"…how the right technique emerged at the right time" — A History of the Photographical Method During the Cold War

By Silke Fengler

Universität Wien


The early history of the photographic method in nuclear physics, as well as the fate of it’s pioneering discoverer Marietta Blau, have attracted much interest among historians of science. Whereas Blau never managed to gain a foothold in physics after her emigration from Austria in 1938, German and Austrian physicists continued to develop the method for detection and recording of elementary particles from nuclear reactions during the war, collaborating closely with IG Farben. It was the British physicist C.F. Powell, however, who eventually leveraged the method, and in 1950 was awarded the Nobel Prize. His success was due in no small part to strong industrial ties with the Ilford Laboratories, as well as the Labour Government’s lavish support of nuclear research. With the rise of high energy physics, the photographic method picked it’s way through the American large scale laboratories, where it flourished during the 1950s.

The paper addresses the theme of continuity and discontinuity in two respects: In comparing research before and after 1945, it first traces influences of the political and economic framework on the photographic method’s development: How did regulatory actions, such as the ban on nuclear research in Germany, or public sponsorship in Britain, affect the scope of scientific-industrial research in this particular field? The paper then investigates the method’s dissemination in the German-speaking physics labs, in the UK, and the US. The aim is to highlight the shift in experimental methods between the poles of science, industry, and politics during the 'crunch mode' of the Cold War.