Alabama Not Just Football: 30 Amazing People Who Were Built By Bama

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Sep 13, 2014; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide mascot Big Al waves the Alabama flag following their 52-12 victory against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Van de Graaff

Robert Van de Graaff is the inventor of the Van de Graff generator and a graduate of the University of Alabama. After graduating with a B.S. and a master’s in mechanical engineering from UA, Van de Graaff worked at Alabama Power for a year before moving to France to study physics at the Sorbonne. He continued at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He completed a second bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D., both in physics.

The development of the Van de Graaff generator began after Van de Graaff’s return to the United States when he was a research fellow at Princeton University. The first model was made of a tin can, a small motor, and a ribbon. After some improvements, a 40-foot model was built in an abandoned airship hangar at Round Hill. This model was later donated to MIT.

In 1937, Westinghouse Electric built the first industrial Van de Graaff generator. The construction of the 65-foot Westinghouse Atom Smasher is considered the beginning of nuclear energy research.

Van de Graaff adapted the principles of his generator to the production of intense X-rays for tumor treatment. The technology also provided the basis for modern particle accelerators. The invention of the electrostatic nuclear accelerator, one of the two major classes of particle accelerators, earned Robert Van de Graff the American Physical Society’s T. Bonner Prize.

Robert Van de Graaff and his business partner John Trump founded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation. While working as director and chief scientist of the HVEC, Van de Graaff developed tandem generator technology and invented the insulating-core transformer. Robert Van de Graaff died in 1967.

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