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Pioneers and founders

The ILL was founded on 19 January 1967. Its high-flux reactor started delivering neutrons for science in 1972 and since then is the major steady state neutron source in the world.

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What is the ILL?

Pioneers and founders

The patrons

When the French and German governments were seeking a name for the Institute in the 1960s, they decided to honour French and German scientists distinguished for their contributions not only to science but to society in general. Their choice fell upon France's Paul Langevin and Germany's Max von Laue. 

Max von Laue 1879-1960
The German physicist Max von Laue was awarded the Nobel prize in 1914 for demonstrating the diffraction of x-rays by crystals. His discovery  led to the first measurements of wavelength, as well as demonstrating the organisation of atoms in a crystal and the wave nature of x-rays. His work is at the basis of the analytical methodology employed in all measurements based on the diffraction of x-rays, synchrotron light, electrons and neutrons.

Max von Laue was a strong objecter to National Socialism and played a leading role in re-establishing and organising German science after World War II.

Paul Langevin 1879-1946
Paul Langevin was an eminent physicist in a pioneering French team of atomic researchers which included Pierre and Marie Curie. He was a specialist in magnetism, ultrasonics, and relativity and devoted forty years of his life to his responsibilities as Director of the Paris École de Physique et Chimie. His study of how rapid neutrons are slowed - or "moderated" -  in their collision with atoms was an invaluable contribution to the design of research reactors.

Paul Langevin was a declared anti-fascist and was president from 1944 to 1946 of the French Ligue des droits de l'homme (human rights league).

The founders

The ILL owes its existence to the mutual friendship and esteem of Louis Néel and Heinz Maier-Leibnitz. They were both determined to bring post-war France and Germany together through the creation of a major centre for neutron research, and devoted their efforts to pleading this cause - most successfully - with their respective governments.

Louis Néel 1904-2000
Louis Néel was a specialist in magnetism and won the Nobel prize in 1970 for his discovery of the antiferromagnetic/ferromagnetic double lattice, which is at the origin of all magnetic phenomena other than classical ferromagnetism. He was a scientist of personality and influence and played a major role in the birth and successful development of research in Grenoble. With other French and German scientists he made a major contribution to the creation of the Institut Laue-Langevin.

Heinz Maier-Leibnitz 1911-2000
Heinz Maier-Leibnitz founded Germany's first research reactor near Munich and is recognised as the father of neutron research in Germany. His experience and expertise in instrumental techniques, and in neutron optics in particular, led the way for the avant-garde development of ILL's early installations. He was the first Director of the Institute from 1967 to 1972.

You will find a tribute to Prof. Maier-Leibnitz here, first published in a 2001 supplement to ILL News.

The pioneers

Ever since its early days the ILL has attracted scientists of renown, drawn to the Institute by the quality of its research and its very specific technical, scientific and cultural environment. Amongst these pioneering shapers of the ILL's future we would like to cite the following:

Erwin-Félix Lewy-Bertaut 1913-2003

Erwin Lewy was the son of a German rabbi. He fled Nazi Germany and came to France to pursue his university studies. Under a new identity as Félix Bertaut he studied chemistry with Alfred Kastler in Bordeaux and then crystallography in Paris. In 1943 Louis Néel invited him to Grenoble where he was to remain for most of his scientific career. "Bertaut" produced a thesis on the study of magnetism using x-rays and then discovered the magic of neutrons at Brookhaven. With this he went on to define a host of different magnetic structures. He was brilliant as both a theoretician and experimentalist - one of the major figures of neutron science, in Grenoble and beyond, and one of the ILL's most fervent supporters.

Read more about E.-F. Lewy-Bertaut int this IOP Science article, by G. Ferey and JL Hodeau

Rudolf Mößbauer 1929-2011


Rudolf Mößbauer was a German physicist who, at the age of only 32, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the resonant and recoil-free absorption and emission of gamma rays in solids. He had just finished his PhD thesis under the supervision of Heinz Maier-Leibnitz at the Technische Hochschule in Munich. Rudolf Mößbauer was later to succeed his mentor Maier-Leibnitz as director of the ILL from 1972-1977.

He spent much of his life as a professor at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) where he was finally to dedicate his time to neutrinos. His "Mößbauer spectroscopy" remains widely used for characterising materials, and has even been employed by NASA on the planet Mars.

Walter Hälg 1917-2011

Walter Hälg is regarded as the founder of neutron scattering in Switzerland. After his PhD at the University of Basel he worked for Brown Bovery & Cie (BBC) in Baden, developing DIORIT, Switzerland's heavy water reactor. He contributed valuable ideas to the current Swiss spallation source as a full professor for reactor technology at ETH Zürich. He gave his name to the "Walter Hälg Prize" awarded every two years by the European Association for Neutron Scattering.

Norman Foster Ramsey 1915-2011

The Harvard professor Norman Foster Ramsey was the co-laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989  for the separated oscillatory field method and its applications (in atomic clocks for example). He was an appointed delegate to international organisations such as NATO and the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Norman Ramsey was instrumental in the establishment of the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. His research - focused on finding the electric dipole moment in the neutron - often brought him to the ILL for neutron measurements.

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