It was Ernest Orlando Lawrence who invented the first cyclotron back in 1930. But it
was his colleague, a young mechanical engineer by the name of William Brobeck, who built
on Lawrence's concept to design the world's largest and most powerful particle
accelerators of their era, thereby playing a key role in inaugurating the golden age of
nuclear science. Last Friday Bill Brobeck died in Walnut Creek, leaving behind a lifetime
of contributions to the field of accelerator physics. He was 89.
"Bill was one of the great persons who helped Lawrence organize a pioneering
science institution which became the prototype for science laboratories the world
over," said retired Berkeley Lab physicist Ed Lofgren, who headed the development and
operation of the Bevatron and knew Brobeck in his early days.
From 1937 to 1957 Brobeck was assistant director and chief engineer of the Lab -- then
the UC Radiation Laboratory. He joined the best and the brightest in the field of particle
physics when he was only 29 years old, and went on to oversee the construction of what
were then the most famous atom smashers in the world -- the 60-inch and 184-inch
cyclotrons, and finally the Bevatron.
Bill Brobeck (right) shows a model of the Bevatron to Donald Cooksey
(left) and former Lab Director Ernest O. Lawrence.
Brobeck was the first person to marry science and engineering by applying professional
engineering techniques to accelerator design -- something that became standard procedure
in all future accelerator construction. The instruments he created represented major
technological advances and were subsequently associated with important discoveries in
particle physics. The Bevatron, for example, which could accelerate protons to energies of
6.5 Gev, made possible the creation of antiprotons, a discovery that earned Owen
Chamberlain and Emilio Segrč the Nobel Prize in 1955.
Former Lab director and Nobel laureate Edwin McMillan once referred to Brobeck as the
"master of the confluence of engineering and physics," who "transformed
homemade toys into superb tools of the intellect," and "helped open to human
understanding the worlds of the atom and of subatomic particles."
Brobeck's first large-scale assignment was to design the 60-inch cyclotron in 1939 --
then the largest and most powerful accelerator in the world. Brobeck scaled up Luis
Alvarez's model to devise the historical machine. "To him, more than to any other one
individual, goes the credit for the success of the 60-inch cyclotron and all subsequent
developments," said Lab founder Ernest Lawrence in 1951.
The 60-inch cyclotron was used for the discovery of the early transuranium elements and
established the Laboratory's preeminence as a world leader in accelerator design.
Subsequently, Lawrence put Brobeck in charge of designing its successor, the 184-Inch
Cyclotron, which inaugurated the field of experimental high energy physics using
Soon thereafter Brobeck proposed a practical method of applying the principle of
"phase stability," discovered by Ed McMillan, to accelerate protons to energies
in the billion-volt range and higher in ring magnets. Brobeck successfully embodied this
revolutionary concept in the construction of the Berkeley Bevatron, which would dominate
the field of particle physics for years to come and further accelerate man's understanding
of energy and matter.
After retiring from the Lab in 1957, Brobeck continued his contribution to the field of
accelerator design by establishing his own consulting firm in mechanical, electrical and
electronic engineering. In 1971 Brobeck was awarded an honorary degree from UC Berkeley
for his lifelong contributions. Brobeck held engineering degrees from Stanford University
and MIT, and was also a renowned scholar of English literature.
Brobeck's professional interests and bursting ingenuity extended way beyond the field
of accelerator design. In 1972, for instance, he was hired by the U.S. Department of
Transportation to develop pollution-free vehicles. Even in his retirement years Brobeck
continued to design gadgets that made him as famous in his neighborhood as accelerators
did in the world of science. Among them: an automated lawn mower that could start up by
itself, head out onto the lawn and mow it before going back, turning itself off and
recharging its battery. He also invented an automatic record changer and a car that ran on
both gas and electricity.
A memorial service for Bill Brobeck was held on April 9 at the Orinda Community Church.
Brobeck is survived by his wife, Gloria Brown Brobeck, daughters Kathy Brobeck and Betts
Coury, son Bill Brobeck, and two grandchildren. Memorial gifts may be sent in his name to
the Alzheimer Association, Greater San Francisco Bay Area Chapter, 330 Distel Circle,
Suite A, Los Altos, CA 94022