Fermilab turns 50: Looking back, but only to reach forward

Leon Lederman was at Columbia University when he called for a "truly national accelerator."

Fifty years ago Thursday, a few people opened a rented office in Oak Brook.

It would have to do for a while, until they could clear out the people inhabiting the land where their big project was to be built.

But it was still a banner day: Construction of the National Accelerator Laboratory was really going to happen.

Today, scientists, engineers and support workers mark the birthday of the lab - later named after famed physicist Enrico Fermi - by looking forward to doing science for years to come, despite some perpetual funding challenges.

“We have developed some ambitious plans for the future. ... Our hopes are undimmed,” said Tim Meyer, Fermilab's chief operating officer.

No more Weston

Nearby residents may take for granted the 6,800 acres of almost all open space west of Warrenville, north of Aurora and east of Batavia. Lab buildings, with the exception of Wilson Hall, are low-slung affairs. The site features restored prairie. There's even a herd of bison.

But if it weren't for the lab, the view might have been much different.

  A modest sign announces Fermilab's 50th anniversary. John Starks/

Until 1959, the area was farmland. Then, a real estate developer began to build the village of Weston, envisioned as a town of at least 50,000 people, complete with hospitals, shopping and an airport, according to “Poliscide: Big Government, Big Science, Lilliputian Politics,” a 1976 book on Fermilab's roots. About 500 people lived in Weston.

Seven years earlier, though, a group called the Midwestern Universities Research Association began trying to get a particle accelerator built in the Midwest. Atom-smashing accelerators were in New York and California, and physicists worldwide were racing to build more powerful ones. Some scientists had argued that the ones at Brookhaven in New York and the University of California at Berkeley were too parochial, keeping scientists from other universities from using them to do experiments.

Fermilab's namesake, Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi, created the first nuclear reactor.

Leon Lederman, then at Columbia University, called for the creation of a truly national laboratory that would let scientists from many universities use it for their work.

Designs were bandied about, and cases were made to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw federal laboratories. More than 200 sites, in 46 states, were suggested.

By March 1966, Illinois was one of six states in the running. All had to agree to supply the land for the project.

One potential site, South Barrington, was removed after residents protested.

Fermi for fair housing

The Main Ring, shown in 1981. Courtesy of Fermilab

Wheeling and dealing occurred, fueled by distaste for what the Weston developer envisioned, a desire for the thousands of construction jobs it could mean, and the prestige of having a premier research institution in the Chicago area, where the first atom was split. There was even a civil-rights angle: the Rev. Martin Luther King's Chicago Freedom group staged a tent-in in Warrenville, suggesting the lab should not be built in a state that hadn't adopted open-housing laws.

There was speculation that Illinois got it in an exchange for political favors between Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, according to Fermilab archives. The talk was Johnson would push for Illinois, in exchange for Dirksen's support of Johnson's civil-rights agenda, including voting for the national fair-housing law.

And in December 1966, Illinois won the prize.

The state bought Weston. In 1968, those Oak Brook offices moved into homes where families had once lived, and ground was broken for construction.

Fermilab's first director, Robert Wilson, is shown at a 1969 groundbreaking ceremony for the research lab's Main Ring. Courtesy of Fermilab

In March 1971, lab director Robert Rathbun Wilson began lobbying for construction of the Tevatron accelerator, to make particles move even faster and collisions more powerful; in March 1972, the first experiment began with beams shot through the Main Ring. The 16-story headquarters rose in 1973.

In 1979, construction of the Tevatron in the Main Ring began, with Lederman now as lab director.

And in 1983, the Tevatron became the most powerful accelerator in the world, remaining there until the Large Hadron Collider superseded it in 2011.

These are the original magnets in the Main Ring, when it was being built in 1970. Courtesy of Fermilab

In 1995, it was announced the laboratory had found the top quark, the most massive of all observed elementary particles. And in 2012, data produced by the Tevatron at Fermilab helped show evidence of the Higgs boson, nicknamed the “God particle.”

But that's the past. Though it's certainly not irrelevant.

Fermilab's 50th birthday plays an important role.

“It's not just nostalgia,” Meyer said. “What can we learn from the past, and how does that help us over the next 50 years?”

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New documentary explains why Fermilab is still relevant

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Images: Fermilab’s 50th anniversary

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