The post-war exodus of an alarming number of European physicists to countries with more advanced research equipment provided the basic agreement for the setting up of a big European centre for fundamental nuclear research. European physicists considered that the equipment of the centre should, above all, include a high-energy accelerator that would allow further research work on mesons, the new particles that were being observed in cosmic rays.

However, the idea of setting up a laboratory for pure research was not born until later. This was because those in favour of international co-operation were aware that public opinion might be willing to accept heavy expenditure on nuclear projects that would sooner or later provide some return, but that it might prove reluctant to countenance the spending of comparable sums on pure scientific research.

As time went by though, public opinion came to realize the need for disinterested research, the basic driving force of progress. Accordingly, Louis de Broglie's proposal at the European Cultural Conference in Lausanne, at the end of 1949, received the attention it deserved. He favoured the creation in Europe of regional research institutes for the types of nuclear research calling for powerful machines. Once the resolution to that effect had been adopted, it was up to an international body to lay the material foundations of European co-operation in fundamental nuclear research.

On 7 June 1950 UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, held its General Conference at Florence. There, Professor I I Rabi (USA) suggested that the time had come to set up regional co-operative laboratories.

At the instigation of Professor P Auger of UNESCO, another conference was held at the end of 1950 at the European Centre of Culture in Geneva. The necessity of European co-operation prompted Italy, France and Belgium to contribute a total of $10,000. With the UNESCO contribution it became possible to set up a planning office to choose a group of consultants from eight European countries.

These consultants met for the first time in May 1951. They suggested as a long-term project the construction of the biggest accelerator technically possible and, in the meantime, the construction of a machine with which the European scientists could become familiar with high-energy physics. From the administrative angle it was decided to set up an interim organization responsible for the preparation of construction plans and draft budgets.

In fact, this interim organization had the advantage of bringing together the views of the various governments before they became committed. It was expected that with a budget of about $250,000 the interim organization could complete the design of its accelerators in 12 to 18 months.

The interim CERN

The government delegates met twice more under the auspices of UNESCO, which invited all its European members, including the countries of Eastern Europe. Twelve countries from Western Europe were represented at the two big conferences held in Paris at the end of 1951 and in Geneva at the beginning of 1952.

In Geneva the representatives of 12 European governments signed the convention setting up the interim organization, which came into being on 15 February 1952 with the title of "European Council for Nuclear Research", called "CERN" for short after the initials of the French title. Belgium, Denmark, France, the German Federal Republic, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Yugoslavia were then provisionally united to carry out nuclear research. During the whole lifetime of the interim CERN, the United Kingdom remained simply an observer, although the interest shown in the project by that country soon took the shape of new ideas, the provision of consultants and gifts.

The first Council session was held in Paris in May 1952 and the senior staff were appointed. E Amaldi of Rome was appointed secretary-general, and the direction of the four design groups for the Proton Synchrotron, the Synchrocyclotron, the laboratory and the theoretical studies were entrusted, respectively, to O Dahl of Bergen, C J Bakker of Amsterdam, L Kowarski of Paris and Niels Bohr of Copenhagen.

The Proton Synchrotron group embarked on its ambitious project, the construction of the biggest accelerator in the world, based on a new and untried principle.

The Synchrocyclotron group assumed the task of providing CERN within a short time a conventional machine of up-to-date design and sufficiently high energy to enable the European organization to work in a new field of nuclear physics. It complied with the requirements of speed of construction, high energy and facilities for exploring new fields. By 1957 CERN had at its disposal a 600 MeV synchrocyclotron that was soon being used 24 hours a day and which rapidly provided scientific data of outstanding interest.

In October 1952, at its third session, the Council decided that the future European laboratories should be set up in Geneva. The places originally considered had been Paris, Copenhagen, Arnhem and Geneva. The latter was chosen because of its international nature, its geographical position and Switzerland's offer to make available at Meyrin the 40 hectares of land necessary.

A description of CERN's two machines and of its future installations, and an estimate of capital and operational costs were submitted to the Council in April 1953. These reports were the prelude to the setting up of a permanent organization.

The permanent organization

The convention establishing the permanent organization was signed in Paris on 1 July 1953. The UK, which had been an observer until then, was the first to ratify the convention on 30 December 1953. Once Italy had ratified it, on 24 December 1955, the 12 European nations became jointly committed on specific major issues.

In the meantime, the interim CERN was kept in existence from quarter to quarter until 29 September 1954, the date when the participation of a minimum of seven states was secured. The European Council for Nuclear Research, a provisional body, ceased to exist. It became the "European Organization for Nuclear Research" but kept the initials "CERN", which had been adopted in 1952 for the interim period. Some activity was possible even on the very small budget available. On 17 May 1954 work was started on the Meyrin site.

On 1 October 1954, just after the establishment of a permanent organization, CERN's staff comprised 114 members. In the course of the same month, the Council appointed the director-general of CERN, Professor Felix Bloch (USA), a Nobel prize-winner for physics on temporary leave of absence from Stanford University. Sir Ben Lockspeiser (UK) succeeded Robert Valeur (France) as president of the Council. It was at this time that the Council was organized in its present form, namely with two vice-presidents and with the Committee of Council, the Scientific Policy Committee and the Finance Committee.
•Taken from CERN Courier January/February 1960.

Editor's note

Fifty years ago, at the end of September, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known simply as CERN, came into being. This extract describing some of the key events in the "pre-history" of CERN is taken from issue 6/7 of the CERN Courier. This was the first issue of 1960 and it celebrated the inauguration of the Proton Synchrotron, CERN's first major machine, the construction of which had been foreseen as early as 1951, as the article explains.