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February 1998

It Happened Here
Before Staff Notes Monthly . . .


NCAR archivist Diane Rabson will shed light on our institutional history in this new bimonthly series.

One of the joys of being an archivist is getting to know people. That may sound odd, since it seems I spend much of my time loading or unloading boxes, or arranging papers within them. These boxes, of course, are the vessels that hold and preserve our institutional heritage.

I get to know people by reading and analyzing the records they've collected over the course of a career: their letters and memos, oral history interviews, speeches, personal writings, even the way they handled their budgets. Walt Roberts--who established NCAR and was its first director--is one of those people. In truth, I've been reading about him, off and on, since the day I arrived at the archives, nine years ago this month. Reading about Walt gives one a good lesson in the early history of NCAR.

Walt Roberts in a 1966 interview.

I recently came across a set of mimeographed memos (remember the mimeograph?) that Walt wrote and circulated among the staff from 1962 to 1965. These appeared every couple of months at first, then more sporadically, whenever Walt felt the need and had the time to communicate to staff at large. He initiated the series of informal memos because, he wrote, "our communication channels need some attention." While not the definitive history of early NCAR, the memos reveal a great deal about the era.

For example, we find that in May 1962, NCAR owned neither buildings nor computers. The NCAR telephone directory occupied a mere two pages. Staff were scattered around Boulder--from the Armory building on 17th Street to CU's Cyclotron on 30th Street near Marine. The original Damon Room opened as a staff lounge in the 30th Street building, later called RL-1. Although the High Altitude Observatory was one of three divisions in the organization (Laboratory of Atmospheric Science, or LAS, and Administration and Facilities were the others), it would be some time before HAO was fully integrated into the center.

A new enterprise brings its excitements, but lots of hard work was required. Aksel Wiin-Nielsen, a scientist and assistant director of LAS, remembered years later: "There were so many practical things of building and changing and getting equipment and installing it . . . and we were all equally inexperienced in these things." LAS computer time was shared with CU (on its IBM 7090), the National Bureau of Standards (IBM 709), and HAO (IBM 1620).

In a whimsically titled paragraph, "Pei in the Sky," Walt noted that I.M. Pei had been chosen as architect for the future building on Table Mountain, and NCAR planners were working with him on a less "monumental" concept than his original site plan. By the next installment (July 1962), under the title "Pei As We Go," Walt reported that a suitable building design had been adopted. Because of tight budgets, however, the new laboratory would be constructed "on an incremental basis." (It would be four more years before the bulk of construction had been completed.)

In the meantime, recruitment of permanent staff proceeded, and a bumper crop of summer visitors had arrived. Eventually, the university built a second lab for lease on 30th Street. Dubbed PSR-2 (now RL-2), this building ultimately housed NCAR's first computer, the CDC-3600, which was purchased in 1963 and, according to Phil Thompson (then NCAR's associate director), was "completely saturated" within six months. Cockerell Hall, a former women's dormitory, was pressed into service as offices for both summer and permanent staff; its ping-pong table became legendary.

Much like the current Staff Notes Monthly, Walt's memos blended news on science, organizational progress, mission clarification, and the people of NCAR. In keeping with Walt's management style, new employees were always beseeched to come to his office for "a cup of coffee and a brief chat." The Gold Hill Inn was requisitioned one night in April 1963 for an all-staff "Dutch Treat Dinner," with a promise of "no long speeches, propaganda, or entertainment." The shock of President Kennedy's assassination is soberly noted, but that same year, one can almost hear a sigh of relief as Walt reported that his son, David, a climber, was safely down from the slopes of Mt. McKinley.

As time went by, of course, NCAR--and Walt's duties--continued growing. By 1965, the memos were issued infrequently and contained only one or two pages. However, Walt's writing style--optimistic, yet forthright and candid--remained intact.

In a memo of 30 December 1963, tersely titled "Money," Walt informed the staff that newly-installed President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered budgets for all federal departments slashed for FY 1965 (starting 1 July). NCAR's preliminary 1965 funding was cut more than 30%, from $11 million down to $8 million. After outlining the consequences of such a reduction, Walt concluded:

"There will be no retrenchment in our ambitions or ultimate goals. These are valid, and we will gain them. Consequently, I hope that there will be no retreat on anyone's part from pursuit of long-term basic research objectives--or from the exercise of imagination about what we can ultimately do. I predict that we will emerge from this battle stronger than before. . . . To paraphrase John Paul Jones, 'We have not yet begun to fight!' So, courage!" •Diane Rabson


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