The history of synchrotrons can be traced as far back as 1873, when James Clerk Maxwell published his theory of electromagnetism and changed our understanding of light. X-rays, the main form of light produced by synchrotrons were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen in 1895, and by 1906 Charles Barkla had discovered that they could be used as a tool to determine the elements present in gases.
In 1912 Max von Laue found another use for X-rays, in the determination of crystal structure. This is the basis of macromolecular crystallography, now a common synchrotron technique.
However the first synchrotron, built in 1946, was designed to study collisions between high energy particles. In this role they were very successful, and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is based on this technology. But scientists soon noticed that these machines also had a byproduct - they generated very bright light.
In 1956 the first experiments were carried out using synchrotron light at Cornell in the USA. Over the years the number of experiments increased, all using machines built for high energy particle physics. This changed in 1980 when the UK built the world's first synchrotron dedicated to producing synchrotron light for experiments. Now there are around 70 synchrotron light sources around the world, carrying out a huge range of experiments with applications in engineering, biology, materials science, cultural heritage, chemistry, environment science and many more.
The timeline below shows some of the key milestones in synchrotron development in the context other other significant events. Click to download as pdf documents.