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.
Theoretically, if one could detect the amount of carbon-14 in an object, one could establish that object’s age using the half-life, or rate of decay, of the isotope.
In 1946, Libby proposed this groundbreaking idea in the journal Physical Review.
Back in the 1940s, the American chemist Willard Libby used this fact to determine the ages of organisms long dead.
Most carbon atoms have six protons and six neutrons in their nuclei and are called carbon 12. But a tiny percentage of carbon is made of carbon 14, or radiocarbon, which has six protons and eight neutrons and is not stable: half of any sample of it decays into other atoms after 5,700 years.
The carbon 14 present in an organism at the time of its death decays at a steady rate, and so the age of the remains can be calculated from the amount of carbon 14 that is left. The cells of all living things contain carbon atoms that they take in from their environment.
He reasoned that a state of equilibrium must exist wherein the rate of carbon-14 production was equal to its rate of decay, dating back millennia.
(Fortunately for him, this was later proven to be generally true.) For the second factor, it would be necessary to estimate the overall amount carbon-14 and compare this against all other isotopes of carbon.
Radiocarbon dating would be most successful if two important factors were true: that the concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere had been constant for thousands of years, and that carbon-14 moved readily through the atmosphere, biosphere, oceans and other reservoirs—in a process known as the carbon cycle.
In the absence of any historical data concerning the intensity of cosmic radiation, Libby simply assumed that it had been constant.
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.