It is June of 1965 on Canada’s west coast, and an inspired team of scientists has just arrived at a decision that will redefine the country’s science landscape for the next five decades.
The agreement: a joint project led by three universities in western Canada to construct a research facility dedicated to the creation and study of a particular family of particles called mesons.
At the heart of this proposed “meson workshop” would sit the driver of the subatomic particle production process – a circle-shaped particle accelerator called a cyclotron, capable of boosting charged particles along a spiral path to speeds of 224,000 km/s. These accelerated particles would be ejected from the machine as an intense beam of protons, destined to smash into a target material, creating a shower of new particles, hot and ready for study.
The Founding Trio
The project was named the TRI-University Meson Facility (TRIUMF) for its three founding members: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Victoria. In 1966, the initial proposal was submitted to the Atomic Energy Control Board, earning TRIUMF a $100,000 grant which provided the funding necessary to hire its first employees and purchase its first pieces of equipment.
The leading players: Dr. John Warren, leader of the UBC Nuclear Physics Group; Dr. Reginald (Reg) Richardson, whose UCLA cyclotron design was selected for TRIUMF’s main accelerator; and Dr. Erich Vogt, who championed the project for decades.
On April 8th, 1968, an unassuming envelope arrived at the University of British Columbia. Inside, TRIUMF’s first cheque, whose delivery signified not just the culmination of three long years of hard work, but also the soon-to-come approval from the federal government. Eight days later, as promised, this innocuous slip of paper was followed by an official announcement by the Honourable Jean-Luc Pepin, Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources. TRIUMF received approval from the federal government for $19M over the span of six years on April 16th, 1968 – a major milestone for physics.
Although it would take several more years for the fledgling lab, now a family of four with the addition of University of Alberta in 1966, to construct and awaken its cyclotron, April 16th marks the day that TRIUMF officially emerged.
Dr. John Warren (right) finishes planting a scion of the apple tree from Sir Isaac Newton's home during TRIUMF's official opening ceremony as the Hon. Jean-Luc Pepin (left) looks on.
A whirlwind of activity took hold of the lab. TRIUMF’s founders were soon able to move into the newly completed Office and Laboratory Building, just in time to celebrate the holidays together in the “Grand TRIUMF Ballroom”. Out of a former swampland on the southern tip of UBC campus grew towering forests of steel and rebar. Work took place around the clock to construct the facility and get the cyclotron up and running; concrete flowed like rivers into a great pit where the cyclotron, the driver of TRIUMF’s diverse and world-leading research, would soon be built.
Several complications arose: labour disputes held up construction for three months in 1972; differences in the quality of steel from the model to the full-scale magnets meant that drastic surgery involving the addition and subtraction of tonnes of metal had to take place; computer programs were devised to calculate additional changes to the magnets, programs so complex that they had to run overnight on the only available computer at UBC.
It was an era of firsts, defined by TRIUMF’s characteristic spirit of innovation, and it was an era of anticipation.
The payoff for eight years of 12-hour days arrived in 1974, just under a decade after our founders first envisioned our lab. On November 16th 1974, Dr. Reg Richardson relocated his chair from his office to the main control room, ready to begin the final, crucial step in bringing the cyclotron to life. Like a musician carefully tuning a violin, TRIUMF’s director adjusted the various coils that would alter the magnetic field just so, in order to carefully tease the charged particles through the cyclotron.
The process took weeks. But finally - in the middle of a cold and wet Vancouver winter - success. On December 15th, 1974, TRIUMF staff huddled around a small screen in the main control room as a spot of light appeared. This light, arriving at 3:30 pm, was proof that a beam of particles had successfully circled the cyclotron. TRIUMF’s steel giant had awoken, finally accelerating particles to 500 MeV – ¾ the speed of light – and extracting its first proton beam.