Born in Canton, South Dakota, Lawrence attended Olaf's College in Minnesota, but transferred to the University of South Dakota after his first year. He earned his bachelor's degree 1922. He received his Ph.D. in physics at Yale University in 1925. He remained at Yale as a researcher on the photoelectric effect, becoming an assistant professor in 1927.
He was called the "Atom Smasher," the man who "held the key" to atomic energy. "He wanted to do 'big physics,' the kind of work that could only be done on a large scale with a lot of people involved," said Herbert York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore laboratory, as quoted on the lab's official Web site.
The invention that brought Lawrence to international fame started out as a sketch on a scrap of paper. While sitting in the library one evening, Lawrence glanced over a journal article and was intrigued by one of the diagrams. The idea was to produce very high energy particles required for atomic disintegration by means of a succession of very small "pushes." Lawrence told his colleagues that he had found a method for obtaining particles of very high energy without the use of any high voltage.
The first model of Lawrence's cyclotron was made out of wire and sealing wax and probably cost $25 in all. And it worked: When Lawrence applied 2,000 volts of electricity to his makeshift cyclotron, he got 80,000-volt projectiles spinning around. He had discovered a way to "smash" atoms, and in doing so he unwittingly paved the way for the U.S. nuclear weapons program that was to follow a decade later.
"Without a doubt, Lawrence's finest achievement was inventing the cyclotron," said York. "The cyclotron impacted future scientific advances."
In November 1939, Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the cyclotron and its applications. In 1936 he became Director of the University's Radiation Laboratory and served until his death.
President Eisenhower sent Lawrence to Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1958 to negotiate the suspension of nuclear weapons testing with the Soviet Union. Lawrence became ill while in Geneva and was forced to return to Berkeley. He died a month later in Palo Alto, California.