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Top of page You read statements in books that such and such a society or archeological site is 20,000 years old.
We learned rather abruptly that these numbers, these ancient ages, are not known accurately; in fact, it is at about the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt that the first historical date of any real certainty has been established.” —Willard Libby, Nobel Lecture, 12 December 1960 The concept of radiocarbon dating focused on measuring the carbon content of discreet organic objects, but in order to prove the idea Libby would have to understand the earth’s carbon system.
Willard Libby (1908–1980), a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, began the research that led him to radiocarbon dating in 1945.
He was inspired by physicist Serge Korff (1906–1989) of New York University, who in 1939 discovered that neutrons were produced during the bombardment of the atmosphere by cosmic rays.
Among the first objects tested were samples of redwood and fir trees, the age of which were known by counting their annual growth rings.
Libby and graduate student Ernest Anderson (1920–2013) calculated the mixing of carbon across these different reservoirs, particularly in the oceans, which constitute the largest reservoir.
Their results predicted the distribution of carbon-14 across features of the carbon cycle and gave Libby encouragement that radiocarbon dating would be successful.
At the time, no radiation-detecting instrument (such as a Geiger counter) was sensitive enough to detect the small amount of carbon-14 that Libby’s experiments required.
Libby reached out to Aristid von Grosse (1905–1985) of the Houdry Process Corporation who was able to provide a methane sample that had been enriched in carbon-14 and which could be detected by existing tools.
They also sampled artifacts from museums such as a piece of timber from Egyptian pharaoh Senusret III’s funerary boat, an object whose age was known by the record of its owner’s death.