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  • History of SRC

    Using light for research has roots going back to 1947 when at a GE laboratory three physicists first witnessed a phenomenon known as synchrotron radiation, which is the emission of a brilliant array of light waves produced in a machine called a particle accelerator. In such a machine, a charged particle such as an electron is accelerated to nearly the speed of light around a track. When this is done, it produces a wide range of light. This light is not just limited to the visible light we see but also includes radio waves to x-rays.

    After the discovery in 1947 researchers started noticing useful traits of the light coming from these particle accelerators. For a while, particle accelerator physicists thought of synchrotron radiation as a wasteful by-product that was result of spinning particles around an accelerator ring. A few individuals however saw value in the by-product and began conducting research whenever given the chance. They were known as “parasitic users” and they were only allotted small amounts of time to use the machines.
    As time progressed parallel events in history helped synchrotron radiation research efforts to advance.

    In 1954 a group called the Midwestern University Research Association (MURA) formed under the common goal to bring a high-energy physics research presence to the Midwest. A total of fifteen universities throughout the Midwest were part of the coalition headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. MURA sought to achieve their goals through continued research into particle accelerator research.

    A map of the participating universities in the Mura program.

    By 1967 MURA had achieved one of its goals by winning a bid to build Fermilab in Illinois. This marked the end of MURA and the majority of its members went to help build the new large particle accelerator near Chicago. A few members remained in Madison, however, and continued to work in other fields of research, one of them being synchrotron radiation.

    By then synchrotron radiation research had gained popularity with a recent published result from a committee called the Solid State Panel (SSP) of the National Research Council (NRC). The panel’s role was to evaluate the possible utility of synchrotron radiation for research and whether it was worthwhile pursuing further developments. The SSP’s report came out favorably.

    At the same time the remnant group from MURA, still in Madison, began tailoring leftover accelerator designs into a machine dedicated to producing synchrotron radiation. With funding help from the Atomic Energy Commission the team commissioned a small electron particle accelerator named Tantalus in 1968.

    Schematic of Tantalus accelerator.

    Tantalus, about the size of a backyard trampoline, became the first machine known as a light source dedicated to synchrotron radiation research in the world.

    Tantalus and lead developer and first facility director, Ed Rowe.

    Research efforts began to grow quickly bringing with it researchers from all over the world to use the light. Eventually the increasing demand required more shop space and a newer, more advanced version of Tantalus. In 1976 the Tantalus faculty submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to gain funding to build a more advanced 2nd generation light source, named Aladdin.

    During the construction phase, the facility changed locations to across the field and its name to the Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC). The SRC became home to Aladdin and the new facility offered scientists a broader range of research opportunities with the larger and more refined synchrotron machine. The Aladdin accelerator, which is about the size of a baseball diamond, came online in 1986 and continues to operate today.

    A photo of the Aladdin ring during construction.

    To learn more details about the history of SRC as well as links to archived documents, see below.


    SRC History Project

    Initiated in 2009 and completed in 2011, the History of Tantalus and the Synchrotron Radiation Center was a project that sought to preserve the rich history of the facilities. These places are important historically because Tantalus was the first of its kind in the world, and predated the sixty other synchrotron light source facilities worldwide.

    The main goal of the history project was to create an archive full of historical documents and interviews representing the overall history. The archive is comprised of both physical and digital items. The physical boxes of primary source documents are located at the UW Madison Archives and the digital files can be downloaded at UW Minds.

    The project was undertaken by Eric Verbeten, first as an undergraduate student majoring in History of Science at UW—Madison, and concluded during his tenure as a graduate student in Journalism and Mass Communication (also at UW—Madison).

    The two main thrusts of the project were to: 1) Preserve the oral histories of the facility by conducting interviews with several former actors in the SRC story, and, 2) to collect, sift through, organize, catalog, and package for UW Archives, the dozens of boxes of historic documents related to SRC and Tantalus. This trove of paperwork and other materials came from various storage areas of SRC, the former Tantalus building, offices, and even people’s homes.

    In the end, the documents were winnowed down to those which were most rare and summarized best a certain era or historical event. They are arranged chronologically and have been preserved in two archive boxes, both with their own indexes, in the University of Wisconsin Archive and are physically located on the UW Madison campus (not at SRC). A link to the SRC archive can be found here. Also, much of the data from this project is digitized and is available and is searchable through UW Minds. This includes things like transcripts of oral histories, videos, photos, etc. UW Minds is UW Madison’s online database of digital archives. A link to the SRC Digital Archive can be found here.

    Articles about SRC History

    Also, to read a seminar paper by Verbeten, which describes the entire funding history of SRC, click here. For a summary of the methodology of the oral history and archive gathering, click here.

    Finally, there exists a historical account of SRC by the first director of the facility and an original member of the Tantalus group, Ed Rowe. This essay, titled, “The Beginning Under the Lonely Hill” can be read here.