Professor Ernest Walton, physicist and Senior Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin describes the experiment he undertook to become the first person to split the atom.
Born in Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ernest Walton attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied mathematics and experimental science. In 1927 he went to Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, where he worked at Cavendish Laboratory under Ernest Rutherford.
It was at Cambridge that Walton worked on methods for producing fast particles and on linear particle accelerators. Collaborating with physicist and theoretician John Cockcroft, Walton built an apparatus called a particle accelerator machine.
On the day of his life-changing experiment, Walton ran his apparatus for 30 minutes for it to become fully operational. Then, using extremely high voltages, he bombarded a piece of lithium with fast particles. He describes crawling on his hands and knees across the floor of the laboratory floor to protect against the high voltages. He then observed
Some tiny scintillations there indicating that some disintegrations of atoms were occurring.
These flashes indicated the lithium atoms were being split into helium atoms or ‘alpha particles’. This was the first ever experiment to split the atom.
In 1951 Ernest Walton and John Cockcroft were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.
An RTÉ News report broadcast on 18 September 1967.