UCAR Communications


staff notes monthly

March 2003

Archives launching instrument collection

In these days of orbiting satellites and lidar sensors, it’s hard to remember that atmospheric science used to rely on such basic techniques as sampling atmospheric conditions with wire thermometers borne by rubber balloons.

Lest such history be lost, the UCAR/ NCAR Archives is launching an instrument collection. The goal is to gather instruments that are still in existence, document those that were created or modified at NCAR but no longer exist, and interview staff about the ways the instruments were designed and used.

“We’re documenting the observational aspect of the institution’s mission,” explains archives assistant Nicolle Alida. “This collection will help us capture the history of field programs, as well as show the evolution of atmospheric science as practiced at NCAR. Collecting instruments will illustrate the collaborative nature of our science.”

Nicolle Alida with ATD/ACD’s Tunable Diode Laser Absorption System.

The project is still in the early stages, with Nicolle and archivist Diane Rabson talking with scientists, engineers, and other staff involved in fabricating and using instruments. Two organizations—the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the American Meteorological Society in Boston—have expressed interest in collaborating on the collection, although details still need to be worked out.

Instruments were critical to atmospheric science achievements even before the founding of NCAR in 1960. Indeed, the reason that a Harvard University graduate student named Walter Orr Roberts came to Colorado in the 1940s was to deliver and operate a coronagraph to study the Sun’s outer layers. This was the genesis of the High Altitude Observatory and, eventually, of NCAR—which Walt would oversee in its early years. “You can almost say that NCAR came to be in Colorado because of an instrument,” Diane says.

Walter Orr Roberts with HAO’s first coronagraph at the Climax Observatory in the 1940s.

Many instruments used by the institution’s scientists are unique, manufactured by the Atmospheric Technology Division for one-of-a-kind applications. “We couldn’t do our research without the instruments,” says Jack Fox, who oversees ATD’s Design and Fabrication Services.

Since many older instruments no longer exist (their parts are often recycled for newer field projects), the physical collection may be somewhat small. But where instruments are no longer available, the archivists will gather photographs, schematics, field notes, and other historical records as well as conduct oral history interviews.

Diane is finding out that scientists are highly enthusiastic about the instruments that enable them to conduct research ranging from sampling traces of chemicals in the upper atmosphere to studying solar seismology.

“People are inclined to photograph field projects and their instruments at work, rather than themselves,” Diane says. “One of the supremely creative aspects of NCAR is designing these things and getting them to work.” •David Hosansky

Also in this issue...

Vin Lally wins prestigious ballooning award

A smooth ride to Juneau:
RAP maps wind shear and turbulence at isolated airport

Short takes

A special evening with an intimate of the atmosphere

Delphi Question: PTO, health benefits, and diversity training

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