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Robert J. Van de Graaff papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0045

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Robert Van de Graaff collection consists for the most part of papers that reflect his tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1931 to 1946. The earliest papers are Van de Graaff's reprints from 1928, but the collection does not document his work at Oxford University or at Princeton under Karl T. Compton during the 1920s and early 1930s.

The bulk of the collection falls between 1943 and 1946, although there are some earlier notes from the MIT Department of Physics (box 2, folders 143-151). Of great significance are the sections of the collection which contain correspondence, drawings, and reports on the MIT generator at Round Hill (box 2, folders 167-168), the early development of generators of higher voltage than 5 MV (boxes 1-2, folders 131-140), and the projects directed by Van de Graaff for the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (box 2, folders 169-174) and the US Navy (box 2, folder 177) during World War II.


  • 1928 - 1948


Access note

This collection is open.

Intellectual Property Rights

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Separate written application for permission to publish must be made to Distinctive Collections. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the creator of the collection.


Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, 1901-1967, BS 1922 and MS 1923, University of Alabama, BSc 1926 and PhD 1928, Oxford University, joined the MIT Department of Physics as a research associate in 1931. He became an associate professor in 1934, and retired in 1960 as professor emeritus. During World War II Van de Graaff was appointed the director of the MIT High Voltage Radiographic Project, sponsored by the Office of Scientific Research and Development.

After his graduate studies at the University of Alabama, Van de Graaff worked as a research assistant for the Alabama Power Company. Between 1924 and 1929 he studied in Europe, first at the Sorbonne (1924-1925), and later at Oxford University. During that period he became interested in designing a source of energetic particle beams for the study of atomic nuclei. His first working model of the high-voltage electrostatic generator was built in 1929, when Van de Graaff was a National Research Fellow at Princeton University's Palmer Physics Laboratory. The invention was reported at a meeting of the American Physical Society in 1931, and patented in 1935. In collaboration with John G. Trump and William W. Buechner, both of MIT, Van de Graaff continued working on his generator in an effort to achieve higher voltages, more homogeneous particle beams, and more compact designs. In 1946, together with Trump and Denis M. Robinson, a professor of engineering from England, Van de Graaff founded the High Voltage Engineering Corporation, where he served as chief physicist (later chief scientist) until his death in 1967. The company began its manufacturing operations in 1947, becoming a leading supplier of the particle accelerator systems used in cancer therapy, radiography, and studies of nuclear structure.

Van de Graaff published many scientific papers and received numerous patents, including those of the high-voltage electrostatic generator and the insulating-core transformer. His work on electrostatic generators was widely recognized within the scientific community. Van de Graaff received several honorary degrees and awards, including the 1947 Duddel Memorial Medal of the Physical Society of Great Britain and the 1966 Tom W. Bonner prize of the American Physical Society. In 1935 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


2.5 Cubic Feet (in 2 record cartons, 1 manuscript box, 1 oversized drawing)

Language of Materials



The collection documents the career of Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, known for developing high-voltage electrostatic generators used for nuclear structure research, cancer therapy, and radiographic studies. Materials include correspondence, reports, contracts, drawings, and technical notes for major projects Van de Graaff worked on during his tenure at MIT, including projects for the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, as well as materials relating to the courses he taught in the MIT Department of Physics.

Arrangement of the Collection

The collection is organized into the following series: Series 1. Correspondence, 1932-1948; Series 2. Subject File, 1928-1946.


Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisition

The papers were given to Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) in 1981 by Harald Enge of the Department of Physics.

Related Materials

High Voltage Engineering Corporation records, MC 153, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Distinctive Collections.
High Voltage Energy Corporation records, MC 153, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Distinctive Collections.
Denis M. Robinson papers, MC 481, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Distinctive Collections
John G. Trump papers, MC 223, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Distinctive Collections.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Page Edwards and Don Clayton in June 1982, and edited by Elizabeth Andrews and Ewa Basinska in August 2000.
Guide to the Papers of Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, 1928-1948
Page Edwards and Don Clayton
Language of description
Script of description
This finding aid has been encoded by the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, as part of a collaborative project supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency. Collaboration members in 1999 consisted of: American Institute of Physics, California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rice University, University of Alaska, University of Illinois, and University of Texas.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US