It Happened Here: Season's Greetings from Climax
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December 1998
Happened Here
NCAR archivist Diane Rabson sheds light on our institutional history in this bimonthly series.

Season's Greetings from Climax

Not many of Hallmark's greeting cards showed a prominence over an active solar region, as did HAO's card in 1958, or a spectrogram from an eclipse expedition to Sudan (the 1959 card, below).

"Nine months of winter and three months of late fall."

Such were the harsh conditions Janet Smock Roberts had to look forward to in the first year of her married life. A native of New Jersey, she wed Walter Orr Roberts, a graduate student in astrophysics at Harvard, in June 1940. The couple spent their honeymoon on the road, bound for Colorado in a less-than-reliable car, with the Harvard Observatory's coronagraph safely stowed in the back seat. Walt had been appointed observer at the Fremont Pass Station of Harvard's recently established High Altitude Observatory, for a "study of [the] sun and solar-terrestrial relationships." The site for the observatory and attached house, near Leadville, was provided by the Climax Molybdenum Company; Walt and Janet quickly became close friends with miners, geologists, and their wives who lived in the company town.

Even in the days of the Cold War, Yuletide greetings sometimes managed to cross the Iron Curtain, as with this card that came to HAO from Russia in the 1950s.

HAO sends "Seasons Greetings," 1954.

While still at Harvard, Walt had planned to enter the ranks of management at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, and ultimately become president of the company. His assignment at Climax was to last about one year, but the country's entry into World War II interfered. The coronal observations from Climax, with their implications for potential disturbance of terrestrial radio communications, became an essential part of the war effort. Three children were born in due course, and the Roberts family stayed on for seven years until HAO's laboratory and administrative facilities were transferred down to the University of Colorado and the gentler climate of Boulder. After the move, HAO's ties with Harvard were eventually dissolved.

By the early fifties, HAO had grown substantially. A second observatory was established at Sacramento Peak in southern New Mexico, and the original observatory at Fremont Pass was abandoned for a larger, more permanent site on nearby Chalk Mountain, in part to get away from "the severe smoke and dust sources of the Climax mine." Graced by the donation of a large telescope from the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company of Rochester, HAO in Boulder established its own observatory (now the Sommers-Bausch Observatory adjacent to and above the Fiske Planetarium). In 1950, Walt noted in a report that HAO's presence in Boulder had spurred the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) to locate its Central Radio Propagation Laboratory in the city, helping Boulder on its way to becoming a center of scientific research. A decade later, in 1960, Walt Roberts brought HAO into the newly created National Center for Atmospheric Research, where he was the founding director.

The 1957 HAO greeting card included a decidedly summerish photo of the Climax grounds.

Santa and reindeer appear dangerously close to the sun (especially for the era before SPF-45) in HAO's 1963 greetings.

During the fifties, when many of these holiday cards were created and sent out, a whimsical article appeared in the Rocky Mountain News after Walt appealed to the CU regents to fund construction of a new observer's house at Climax. As a veteran of the isolation and severe weather at the Continental Divide, Walt explained that "it's difficult for a man to stay happy [there] unless he's married--in fact, unless he's newly wed." He further recommended the new house be built with a family in mind, and a basement for kids to play in when "the temperature gets down to 20 below, and the wind howls at 25 miles an hour or more." The regents complied.

The observatory at Climax closed officially in 1972, after 32 years of operation.

Diane Rabson (with thanks to Janet Roberts for permission to quote from her autobiography of the Climax years, Glory Hole.)

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