University of Wisconsin-Madison Physical Sciences Lab

A Brief History

The history of PSL has its roots firmly grounded in the history of electron accelerators. In September 1954, fourteen universities formed the Midwestern Universities Research Association (MURA) with the purpose of recommending a design for a high-energy accelerator to be built in the Midwest. A study group of High Energy Physicists from these MURA institutions had been working together on theory and design since 1953 with support from the ONR, NSF, AEC and their own universities. The group had invented several fixed field accelerators and built one at the University of Michigan. They discovered phase displacement acceleration in synchrotron action, which led them to the development of techniques of beam striking. This meant that high intensity storage rings were feasible. They showed how this could be incorporated in a colliding beam accelerator to raise the center of mass energy in a collision far beyond that attainable with a single accelerator, thus commencing their important development of modern colliding beams.

The study group consolidated in a garage on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison with AEC funding. It was here that they built the spiral ridge accelerator which they had invented and moved the radial sector accelerator from Michigan to Madison.

While commonplace today, in short supply at that time were computers capable of large-scale data processing. But the group made a great stride by acquiring an IBM 704 computer, then the largest non-military computer near Madison and essentially the first mass-produced computer—it essentially took up an entire room. This important new piece of technology was used to compute magnetic fields and particle trajectories. The group also sold computer time to local industry and to the University, which served as seed money and helped to build a larger facility 20 km southeast of Madison near Stoughton. After a search throughout the Midwest this site was chosen because it was very suitable for building an accelerator. It was close to a university, was flat, had no buildings, and had flat bedrock at a depth of about 1 meter. The AEC asked MURA to assemble a staff at this site and to design the most advanced accelerator possible. This is the present location of PSL and provides the answer to the question: why is PSL located in the middle of southern Wisconsin dairy land?

The MURA group made major contributions to science including the spiral ridge cyclotron, principles for the ZGS accelerator later built at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fixed-Field Alternating-Gradient (FFAG) accelerator. The group used electrons in both radical sector and spiral working models with the FFAG principle to model the expected behavior of protons. They did much of the preliminary design for the large accelerator later built at the Fermi National Laboratory. And they also built the 30-inch Hydrogen Bubble Chamber, which was installed and used at the ZGS accelerator at the Argonne National Laboratory and later moved to the Fermi National Laboratory.

During this time the group also proposed the construction of a 10 to 12.5 GeV high intensity FFAG accelerator. After much debate at high political levels, the MURA Project was turned down in December 1963, essentially bringing an end to this historic group. The MURA group disbanded in June 1966 with some of the members moved to the Fermi National Laboratory. The AEC donated the land, buildings and some equipment to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was at this point that the University of Wisconsin renamed the group the Physical Sciences Laboratory and gave it a charter to provide advanced technology services for the University.

PSL initially used the knowledge and skills of the MURA staff to operate the Tantalus electron storage ring—famously known as the first-ever storage ring developed for research users—and to provide large mechanical and electronic systems for High Energy Physics. Gradually as new staff members were added and new contacts made, the PSL knowledge base widened and a number of University of Wisconsin departments used PSL for their projects. A series of early applications were the interfacing of small computers to scientific equipment and later the construction of specialized micro-coded computational sequencers. The IBM 704 became obsolete and was replaced by a VAX computer then a number of VAX computers. The knowledge of magnetic and electric field computations was expanded and the computers were used for many purposes.

The Tantalus group secured funding from the National Science Foundation and gradually grew as a separate center from PSL, eventually evolving into the Synchrotron Radiation Center and launching the project to build Aladdin, a storage ring using 1 GeV electrons to provide synchrotron radiation light—a national research facility and storage ring. Since 1976 the University has regarded SRC as an independent research project. The SRC group separated from PSL at the end of 1983 and became an independent department. After 30 years, SRC closed in March of 2014.

Now more than 45 years old, PSL has diversified and is now considered not only a highly valued provider of engineering and instrumentation solutions for the University of Wisconsin, but also to public institutions and private businesses worldwide. Since the beginning, PSL has completed over 6,000 projects large and small and has served an inimitable role in such storied experiments as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Additionally, PSL has worked on many smaller projects related to physics and engineering, as well as medical, veterinary, geological, astronomical, biological sciences and more.