Splitting the Atom
Ernest Walton recalling the day they split the atom.
In the 1970s I worked as a lecturer in the Physics Department of Trinity College Dublin. The head of department was Professor Ernest Walton who had been awarded the Nobel prize, together with John Cockroft, for splitting the atom using artificially accelerated particles in 1932.
Walton (who is not a relative of mine) was an extremely humble man and a devoted Methodist and Christian. He had turned down the opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project, the atom bomb, because of his pacifist beliefs. He loved Physics and was a brilliant lecturer if a somewhat hesitant speaker.
Their accelerator produced 800 keV protons which were used to bombard a Lithium target. The high voltage was quite an achievement in 1932 and made use of a voltage multiplier circuit which is still used as the front end of many particle accelerators. Visitors to CERN will see one which has outlived its usefulness on display in the grounds. The photograph is of one in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The glass tubes, which can be seen in the photograph below, and which comprise the drift tube of the accelerator, were apparently the glass cylinders used on top of the petrol pumps of the time.
On this page I have put a few relevant photographs and a recording of him describing the day they split the atom.
I am grateful to my former colleague at TCD, Dr Eric Finch, who painstakingly edited the audio.
This is a recording of Albert Einstein reacting to the splitting of the atom on a visit to Cambridge shortly afterwards.
Left to Right: ETS Walton, Ernest Rutherford, John Cockroft
A Cockroft Walton Voltage Multiplier on display in the National Museum of Scotland
A photograph of the original accelerator. Behind the cloth at the bottom of the image is the 'little hut', referred to by Walton, into which they bundled Rutherford's not inconsiderable frame.