November 6, 2003


Telmer Peterson, 91, who spent 50 years working at the University of Chicago and helped Enrico Fermi to build the University's fist Cyclotron Particle Smasher, died Tuesday, November 4.

Though Peterson did not teach at the University, his many contributions leave behind an enduring legacy.

Peterson grew up in rural Douglas, North Dakota during the Depression. He taught himself engineering by attending night school and reading books about electronics.

After a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps, he joined the Navy, where he was given the opportunity to study engineering and the emerging field of radar. During World War II, he taught many American servicemen about radar, among them a young Navy pilot named George H.W. Bush.

In 1947, he took his first job at the University as the chief engineer for Enrico Fermi's Cyclotron Particle Smasher project. Peterson built most of the equipment involved in the project and was responsible for maintaining it. This project led to some of the century's most monumental discoveries in physics.

The University decided to scrap the Cyclotron Particle Smasher Project in 1972, but Peterson was able to stay on campus by finding a job with Albert Creve directing operation of the University's electron microscope.

Eight years later, Peterson joined the Building Automation and Engineering staff housed in the basement of the Regenstein Library. He was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the temperature and humidity levels of all the University's buildings. From 1980 to his retirement in 1997, Peterson could be found behind a stack of engineering and electronics manuals, surrounded by computer monitors, sitting at his desk deep below the stacks.

In the Maroon's "Tales from the Basement of the Regenstein Library," published April 22, 1997, Peterson answered questions about his half-century at the University. Asked how he thought the University had changed over the years, Peterson said; "It seems like now they are introducing more and more pleasure and social activity into the College and University. When I started here, everybody was very business-like and only concerned with what they had to do and didn't care about anything else. Now there's a lot more social gathering, and people aren't as serious. It's changed quite a bit."

Upon retiring, Peterson worked out of his home as an inventor. He is survived by his wife and four children. "His time at the University of Chicago was the best time of his life. He loved walking through the campus, watching the changing seasons. He knew the campus very well," said his son, Doug Peterson.