Robert Jemison Van de Graaff (December 20, 1901 – January 16, 1967) was an American physicist, noted for his design and construction of high voltage generators, who taught at Princeton University and MIT.
Robert Jemison Van de Graaff was born at the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, from Dutch descent. In Tuscaloosa, Robert received his BS and Masters degrees from The University of Alabama where he was a member of The Castle Club (later became Mu Chapter of Theta Tau). After a year at the Alabama Power Company, Van de Graaff studied at the Sorbonne. In 1926 he earned a second BS at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, completing his PhD in 1928.
Van de Graaff was the designer of the Van de Graaff generator, a device which produces high voltages. In 1929, Van de Graaff developed his first generator (producing 80,000 volts) with help from Nicholas Burke at Princeton University. By 1931, he had constructed a larger generator, generating 7 million volts. He was a National Research Fellow, and from 1931 to 1934 a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became an associate professor in 1934 (staying there until 1960). He was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal in 1936.
During WWII, Van de Graaff was director of the High Voltage Radiographic Project. After WWII, he co-founded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation (HVEC). During the 1950s, he invented the insulating-core transformer (producing high-voltage direct current). He also developed tandem generator technology. The American Physical Society awarded him the T. Bonner prize (1965) for the development of electrostatic accelerators.
Van de Graaff died January 16, 1967 in Boston, Massachusetts.
A Van de Graaff generator is an electrostatic generator which uses a moving belt to accumulate very high amounts of electrical potential on a hollow metal globe on the top of the stand. The potential difference achieved in modern Van de Graaff generators can reach 5 megavolts. A tabletop version can produce on the order of 100,000 volts and can store enough energy to produce a visible spark.
A Van de Graaff generator operates by transferring electric charge from a moving belt to a terminal. The high voltages generated by the Van de Graaff generator can be used for accelerating subatomic particles to high speeds, making the generator a useful tool for fundamental physics research.
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