By 1950, Willard Libby and his group at the University of Chicago had worked out ways to measure this proportion precisely.Their exquisitely sensitive instrumentation was originally developed for studies in entirely different fields including nuclear physics, biomedicine, and detecting fallout from bomb tests.(1) Much of the initial interest in carbon-14 came from archeology, for the isotope could assign dates to Egyptian mummies and the like.
In 1958, Hessel de Vries in the Netherlands showed there were systematic anomalies in the carbon-14 dates of tree rings.
His explanation was that the concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere had varied over time (by up to one percent).
This was all the usual sort of laboratory problem-solving, a matter of sorting out difficulties by studying one or another detail systematically for months.
More unusual was the need to collaborate with all sorts of people around the world, to gather organic materials for dating.
Making the job harder still, baffling anomalies turned up.
C14 dating and others
The carbon-14 dates published by different researchers could not be reconciled, leading to confusion and prolonged controversy.
The best way to transfer the exacting techniques was in the heads of the scientists themselves, as they moved to a new job.
Tricks also spread through visits between laboratories and at meetings, and sometimes even through publications.
The prodigious mobilization of science that produced nuclear weapons was so far-reaching that it revolutionized even the study of ancient climates.
Nuclear laboratories, awash with funds and prestige, spun off the discovery of an amazing new technique radiocarbon dating.