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October 2000


NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series. In this year's installments, Diane commemorates the 40th anniversary of UCAR and NCAR by focusing on key periods in our history.

On 9 and 10 October, HAO and UCAR are holding special events recognizing UCAR's founding and the 60-year history of HAO. Many of the pioneers of the 1950s and 1960s will be in attendance. "It Happened Here" departs from its usual format this month to showcase the recorded memories of the late Horace Byers, a distinguished atmospheric scientist who chaired the Meteorology Departments at the University of Chicago and Texas A&M University. Byers was present at the inception of UCAR and chaired the Board of Trustees from 1962 to 1964. Following are excerpts from two oral history interviews conducted with Byers in 1987 and 1990 by Earl Droessler and Roscoe Braham (both of North Carolina State University).

• Diane Rabson

Life before UCAR—early instructions and El Niño

In 1925, I was a student at the University of California in Berkeley, where I took a beginning meteorology course in the Geography Department. My teacher was Richard Russell, who was a physical geographer trained in geology but quite conversant with the literature on meteorology—which was mainly German and Norwegian literature—so that the course was taught in a manner rather different from the way in which it was considered in the [U.S.] Weather Bureau at that time. I remember my amazement when I explored the San Francisco office of the Weather Bureau and found that the official in charge and the head forecaster for the Pacific states were completely unaware of the German and Norwegian literature.

To illustrate the advances at UC-Berkeley compared with other universities and the Weather Bureau in those days, we were instructed about the El Niño current on the west coast of South America. At that time, it was not too well known just how the current originated. There was a lot of discussion in South America, but we were assured that the wild stories in Peru about the alligators coming down with the current from Ecuador were false. . . . During El Niño, the fish and birds disappeared and the fishing and guano fertilizer business in Peru suffered greatly. Later on, when I was in Peru in 1944 doing some consulting for Pan American Grace, I met a German refugee physicist named Schmidt who was working for the Pacific Guano Fertilizer Company and he said that his evidence indicated that the El Niño current came from waters farther out in the ocean. So far as I know, Schmidt never published this discovery that the El Niño current came from the ocean farther out.

Private funding —links between aviation and meteorology

In 1928, I received a call from the chief engineer of the Port of Oakland telling me that there was a man by the name of Carl-Gustaf Rossby, a very congenial Swede, who was representing the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. He was looking for a meteorological assistant. I accepted the position and Rossby and I operated a network of weather stations in California [supporting] the operation of a "model airway" by the Guggenheim Fund between San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Western Air Express flew Fokker F- 10s between Oakland and Vail Field, located between Whittier and Los Angeles. We collected surface observations every 90 minutes during the morning hours and on into the afternoon. There [were] something like thirty stations between Los Angeles and Oakland, scattered along the coast and through the San Joaquin Valley and on down to San Diego. The airline operated on the direct route nonstop, following approximately the San Andreas fault line and across the ridge to L.A. They flew at ten thousand feet nearly all the way, which was somewhat of a record. After the first year of operation, the system was handed over by the Guggenheim Fund to the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Europe—the first balloon-borne soundings

In the early 1930's, a Belgian meteorologist by the name of Jaumotte invented a balloon sonde which had a moving smoked-glass plate and a moving pen which inscribed on it. The glass plate was moved by pressure and the pen scratched temperature on this plate. A series of ascents was made through Europe using the Jaumotte instrument, which went well into the stratosphere. Although the stratosphere had been discovered many years earlier by [Léon-Philippe Teisserenc] de Bort, this for the first time presented a synoptic picture, because these were sent up in serial ascents from a number of places. . . . The data from that were analyzed in detail by Erik Palmén, the Finnish meteorologist—published in 1933—and for the first time, it showed the slope of the tropopause and the relationship between the stratosphere and what happens down below.

The Millikan committee—upgrading the Weather Bureau

From the early 1930s right on through World War II, aviation was a principal thing that stimulated meteorology. During the interval between my master's degree and my doctorate at MIT, I accepted a job with TWA, instructing their meteorologists who had been trained in the old Signal Corps in World War I and training their pilots on essentially synoptic meteorology and the application of the Bergen School to meteorology.

A meteorology course was established at Caltech in the early 1930s by Irving Krick in cooperation with Robert Millikan. When the Navy airship Akron was destroyed in a mild squall line at Lakehurst, New Jersey, while coming in for a landing, Krick did a hindcast on that and said that it could have been predicted. This resulted in quite a stir in the Navy, in the Weather Bureau, and in Congress. With Millikan's prestige, he demanded that there be an investigation and reform of the Weather Bureau and all the meteorological services. In 1934–35, Millikan formed a Committee on the Weather Bureau and Meteorology in the United States through the National Academy of Sciences [NAS], of which he was a member. The Millikan committee had a great effect on changing the direction of the Weather Bureau. The committee said in its report that things were in a primitive state in the United States, and particularly the upper air was not being properly explored. The older kite stations were still in existence. Arrangements were made with the Army Air Corps and the Navy to make airplane ascents.

The Army Air Corps planes took up aerographs mounted on wing struts of the planes. They had stations at Cheyenne, Cleveland, and later Detroit and Montgomery, Alabama; the Navy had stations at Pensacola, San Diego, Seattle, and other locations—quite a network of airplane observations. The flights went up to about five kilometers [16,500 feet] in height, which was the ceiling, in general, of the airplanes. This greatly improved the aerological studies to be included in the daily meteorological signals [of] the Weather Bureau.

Behind the scenes at UCAR's founding—1959

Lloyd Berkner [chair of the original (NAS) Committee on Meteorology, which would later become the University Committee for Atmospheric Research] thought that what was needed in meteorology or the atmospheric sciences was an association of universities with a big research center, similar to the formation of AURA—Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy, which built the Kitt Peak Observatory in Tucson. This really took me by surprise, and it seemed like a very ambitious thing. In the first place, you wonder, Well, why do you need a thing like this? After all, we at the universities were handling some pretty big projects—at MIT, at Chicago, and UCLA, in particular, and possibly at other universities. I had misgivings about it, frankly.

The first thing I did was contact Henry Houghton [chair of the Meteorology Department at MIT] to see what he thought of the idea. Henry expressed some of the same doubts that I had, but we decided to have a meeting. I think, like anything great, it never gets off to a roaring start.

We talked about it in a very preliminary way, and we decided to take the idea to our university administrations and see what they thought of it. . . We had at the University of Chicago a business manager—I believe that was his title at the time—William Harrell. He thought, Well, if we really want it, we might do it. I mentioned to him particularly Henry Houghton and MIT, and I believe he must have gotten in touch with the administrative representative of MIT on the telephone, because when we agreed to take this up, it was quite apparent that Chicago and MIT were going to take the leadership. The net result was that it was decided to go ahead with it.

The University of Chicago was a charter member of UCAR and I was the representative of the university. Bill Harrell was the adminstrative representative. The board was constituted of two representatives from each institution: the meteorological representative and the business administration representative. We met in various places. . .

Henry Houghton was the first [chair of the Board] and I was the second one. Of course, as we got going, there was a lot of strength from the various universities. At first, I think there were twelve universities [later fourteen] and they were the ones who were on the Board of [Trustees]. [At] one meeting that we had, while I was still [chair], some representatives of other universities attended. A physical chemist from the University of Utah came and made a very strong plea to open up the Board of [Trustees] to other universities. So there was a discussion and [at a later meeting] we voted to admit any university which applied that had a graduate degree, or maybe it was Ph.D.s, in any subject relating to the atmosphere—high, low, whatever. That made a big change, and suddenly the directorship was enlarged to include a great many universities.


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Last revised: Tue Sep 26 12:38:56 MDT 2000