Image of Van de Graaff Generators Van de Graaff Generators
Electrostatic Generators, Robert Van de Graaff, 1931

The largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator in the world was built by Robert van de Graaff in 1931. He was recruited to come to MIT in 1930 when his Princeton colleague Karl Compton became the Institute’s president. The dramatic black-and-white photo by Berenice Abbott on display at the MIT Museum was taken at the machine’s first location, an unused dirigible hangar at the Round Hill Estate in Dartmouth, MA. Later the 40-foot-high machine was moved to the MIT campus on a series of trucks and train cars. As an active piece of research equipment at MIT, the generator was used to produce high voltages for experiments in nuclear medicine and radiography, and to power MIT’s particle accelerator. The machine is still in use today—on permanent display at Boston’s Museum of Science—where it is the star of daily lightning shows.

The original Van de Graaff generators can be viewed at the Museum of Science, Boston. On display at the MIT Museum is Berenice Abbott’s photograph, c. 1958–1960. On loan from the List Visual Arts Center; gift of Ron Kurtz.

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