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October 2000

The archaeologist of HAO: Tom Bogdan digs into the early days

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.

Why a coronagraph?

The man who conceived of putting a coronagraph in the Rockies, Donald Menzel, was a Colorado native. Born in Florence and raised in Leadville, he became an astronomy professor at Harvard University. In the 1930s Menzel became fascinated with the notion of observing the sun with a coronagraph that would block the solar disk and make the corona visible. "Many people said it couldn't be done," says Tom, "but that didn't stop a French astronomer and optician named Bernard Lyot from actually devising and creating a coronagraph." Menzel met with Lyot in 1936 and came back to America "completely excited to build such a thing."

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."

Enter Walt, stage west

While working at the Eastman Kodak company in Rochester, New York, Walt Roberts yearned to learn more about the chemistry of the photographic process. "Walt went to Harvard in the fall of 1938 and completely disliked the chemistry courses, so he ended up taking a course in spectroscopy from Menzel." In 1939 Walt signed on as Menzel's graduate student and started work on the coronagraph.

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 first space-weather reports

As he began regularly sampling the corona, Walt discovered that brightness in certain emission lines along the east limb of the sun often led to a magnetic storm and radio blackouts four or five days later. "Other people had suspected such a connection, but because Walt could see the corona daily, he managed to see that the connection works. The Army and the Department of War got very interested in the possibility this afforded them." By mid-1942, Walt had a contract to send daily updates via telegram to Washington, D.C., a job that continued through the war.

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 years—a 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.)

The best and worst of times

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 NBS—and 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.

From Harvard to UCAR

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 NCAR—officially in December 1961—its 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

From Our Mr. Sun to Sun Dog Man

This image was taken from HAO's historic 1946 prominence film.

The silver screen has played a surprisingly big role in HAO history. In 1946 HAO released a film of solar prominence eruptions, which gained the observatory worldwide attention. Renowned director Frank Capra called on HAO for help in creating an educational film for Bell Laboratories in 1956. Our Mr. Sun can still be found for sale on the Internet. The promotional blurb reads, "Dr. Frank Baxter and Eddie Albert explore the mysteries of the most important star in the universe. With the help of a boastful old Sol and a cranky Father Time . . . the sun's history, power and potential are investigated." According to Tom Bogdan, "There's a letter in Walt's files from Capra about how wonderful the experience was and how cooperative the HAO staff were."

Another HAO encounter with the film world was on a decidedly more artistic level. Avant-garde auteur Stan Brakhage (CU) asked HAO if he could use the 1946 prominence film in one of his productions, entitled Sun Dog Man. The final product was screened for a brown-bag lunch gathering at HAO and went on to gather acclaim in the independent film world.

• BH

Howard Hughes and the corona

Celebrities were among those buttonholed for support during the early years of HAO. They included actress Lillian Gish, millionaire Laurance Rockefeller, and the eccentric film mogul Howard Hughes. Below is the story of Donald Menzel's late-night trip to seek funding from Hughes. (Excerpted from the unpublished autobiography of Donald Menzel, courtesy Tom Bogdan and the Menzel family.)

At midnight, on a certain date, I was to sit in the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Hollywood, when "someone I would recognize" would come in and pick me up. At nearly one, General Ira Eaker, whom I had met during my days in the Navy, came in and introduced himself as my escort.

"It's far too early to see Mr. Hughes," he commented. "Let's go to my apartment and have a drink."

From time to time, the general consulted his watch. Finally, about 2:30 he announced that the time was right. We entered a large black limousine on which all of the curtains had been drawn. I could not possibly see where we were going. Finally, after half an hour of maneuvering, we stopped. Someone opened the door and, in a brief glance, I recognized the main entrance to RKO studios.

A guard inspected General Eaker's credentials and motioned him in. The chauffeur drove into the complex and finally stopped behind an unlighted building. The general unlocked the door and we entered a room whose darkness was broken only by the general's flashlight. We passed through several doors and finally entered the room that had some chairs and a couch. "Here we wait for Mr. Hughes," said the general. And wait we did for more than half an hour. Finally, about 3:30, in walked Mr. Hughes alone, unshaven and in a disheveled tweed suit that looked as if it had been slept in for a week. He greeted me cordially, then sat and listened to my story about the motion pictures [of the sun] and the techniques of the [HAO] coronagraph. By arrangement, a 16-millimeter projector had been provided. I loaded my film into it and showed it while Mr. Hughes sat spellbound with the action. At its conclusion, he asked to see it again. He was full of questions, both scientific and technical, which I answered to the best of my ability. I told him frankly that I hoped he would be willing to contribute to the development of further solar research at Climax.

He asked me whether it would be possible to obtain a copy of the film I had just shown. I told him that I would give him this copy, if he were interested. He thanked me and put it under his arm [and] said he would consider my request.

General Eaker and I returned to the car, took the long ride back to his apartment, with the drawn shades. I then sat up in front with the chauffeur who drove me back to the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, where we arrived about 5:30 a.m.

Some weeks later I received a letter from Howard Hughes, again thanking me for the demonstration and for the film, but saying he had decided against making a gift to the observatory. I've always felt it somewhat ironic that one of the richest men in the country should have obtained a gift from me—the film—and that I received nothing in return.

• BH


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Tue Sep 26 12:38:56 MDT 2000