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.
It showed all of Libby’s results lying within a narrow statistical range of the known ages, thus proving the success of radiocarbon dating.
Top of page The “Curve of Knowns” compared the known age of historical artifacts associated with the Bible, Pompeii, and Egyptian dynasties with their age as determined by radiocarbon dating.
In 1946, Willard Libby proposed an innovative method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon.
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.
In 1949, Libby and Arnold published their findings in the journal Science, introducing the “Curve of Knowns.” This graph compared the known age of artifacts with the estimated age as determined by the radiocarbon dating method.