Ernest Orlando Lawrence was born on August 8, 1901 in Canton, South Dakota. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, but later decided to transfer to the University of South Dakota. He studied physics for four years, earning his bachelor's degree in 1922.
Lawrence decided to pursue his academic career further and enrolled in Yale University's doctorate of physics program, completing it in 1925. After attaining his Ph.D., he continued working at Yale as a researcher, primarily focusing on the photoelectric effect. In 1927, he was appointed an assistant professor at Yale.
In 1928, he moved to California, where he was appointed Associate Professor of Physics at Berkeley. In 1930, he was made a full professor, becoming the youngest professor there at the time. At that time, particle physics research was hot and nuclear fission research was in full gear.
One of the problems at the time was getting high energy particles easily and economically. One evening, while studying in the library, he came upon an article in a journal that discussed the possibility of accomplishing this goal by a series of small pushes, sort of how a swing set works. He immediately began brainstorming a way to implement this great idea.
The result of his experimentation was a cyclotron made out of wire and wax, with a bill of materials amounting to only about $30. He found that when he applied a mere 2,000 volts to this device, it would produce protons with 13,000 electron volts of energy. He applied for funding from the university to build larger prototypes and it was granted.
Lawrence constructed a building for the research, which is now known as Berkeley's Radiation Laboratory. In 1934, he received a patent for the cyclotron and in 1936, he was made director of the Radiation Laboratory. In 1939, he was nominated for and won the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the cyclotron.
When World War 2 started, Lawrence participated in researching the feasibility of nuclear fission weapons and conducted a lot of research work in that regard at the Rad Lab. He was also responsible for recruiting Oppenheimer to the Manhattan Project.
After the war ended, Lawrence went on a large campaign to increase government funding for scientific research. In 1958, he was sent by President Eisenhower to a conference in Geneva, Switzerland to negotiate the suspension of nuclear missile testing with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, he became ill and returned to California, only to die on August 27, 1958 from the illness.