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Walter Orr Roberts (1915 - 1990)

Walter Orr Roberts was born Aug. 20, 1915, in West Bridgewater, Mass., the son of a farmer. He received a master's degree from Harvard University in 1940, and married Janet Smock that same year. Roberts and his wife headed to Climax, Colorado to set up the first solar coronograph in the Western Hemisphere in 1940, which later was reorganized into Harvard's High Altitude Observatory where the world's largest coronograph was built in the 1950's. He earned his PhD from Harvard in 1943 based on his work in Climax.

Before the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) came to be in 1960, there was the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) -- a consortium of research institutions with doctoral programs in the atmospheric and related sciences that first met in 1959. After UCAR was incorporated, Walter Orr Roberts was selected as UCAR's first president. In 1960, the UCAR Board of Trustees unanimously approved Boulder as the site for NCAR and gave Roberts a second title, inaugural director of NCAR, which opened its first office in Boulder in June 1960 and was managed then as it is now, by UCAR.

UCAR was a consortium of 14 member universities in 1960, all with doctoral programs in the atmospheric and related sciences.  But it was the Deans at their Schools of Architecture that comprised the selection committee for NCAR's architect and unanimously selected I.M. Pei. During the time between Pei's selection in the early 1960s and the ground breaking for the Center on June 9, 1964, Pei and Roberts had become life-long friends and collaborative partners in capturing the essence of NCAR's work in its architectural design. It was Roberts who recommended that Pei visit Mesa Verde, from which Pei ultimately drew his inspiration for NCAR's design.  Roberts and Pei would frequently camp and explore the Mesa together, always discussing the nature of science and how the building could serve as a national symbol for atmospheric research.

At the time of Roberts death in 1990, it was aptly noted that although he was known to the world as a scientst, Walter Orr Roberts was to those who knew him best a builder: first from the pieces of a partly-built coronagraph, then an observing station, and an observatory, and a collection of new staffs and new buildings, and new institutions, each better than the one before....

Among the many tributes to his considerable achievements was the United Nations Environment Programme's North America Leadership Award. Dr. Roberts was the first scientist to be so honored. The citation reads in part that it is given in honor of his "placing so generously his wisdom and talents in the service of the Earth."

Walter Orr Roberts with coronograph

Walter Orr Roberts is shown taking photos of the solar corona with the 5 inch coronagraph he built with the assistance of Hobart P. French and his Harvard Ph.D. advisor, Donald Howard Menzel. This, only the third coronagraph in the world and the first in the western hemisphere, was made possible by Don Menzel's entrepreneurial skills and Robert's technical capabilities.

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