You might not recognize these guys, but you’ve definitely seen their names around town. Meet Robert Van de Graaff, Denis Robinson and John G. Trump, the founders of High Voltage Engineering Corporation. They formed the company in a converted garage in Cambridge and then moved near South Bedford Street in Burlington, where Oracle is now. This is back when Burlington and the greater Route 128 belt were tantamount to Silicon Valley.
Lahey Clinic named one of its buildings after Trump because he pioneered the radiation therapy used in cancer treatment. He was also Donald Trump’s uncle.
Walking distance from the Trump Building, the road that now leads to Oracle, Raytheon, Samsung Pay and others is called Van de Graaff Drive.
High Voltage Engineering built and sold X-ray equipment, but more importantly, the company marked Burlington’s foray into particle physics, the study and manipulation of the world’s building blocks. The company built particle accelerators to break down and analyze particles to their most elemental level, by accelerating them or sometimes colliding them until the components separate. It’s akin to a child breaking a rock to see what’s inside.
Here are some real-world advancements credited to particle physics research:
- Making harmful elements benign
- Certain sterilization techniques
- Medical diagnostics and treatment
- Better silicon in electronic devices
- Discovering new energy sources
- World-changing things like the internet can be traced back to discoveries in particle physics
- Making diamonds more valuable, says Bob McGinness of Glen Avenue. He was the materials manager in the 1970s and early 80s: “Diamond merchants used to come to High Voltage to use the ion beam particle accelerator to irradiate their diamonds. After they ran their diamonds under the beam, it gave them a blueish tint and they were worth much more.” More about that practice here.
Particle accelerator machines used a power source called a Van de Graaff generator. Those generators happen to produce lightning and deliver a big wow factor, so they live on as educational entertainment at the Museum of Science in Boston and elsewhere.
Notice the title of the You Tube video has Van de Graaff’s name misspelled? Well, it gets worse. A 1970s progressive rock band totally butchered it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGHat7IeNaA
Tom Flanagan of Tom’s Auto Body Company (TABCO) in action — or just pretending to look busy. More about him here.