AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 2, Fall 2003


Resources for History of Science Research in the Jimmy Carter Library
by Albert Nason, Archivist

President Carter inspecting a solar heating panel installed on the roof of the White House.

President Carter inspecting a solar heating panel installed on the roof of the White House. Photo courtesy Jimmy Carter Library.

Click on photo to see a larger version.

The four years of the Carter administration (January 1977- January 1981) were an era of transition in the nation's outlook toward the physical sciences. The soaring oil costs of the 1970s led to interest in fuel efficiency and new sources of energy, while also leading to budget constraints that curtailed other projects, such as space exploration. Typical of the shift in scientific interests was the instigation of development of a reusable space shuttlethe idea being that, if the USA was going to have spacecraft, these would have to be at least reusable ones rather than one-shot-only contrivances.

Weather and environmental issues also loomed larger, as natural disasters like the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption and technological accidents like Three Mile Island occurred. Several years of the late Seventies brought unusually cold weather while, ironically, fears of climatic change and global warming were being voiced. Jimmy Carter, trained as a naval engineer at the U.S. Naval Academy and with post-graduate courses in nuclear science, brought more knowledge and interest in hard science to the Oval Office than is generally the case, and put his primary focus on the creation of the Department of Energy (DOE).

The Science and Technology Advisor to President Carter was geoscientist Frank Press, who also served as Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He was assisted by Laurence H. Linden, Senior Policy Analyst, OSTP. This office dealt with policy issues, physical sciences, and environmental and natural resources issues. The files of this office cover research and development programs, national energy policies, industrial innovation, and scientific and technological exchange agreements with the newly recognized People's Republic of China. (Even before the U.S. gave diplomatic recognition, China had begun sharing weather data, atmospheric radiation data, and satellite launch information on the USSR from Sinkiang observation bases.) The files of Frank Press as Science and Technology Advisor to President Carter are open to researchers. (Papers concerned strictly with his OSTP duties are archived in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.) The records from his office, including those of Laurence H. Linden, amount to 18 boxes of paperwork (about 9 linear feet). The subjects touched on include nuclear policy, Three Mile Island, alcohol fuels and synthetic fuels, earthquake prediction, hazardous wastes reduction research, basic research in various fields of military and civilian use, satellite communications, and enhanced radiation research (neutron bomb). Some of this material is security classified and unavailable for research.

The largest set of files in the Jimmy Carter Library is the White House Central Files (WHCF) which is divided by topics, each signified by a two-letter abbreviation. The WHCF files in the Atomic/Nuclear Energy division (AT) include reports and correspondence on nuclear proliferation, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The WHCF files on Disasters (DI) contain correspondence between the Domestic Policy Staff and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). FEMA was concerned with both natural and manmade disasters, and topics include oil spills, toxic wastes, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island. Natural disasters include floods, droughts, blizzards, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Much material on the volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helens and its possible effect on weather is here. Natural disasters in other countries (Romania, China, Turkey, and Pakistan) are also documented. The WHCF Health Series(HE) has material on air pollution, hazardous wastes, and effects on health of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, as well as cancer rates among civilians and military personal as a lingering effect of nuclear tests in the 1950s.

The WHCF Outer Space Series(OS) is composed of correspondence between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and various executive offices, including the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council. Annual reports to Congress from the President's staff, those to the President from his Science and Technology Adviser, progress reports on the Space Shuttle, and letters from the public are here. The letters include some from UFOlogists, since Carter had made the campaign promise to make public any reports on aliens and flying saucers, and this evoked a large response among UFO fans.

The WHCF Sciences Series (SC) consists primarily of correspondence to the President and responses by the Domestic Policy Staff. Some subjects covered are renewable energy sources (solar, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass), atmospheric investigation projects (climate changes, acid rain, storm predictions), and oceanographic activities. Other topics include proposals and reports on nuclear arms proliferation, basic research in science and technology, and correspondence on a National Solar Energy Institute.

Perhaps the leading accomplishment of the Carter administration in scientific fields was the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Energy in 1977. The James R. Schlesinger papers deal with the political, organizational, and scientific issues in the creation of the DOE. Files at the Carter Library deal only with the setting up of the agency, while the working files of the DOE are stored at the National Archives. The DOE was partly the result of reorganizing several smaller and overlapping agencies, and partly the result of trying to solve the energy crunch of the late 1970s. Many proposals, both political and technological, by public and private groups, are available here.

Material on the above topics includes technical reports, administrative memoranda, and correspondence on legislation linked to the various projects. The Carter Library has been open to researchers since 1987. Approximately half the files of the Carter White House have been processed and are now available to researchers. The Carter Presidential Library is located in Atlanta, Georgia. A Web site is maintained at The e-mail address is Postal inquiries should be addressed to Jimmy Carter Library, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta, GA 30307.

Return to Newsletter Table of ContentsRETURN to Fall 2003 Newsletter Table of Contents

AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843