atta, "The electrostatic production of high voltage for nuclear investigations." Physics Review 43 (3), 149-157 (1933).

8. R. J. Van de Graaff, Electrostatic Generator (U.S. Patent-Trade Office, #1,991,236, Feb. 12, 1935).

9. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. XIII, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976), pp. 445-447.

10. Ernest Rutherford, "Address of the President, Sir Ernest Rutherford, O.M., at the Anniversary Meeting, November 30, 1927," Proc. R. Soc. London, Ser. A 117 (777), 300-316 (1928).

11. Karl T. Compton, "High voltage," J. Wash. Acad. Sci. 23 (6), 277-297 (1933).

12. John Gray, Electrical Influence Machines (Whittaker & Co., London, 1890), Part I, Chap. 5. In his first paper on the generator in the 1933 Physical Review, Van de Graaff referenced this book, which discussed numerous electrostatic generating devices in detail.

13. J.D. Cockcroft and E.T.S. Walton, "Experiments with high velocity positive ions II. The disintegration of elements by high velocity protons," Proc. R. Soc., Ser. A, 137, 229-243 (1932).

14. Mark M. Payne, "Electric fields and football fields," Physics Teacher 28, 563 (Nov. 1990).

15. "Proceedings of the American Physical Society, Minutes of the Schenectady Meeting, September 10, 11 and 12," Phys. Rev. 38, 1915-1923, esp. 1919-1920 (1931).

16. L.C. Van Atta, D. L. Northrup, C.M. Van Atta, and R.J. Van de Graaff, "The design, operation, and performance of the Round Hill Electrostatic Generator," Physics Rev. 49, 761-776 (1936).

17. Leonard Rubin and John Poate, "Ion implantation in silicon technology," Industrial Physicist 10 (3), 12-15 (2003).

18. Peter Rose, "In Memoriam: Robert Jemison Van de Graaff,"Nucl. Instrum. Methods 60, 1-3 (1968).

19. Paolo Brenni, "The Van de Graaff Generator: An electrostatic machine for the 20th century," Bull. Sci. Instrum. Soc. 63, 6-13 (1999).

PACS codes: 01.50M, 01.60, 01.65, 01.75, 29.00, 41.10D
M. Talmage Graham is Science Advisor and James Young is Manager for the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation Inc., based at the home of Robert Jemison "Tee" Van de Graaff. More may be found on the Internet at
1305 Greensboro Ave., Tuscaloosa, AL 35401;

M. Talmage Graham and James Young, "Robert Jemison 'Tee' Van de Graaff: From Football Fields to Electric Fields The Physics Teacher (Nov. 2004).

For additional information about Robert Jemison Van De Graaff see:

Museum of Science, Boston
Brookhaven Accelerator
Oak Ridge National Laboratory



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