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     One of the most significant trons was in plant biology. Giant computer-controlled environmental laboratories called “phytotrons” were built around the world. A phytotron consists of any number of rooms or smaller cabinets all able to produce any set of climatic conditions. To plant scientists, the controlled conditions granted over the experimental environment by the creation of the phytotron was important because the growth and development of any organism depends on its genes and its environment. Plant scientists required the ability to produce reproducible climates in order to conduct experiments that tested plants’ (and some animals’ in the later Biotron) responses to various environmental conditions.

    You can now read all about the history of phytotrons in my new book, Engineering the Environment: Phytotrons and the Quest to Control Climate in the Cold War (Pittsburgh, 2017)

The Australian phytotron, 1961-

The Australian phytotron, 1961-

Phytotrons unified and extended earlier piecemeal efforts to claim total control of the whole environment. In both walk-in rooms and smaller reach-in cabinets, phytotrons produced and reproduced whole complex climates of many variables. In the first phytotrons each individual room was held at a constant unique temperature. As Illustration 1 shows, the Australian phytotron, for example, had rooms maintaining 9°C, 12°C, 16°C, 20°C, 23°C, 26°C, 30°C, 34°C. Because some of the earliest controlled environment experiments showed that plants reacted differently in daytime temperatures and nighttime temperatures, the first experiments to observe the effect(s) of varying the daytime versus the nighttime temperature saw experimenters move their plants from higher to lower temperatures over the course of a daily, or any other variable or constant, routine. This rendered the variable “temperature” experimentally controllable. Even a brute force approach that tested each successive environmental variable and every variety of plant would serve to pinpoint specific environmental conditions to maximize growth. Expecting that more knowledge would surely come from greater technology, the next generation of phytotrons expanded in technological reach, in their ranges of environmental variables, and also in the degree of control over each variable. The phytotron in Stockholm offered a humidity controlled room and a custom built computer, as well as a low temperature room that extended the temperature range down to -25°C for the study of Nordic forests. After that, phytotron technology compressed whole environments into smaller cabinets able to be set to any desired combination of environmental conditions, which are still in use today.    

The creator of the first phytotron was one of the most significant plant scientists of the twentieth century, Frits Went, professor of botany and plant physiology at Caltech. Like Lawrence’s cyclotron, the name “phytotron” was at first unofficial: both Went and Caltech took pains to continually emphasize that the official name was the “Earhart Plant Research Laboratory” a name decided on during a 1948 trip out to Ann Arbor to visit his patrons, the elder Mr. Harry Earhart and his son.[1] It was almost immediately after the Earhart Laboratory opened in 1949, however, that it received its famed cognomen. The story of the name, Went’s fellow plant physiologist James Bonner recalled in the early 1980s, was that:

     "The Earhart Plant Research Laboratory [was] called an environmentally controlled    greenhouse but my first postdoctoral fellow [Sam Wildman] and I, sitting around about 1950, having coffee, decided it deserved a better or more euphonious name [...]. We decided to call it a phytotron—phytos from the Greek word for plant, and tron as in cyclotron, a big complicated machine. Went was originally enormously annoyed by this word. But Dr. Millikan took it right up saying, ‘this edifice financed by Mr. Earhart, is going to do for plant biology what the cyclotron has done for physics,’ and he christened it a phytotron”."[2]

Lee DuBridge, George Beadle, Harry Earhart, Kenneth Thimann, Frits Went, Robert Millikan.

Lee DuBridge, George Beadle, Harry Earhart, Kenneth Thimann, Frits Went, Robert Millikan.

If Went was annoyed, it quickly passed: within a matter of months after being coined, Went had specifically told Caltech’s own magazine that the “similarity between the term phytotron and such terms as betatron, synchrotron, cyclotron, and bevatron is intentional.”[3] In fact, over the following decade Went clearly came to the conclusion that the incorporation of the suffix –tron into the plant sciences courtesy of Robert Millikan, spoke to the secret heart of many life scientists. Went himself noted privately “the awe in which biologists hold physicists.”[4] Subsequently iconic of a new Cold War Big Biology that mirrored the era’s Big Physics, Went’s phytotron imitated the physical sciences’ expansion of instruments, commitment to pure and interdisciplinary research, and its big teams and bigger budgets; a model established by Ernest Lawrence’s cyclotron in the 1930s. The phytotronist regularly chanted the mantra that phytotrons were the cyclotrons of biology, and they would “dissect the mechanisms of the plant as the cyclotron had the atom”[5] Following the retirement of Millikan in 1949, Caltech’s new president Lee DuBridge crowed that his Institute boasted both the world’s largest optical telescope, the 200” Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain, and the world’s only phytotron.[6]

To understand that strange period of peace lined by imminent nuclear annihilation called the Cold War we need to appreciate how the embodied symbol of the suffix -tron signals the centrality of modernism to postwar science, namely that technology would solve social problems and that scientists became technologists to master both nature and society. Notably in the life sciences, modernist trons speak of an era that demanded control, be it control over nature, control over populations, or ultimately control over minds and thoughts, and put its hope for that control in technology. Trons evince a people that sought security and salvation in machines and systems. 


The world's first phytotron at Caltech.

The world's first phytotron at Caltech.

[1]. Letter from Frits Went to Beadle. July 31, 1948. Biology Division papers, file 27.11. Archives. California Institute of Technology. Confirmed with DuBridge, Aug 4, 1948. Biology Division papers, file 27.11. Archives. California Institute of Technology.

.[2] James Bonner. Interview by Graham Berry. Pasadena, California, March 13-14, 1980. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved Jan 5, 2014 from the World Wide Web:, p. 17-18. A similar account was given by Bonner in response to a query by George Beadle about the origin of “phytotron.” As Bonner told him, “at a morning coffee session in the old Greasy Spoon at Caltech […] Sam and I started out with the hypothesis that anything as fancy as the proposed Earhart Laboratory shouldn’t be called an air-conditioned greenhouse or anything simple like that, but should have a more magnificent name. We ended up with “thermophotophytotron” but quickly slimmed it down to “phytotron.” Letter from Bonner to Beadle. Sept 9, 1970. James Bonner papers. File 20.1. Archives. California Institute of Technology.

[3]. Frits Went, ‘The Phytotron,’ Engineering and Science 12:9 (1949): 3-6, 3

[4]. Frits Went Diary, Sept 1, 1962. Frits Went papers. Record Group 3/2/6, box 22. Archives. Missouri Botanical Garden.

[5]. Henry Augier, Henry, Phytotrons et phytotronique: la bioclimatologie expérimentale (Marseilles, Centre Regional de Documentation Pedagogique, 1972), 4.

[6]. California Institute of Technology, The President’s Report 1948-49 (California Institute of Technology, 1950), 6-7.

david munns