Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

Nuclear Energy

In the early 1960s, as Americans looked forward to cheap, clean energy from nuclear power, this Museum opened an exhibition explaining the history of the new technology. It displayed original artifacts when available and replicas when needed.

Working in England in 1908, physicist Ernest Rutherford and his team determined the electrical charge of the alpha particle and showed that it has the same properties as the nucleus of the helium atom. To illustrate this achievement, the Museum commissioned this replica apparatus.

Replica of Alpha-Charge Apparatus, 1960
Alpha particles given off by a radioactive material in the lower bulb passed through thin foil to a collector plate above. An electrometer measured the accumulated electric charge. (From the Cavendish Laboratory)

A Portion of the “Hall of Nuclear Energy,” about 1968
(Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives)