Fermilab, originally named the National Accelerator Laboratory, was commissioned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, under a bill signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on November 21, 1967. Founding Director Robert R. Wilson committed the laboratory to firm principles of scientific excellence, esthetic beauty, stewardship of the land, fiscal responsibility and equality of opportunity. Universities Research Association managed the construction of the
On May 11, 1974, the laboratory was renamed in honor of 1938 Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi, one of the preeminent physicists of the atomic age. Fermi's widow, Laura Fermi, spoke at the dedication ceremonies.
Two major components of the Standard Model of Fundamental Particles and Forces were discovered at Fermilab: the bottom quark (May-June 1977) and the top quark (February 1995). In July 2000, Fermilab experimenters announced the first direct observation of the tau neutrino, the last fundamental particle to be observed. Filling the final slot in the Standard Model, the tau neutrino set the stage for new discoveries and new physics with the inauguration of Collider Run II of the Tevatron in March 2001.
The Tevatron, four miles in circumference and originally named the Energy Doubler when it began operation in 1983, is the world's highest-energy particle accelerator. Its 1,000 superconducting magnets are cooled by liquid helium to -268 degrees C (-450 degrees F). Its low-temperature cooling system was the largest ever built when it was placed in operation in 1983. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers has designated the Tevatron cryogenic system an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Fermilab has added the two-mile Main Injector accelerator to increase the number of proton-antiproton collisions in the Tevatron, greatly enhancing the chances for important discoveries in Run II. The two apartment building-sized collider detectors, CDF and DZero, have undergone extensive upgrades during the nearly decade-long preparations for Run II.
Fermilab's 6,800-acre site was originally home to farmland, and to the village of Weston. Some of the original barns are still in use by the laboratory, for purposes ranging from storage to social events. A small burial ground, with headstones dating back to 1839, has been maintained in the northwest corner of the site. Robert Wilson was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery following his death on January 16, 2000 at the age of 85.
Among Wilson's early imprints on the lab was the establishment of a herd of American bison, symbolizing the Fermilab's presence on the frontiers of high-energy physics, and the connection to its prairie origins. The herd stands today, and new calves are born every spring.