|Tom Bogdan. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)|
He's always enjoyed medieval history. Tom Bogdan is now unearthing a story shrouded in legends from not quite so long ago: the formative years of the High Altitude Observatory. Tom covered HAO's history in a public presentation at the Boulder Public Library on 20 September, and he'll be providing a capsule version at HAO's 60th anniversary banquet on 9 October at FL. The full chapter and verse will appear in a book Tom's been working on for the past several years.
"I've been meeting interesting people," says the HAO senior scientist. The stops on his paper trail include the NCAR Archives and some 100 boxes of papers that Walt left with CU's Norlin Library. "It takes a lot of time to get through 100 boxes of paper. I fear I'm never going to get around to writing the book." There's no substitute for the digging, though: "The world doesn't need a poorly researched history of HAO."
Tom is focusing on the period between 1940, when Walt Roberts installed the Western Hemisphere's first coronagraph at Climax, Colorado, and HAO's move to UCAR and NCAR in 1960. This interval was a heady time for U.S. research, and the time when Boulder gained its identity as a science and technology center. In large part, that was due to the influence of Walt and several other people associated with HAO.
Menzel's boss, Harlow Shapley (head of the Harvard College Observatory), turned down his request for funding, but apparently arranged for Menzel to meet with Henry Wallace, then the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "Menzel sold Wallace on the idea that the sun was connected with changes in the earth's climate." A scientist himself, Wallace was receptive to the idea, in part because he was confronted with the Dust Bowl raging across the western Great Plains. Wallace gave Menzel $3,000 to build a coronagraph, "a fair amount of money in the late 1930s."
|Donald Menzel (Harvard), Edward Condon (NBS), and Walt Roberts share a light moment in March 1950. Tom Bogdan deduced the date of the photo using the calendar in the background that reveals 5 March was a Sunday.|
Menzel realized a high-altitude site was needed to limit the effects of the earth's atmosphere on the new instrument's data. "Having grown up in Leadville, he figured Colorado was a natural spot [for the coronagraph]," Tom says. The highest peaks were impractical for a permanent site, so Menzel picked Fremont Pass, which connects Leadville to Dillon. The Climax Molybdenum Company had been mining near the pass for decades. The company deeded land to Harvard for five years and even built the initial buildings. "Menzel got the dome constructed free of charge by a company in Kansas City, and Sears donated the furniture."
Just after Walt Roberts and Janet Smock married in June 1940, they drove through the Dust Bowl with coronagraph in tow. An open house on 8 September drew 400 people to the new Fremont Pass Observatory. "There was an article in the Denver Post'husband and wife set up thing on mountainside,' etc."
Once Walt started to work, he realized that, "bless his heart, Menzel did not have a clue how the coronagraph was supposed to work. He was a brilliant theoretician, a real mover and shaker, but he had not at all gotten a handle on the subtleties of this. Walt wrote to Lyot and got some insights. It took Walt a year, working up there with all sorts of problems, to finally get his first view of the corona."
The observatory would soon become HAO, thanks to a lunch at New York's Century Club in 1944 between Harvard's Shapley and the president of CU, Robert Stearns. "Over lunch Shapley proposed the idea that it would be useful for Harvard and CU to go in together and make this little observatory something with its own structure. Why Shapley thought this, I don't know, but it showed a lot of foresight."
Stearns agreed, and in April 1946 the High Altitude Observatory was incorporated. Its board of trustees included six members appointed by Harvard and CU; Walt was named superintendent. His first scientific hire was Jack Evans, "who became Walt's close friend for many yearsa brilliant instrument designer."
After eight winters in Climax, "Walt knew it was hard to conduct science at 11,500 feet. Nobody wanted to be up in these conditions, and they needed the university as an intellectual center to base this institute around." Stearns's support led to a series of temporary buildings for HAO on the CU-Boulder campus and beyond, starting in 1948. (One site was a cutlery manufacturer located on Marine Street, near Broadway, where Alfalfa's Market now stands.)
|HAO's Rudy Cook and Lee Davis constituted HAO's advance party for setting up an observing facility on the Sacramento Peak Mountains east of Alamagordo, New Mexico. This photo was taken in the fall of 1947.|
Through the 1950s, HAO cemented its reputation as a world leader in solar observation. A group went to Khartoum, in the Sudan, in 1952 for HAO's first eclipse expedition. "HAO continued to investigate different ways to look at the corona and get better signal-to-noise ratios. There were a number of technical advances."
The financial picture was far less rosy. At times, says Tom, "it was a real hand-to-mouth existence. In October 1952 they did not have the money to meet the payroll. The whole place was saved by a $5,000 check from Alfred Loomis [the investment banker and amateur physicist who had played a key role in radar development during World War II]. Walt shielded the staff from all this. With Walt in charge you wouldn't have even known what the budget was."
Despite its thin fiscal ice, HAO served as a resource and go-between for many endeavors in the late 1940s and 1950s. For instance, Walt and Menzel flew over the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico in 1947 to help find a site for an Air Force operation that later became the Sacramento Peak Observatory.
Another federal entity was lured to Boulder on a gorgeous summer's day in 1949. Worried about the risk of nuclear attack, the government had decided to decentralize its labs. "The director of the National Bureau of Standards at that time was the famous physicist, Edward Condon. Harlow Shapley's son Alan was also connected to NBSand lives in Boulder today." A fact-finding group came to town in early July and joined Walt for a picnic on Flagstaff Mountain. "They left Washington on a typical hot and muggy summer day, got off the plane in Denver, were hit by the nice warm breezes, and were sold. Apparently the change in weather was all they needed." NBS is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
|Bob Cooper and Bob Lee fix bugs in the coronagraph before the 25 February 1952 solar eclipse near Khartoum.|
Harvard's role in managing HAO ended in 1954, soon after Donald Menzel took the reins of the Harvard College Observatory. "HAO then became completely part of CU. They raised their own money through government contracts and donations. Walt was a prime fundraiser for these sorts of things. He was incredibly good at it. He had a knack for winning people's confidence with his sincere belief that understanding the sun would have positive implications for the daily life of people."
Walt was not the initial choice for director of NCAR. The first UCAR Board of Trustees picked James Van Allen, the professor at the University of Iowa for whom the Van Allen radiation belts are named. However, Van Allen withdrew his name from consideration in late 1959, "an embarrassingly late date for the board. They needed to come up with a leader who had stature and the ability to pull this thing off." Walt's acceptance in early 1960 included the legendary two-part condition that NCAR establish itself in Boulder and bring on HAO as a division. "People sometimes ask, 'How is it that HAO can be a part of NCAR? They don't seem to have anything to do with each other.' It was a purely political move, although over the years the science has borne out that it was actually a very forward-looking idea."
The summer of 1960 marked the beginning of a new era and the end of Tom's research focus for now. It also ended the lean years for HAO. "Once being part of NCARofficially in December 1961its funding issues disappeared at long last, and Walt didn't need to go around trying to meet his payroll each month."
Bob Henson and Zhenya Gallon