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April 2000
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series, which returns after a millennial hiatus. In the next several installments, Diane commemorates the 40th anniversary of UCAR and NCAR by focusing on key periods in our history.

The making of a national center

How does one go about creating an NCAR?

Oral histories and the papers of Phil Thompson, part of the NCAR Archives, illuminate the complexities that founding staff faced in bringing physical reality to a highly ambitious scientific program.

According to Harriet Barker (then Hunter), UCAR officially opened for business in Boulder on 1 June 1960. Harriet and Mary Andrews provided administrative support to newly appointed director Walter Orr Roberts. In October of that year, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Thompson, still on U.S. Air Force assignment at the International Meteorological Office in Sweden, began work as NCAR's associate director in an office dubbed "NCAR Stockholm" by Walt. (As a career officer, Phil had to be separated from the Air Force, a task that required time and negotiation by the UCAR Board of Trustees.)

The work pace of the first years was feverish, the problems manifold. A completely new organization had to be created to satisfy often-divergent interests in the meteorological community, the involved universities, the federal government, and the larger scientific community. John Firor, who assumed the directorship of the High Altitude Observatory in September 1961, recalled that the observatory provided an excellent model "to test things against; Walt [at NCAR] was experimenting with new ways of managing things and how to get things going . . . and I would look at it and think about how it would be applied to HAO." Guidance in policy areas came from NSF and the trustees as well as other organizations, such as the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the consortium that operated Kitt Peak Observatory.

Another central issue was finding an appropriate place to do the scientific work and accommodate a growing staff. Although UCAR had approved Table Mountain as the site for the future NCAR laboratory, much remained to be done. The state of Colorado had to purchase the mesa from private parties and donate it to NSF, while voters in Boulder still had to approve an exemption to the Blue Line (the boundary created by a city ordinance that limited development along the foothills) in a special election, held in January 1961. Next came the selection of an architect and design, by committee, of the lab itself.

The Armory Building on the CU campus, one of NCAR's first homes.

In the meantime, Walt and his small staff had to locate and lease approximately 20,000 square feet of temporary space for offices, laboratories, and facilities until the NCAR building was completed. Mary Andrews and others looked at several possibilities, including a new shopping center planned for the southwest corner of "Marshall and South Boulder Roads" (now Broadway and Table Mesa Drive); a prefabricated steel building; an empty dormitory at CU; and even the then-mostly empty Hotel Boulderado, which was rejected as being too "obsolete." Discussions were also held with the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology), but at NBS, security clearances were required for all workers, a policy that didn't match the open climate of NCAR. Ultimately, CU agreed to lease space in a new research building, "PSR-1," on 30th Street near Boulder Creek. Until construction of PSR-1 was completed in 1962, NCAR staff occupied two floors in CU's Armory Building, located on University Avenue across from Macky Auditorium. Aksel Wiin-Nielsen, then assistant director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Science division, remembered that the building's "loft was still occupied by weapons which belonged to [the] National Guard."

NCAR's mission, solving the "fundamental problems" posed by the atmosphere, had to be articulated in a coherent yet bold research plan. Phil recalled that during a trip to Boulder, he "simply wrote down . . . a definition of the fields that I thought were important and should be strongly represented at NCAR." These included atmospheric dynamics, chemistry, boundary layer turbulence, and solar-terrestrial atmosphere interaction. Many of Phil's ideas would serve as the basis for a "Ten-Year Program for NCAR" that was worked up by the senior staff and formally presented in November 1961 to NSF and the National Academy of Sciences.

As part of an attempt to attract and recruit capable researchers without "strip-mining" university talent, Phil and Walt ran into "one of our most delicate problems." Both men had agreed on the necessity to recruit vigorously to "make a quick start [and] a considerable splash and gain momentum rapidly." A small number of UCAR member universities, however, were critical of the apparent zeal of the recruiting effort. In a letter dated 19 May 1961 to the head of one meteorology department, Phil noted the complexity of the situation and replied that while "most of the people of the type that are needed to provide the initial scientific leadership are in the universities . . . none of the appointments made so far have taken any people away from the universities." At the same time, he wrote, if "NCAR recruited no one from the universities, either accidentally or as a matter of policy . . . there would be almost equally loud objections, on the score that the universities are not properly represented and that there may be some danger that NCAR might not develop the free academic atmosphere that is traditionally associated with basic research."

The need for a high-performance computer was initially addressed by buying time on NBS and CU machines, including the university's IBM 709, which was conveniently installed in PSR-1. Aksel and others visited computer manufacturers and observed installations in order to determine the best computer for NCAR and the UCAR community, as well as the "feasibility of NCAR being used as a national computing facility." In addition, an aircraft facility had to be designed and created, as did a scientific balloon facility, to operate under the management of newly hired Vin Lally.

UCAR's mission seemed to be evolving as well. In December 1960, Walt noted that NSF "now . . . concurs in the desire of UCAR to do things other than to operate the center, when appropriate." And as part of Walt's agreement upon accepting the directorate of NCAR (he was at the same time president of UCAR), HAO had yet to be merged into the NCAR divisional structure, both legally and conceptually, for there were some in the broader meteorological community who remained doubtful both about the relevance of solar physics to atmospheric science and about the interdisciplinary focus of NCAR.

Nonetheless, the excitement of those early years is well-documented in the papers and correspondence of Walt Roberts and Phil Thompson. In a March 1961 letter from Stockholm to a British colleague, Phil said: "We expect to make the trek to Colorado early in July. It is so marvelous that it doesn't seem quite real."

Diane Rabson

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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