By providing the first particle beams of precisely controllable energy, Robert Jemison Van de Graaff became one of the founders of modern high energy physics.

Van de Graaff, inventor of the belt-charged electrostatic generator, was a native of Tuscaloosa, graduated from the University of Alabama with a B.S. in 1922 and received his M.S. from the University in 1923. After a year at the Sorbonne, he accepted a Rhodes scholarship at Queen's College, Oxford, where he was awarded a PhD in 1928. The idea for the high voltage generator was conceived during his stay at Oxford. As a National Research Fellow at Princeton, Van de Graaff constructed the first working model of the generator in 1929. While a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he refined and enlarged his invention to produce intense beams of charged nuclear particles and electrons.

As director of MIT's high voltage radiographic project during World War II and as cofounder and chief physicist of the High Voltage Engineering Corporation after the war, Van de Graaff and his associates made a succession of advances in accelerator technology for nuclear physics, radiation therapy, and the industrial application of charged nuclear particles and electrons. His device is still used in nuclear physics and as an injector for high energy accelerators.