Development of the magnetron was like a Hollywood thriller
Are you a fan of big science with the promise of game changing results? Before CERN and the human genome project there was the MIT Radiation Laboratory. The story behind this laboratory could compete with the best Hollywood Thriller, and the consequences of the work done there are as important as the biggest events in the 20th century.
Since the early 1900s, many people had tried to produce high powered microwave devices, as these could be used in many applications, including radar. By the early 1940s, Randall and Boot, from the University of Birmingham in the UK finally come up with a concept that they felt would have a significant impact on the problem, as their device could produce microwaves with enough power to be able to be transmitted over long distances. The only problem was that England was being bombed by the Germans, and they were not sure they would have a laboratory that was safe and stable enough to continue development of the device, which was called a cavity magnetron.
In a sequence of events that really could go toe-to-toe with any Hollywood script, the device was brought to the USA in a secret operation called the Tizard mission, after it’s leader, Henry Tizard. The purpose of the mission was to bring a prototype magnetron to the United States, where it could be developed into technology to sustain the war effort. This was no simple feat since Britain was locked in the battle of the Atlantic with the Germans, and there was reasonable fear that if the Germans found out about the mission, they would move to intercept any shipment of the prototype magnetron by sea.
The mission was approved at the highest levels of government in the UK, and the US Defense Research Committee. The mission was successful, and eventually the magnetron was delivered to MIT, where the Radiation Laboratory was started by Alfred Loomis, a Wall Street Investment Banker and an accomplished scientist.
From an academic point of view, the output of the Radiation laboratory is monumental by almost any measure. The MIT Radiation series, which is an immense work (28 volumes) documenting the scientific discoveries and advances related to radar. Other discoveries inspired by radar research have led to countless other ideas and concepts including nuclear magnetic resonance and global positioning systems – to mention a few. The MIT Radiation laboratory operated developed radar systems to help defend London from German bombing. Ernest Lawrence was a key supporter who recruited many of the physicist staff that went to work there, including Nobel prize winners Hans Bethe, Isidor Rabi, Luiz Alvarez, Polykarp Kusch, Willis Lamb, Edward Purcell, Norman Ramsey, and Julian Schwinger. These people interrupted their careers to help fight the war using physics; the world would not be what it is today without the sacrifices and commitment of the people behind the MIT Radiation Laboratory.