University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Albert Prebus (left) and James Hillier working with the electron microscope in 1938
Albert Prebus and James Hillier. Photo courtesy of U of T Archives

Seeing New Worlds

How two U of T graduate students built North America’s first working electron microscope

In April 1938, U of T grad students James Hillier (BA 1937 UC, MSc 1938, PhD 1941) and Albert Prebus (PhD 1940) showed their physics professor, Eli F. Burton (the moving force behind their project), what they’d been building for the last four months: North America’s first working electron microscope. Cobbled together with parts they machined themselves and sealants made by melting rubber with Vaseline, it could magnify objects 10,000 to 20,000 times (ordinary microscopes top out at 2,000 times) and was going to change fields from engineering to medicine.

Although German scholar Ernst Ruska later won the Nobel Prize for discovering the basic design principles earlier in the ’30s, “the contribution of Toronto was to invent a practical electron-focusing system that actually worked,” says Stephen Morris, U of T’s J. Tuzo Wilson Professor in Geophysics. During the Second World War, for example, U of T physicists measured molecule sizes in an effort to build better gas masks.

Eighty years later, being able to do chemical analyses at atomic scales has contributed to the explosion in nanotechnology, says Prof. Doug Perovic, U of T’s Celestica Chair in Materials for Microelectronics. For example, observing how titanium oxide changes at nanoscopic levels inspired U of T researchers working on the “artificial leaf.” And in medicine, “electron microscopes were key in describing many of the structures that make up cells,” says Prof. John Rubinstein, U of T’s Canada Research Chair in Electron Cryomicroscopy, who, with his research group, has determined the structures of numerous proteins in cells, which may help with drug discovery efforts.

Prebus went on to an academic career, building a second microscope and becoming a respected expert on the atomic structure of materials. Hillier launched the first commercial electron microscopes with electronics company RCA, helping the technology spread around the world.

Recent Posts

Photo of front campus field and Convocation Hall with flower emoji illustrations floating above

Clearing the Air

U of T wants to drastically cut carbon emissions by 2050. It’s enlisting on-campus ingenuity for help

Abstract illustration showing a red-coloured body and face, with small black and white pieces flowing from inside body out of the mouth, and the U.S. Capitol Building dangling on puppet strings from one hand

The Extremism Machine

Online disinformation poses a danger to society. Researchers at U of T’s Citizen Lab are tracking it – and trying to figure out how to stop it

Prof. Mark V. Campbell with a beige background and red lighting

Charting Hip Hop’s Course

Professor Mark V. Campbell grew up during the early years of rap music. Now, he is helping preserve Canadian hip-hop culture for future generations

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *