The History of Rafter

Thomas Athol Rafter 1913-1996

Thomas Athol Rafter 1913-1996

At the end of the Second World War the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) established a small research team to explore the rapidly growing field of atomic science. This was the beginning of the Isotope Laboratory, led by Athol Rafter and Gordon Fergusson and attached to the Dominion Physical Laboratory. In 1957 the Isotope Laboratory was made into a separate division of the DSIR with Athol Rafter as Director, becoming the Institute of Nuclear Sciences (INS) in 1959.

A radiocarbon counting laboratory was established in the early 1950's. Rafter and Fergusson were among the first to develop gas proportional counting for radiocarbon, at about the same time that de Vries and Berendson developed their system. Rafter decided to use CO2 as the counting gas and was able to show that the problems that were experienced elsewhere with this gas could be avoided by meticulous purification. He pioneered radiocarbon measurements in the atmosphere and the ocean, and atmospheric radiocarbon arising from nuclear weapons testing was first detected at this laboratory. In this period tritium and mass spectrometry facilities were also established, and research began into stable isotopes in the environment, with a special emphasis on geothermal research. In 1972 INS hosted the 8th International Radiocarbon Conference.

A major development in the 1980's was the purchase of a 6-million volt tandem Van de Graaff, formerly owned by the Australian National University, to be used for accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). The AMS facility became operational in 1987, and was the main tool of the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory. In May 2010, the laboratory acquired a compact AMS (CAMS) from National Electrostatic Corporation (NEC) furthering its analytical capabilities.

In 1991 the old DSIR was dissolved, and the various divisions were organised into ten Crown Research Institutes (CRI). In this process, the Institute of Nuclear Sciences was joined with the earth science components of the DSIR to become the Institute of GNS Science.

In March 1993 the radiocarbon laboratory took the name Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory to mark Athol Rafter's 80th birthday. Athol died in 1996, at 83 years of age.