What On Earth Is A Cyclotron?

The Cyclotron comes to the New-York Historical Society! (Laura Washington/New-York Historical Society)

During World War II, the US, UK, and Canada teamed up for a research and development program to develop the first atomic bomb, which would be nicknamed the Manhattan Project. After word spread that one of Hitler’s scientists had split an atom of uranium (a process known as fission), the Allies began work on creating the first atomic bomb before the Germans had a chance, by harnessing the energy created through fission.

One of the devices used by the Manhattan Project for this goal was the cyclotron, and if that sounds like something a mad scientist would use in a Superman comic, well, you’re not far off. A cyclotron is an early particle accelerator—a machine that accelerates charged sub-atomic particles to high speeds using a strong magnetic field. Once these particles were at maximum energy they escaped, and struck a piece of beryllium. That caused the particles to release neutrons, which in turn struck and split uranium nuclei. The experiment proved that these nuclei could undergo fission and release great energy.

The cyclotron, which has not been on display since 1977, will be part of the New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition WWII & NYC. However, as you can imagine, the cyclotron is quite large, so it was a bit of an adventure getting it in the building! You can read more about that here, but first, check out this interview with Soldier-Scientist Benjamin Benderson, who was a member of the Manhattan Project.




  1. says

    Kudos on an excellent video that captures the experience of the Manhattan Project in the midst of World War II through the very thoughtful recollections of Ben Bederson. Dr. Bederson is one of the few thousand soldier-scientists who were selected to work on the Manhattan Project. Ben provides a first-hand account of his work at Los Alamos, NM and on Tinian Island in the Pacific where, much to his surprise, the streets were named after Manhattan’s streets. His report of the first atomic bombs dropped on Japan helps put the project in both a human and historic context.

    Cindy Kelly

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