AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 1, Spring 2003

Judy Steinacher holds a visible skylight photometer, 1967
A visible skylight photometer, in the hands of Judy Steinacher for this 1967 photo. This portable version followed an earlier design from HAO veteran Jack Evans that was used in the 1940s to help identify appropriate sites to conduct research on the solar corona, including the Sacramento Peak Observatory at Sunspot, New Mexico. Courtesy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

click on photo to see larger version.

Resources for History at the National Center for Atmospheric Research
by Diane Rabson, Archivist

Conceived during the Cold War and created on the heels of the International Geophysical Year, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) began work in 1960 under contract to the National Science Foundation. Using a model common among federally-funded research and development centers such as astronomical observatories and high-energy particle accelerators, it has been managed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a consortium of universities that offer Ph.D. programs in the atmospheric sciences.

From the beginning, NCAR was envisioned as a place for basic scientific research on the atmosphere to be conducted in an interdisciplinary manner, centralizing the requisite large-scale facilities—aircraft, high-performance computers, instrumentation development and fabrication—that no single university meteorological department could provide. The initial permanent scientific staff was small, and most research was aggregated under the aegis of a single division, the “Laboratory for Atmospheric Science.” Today NCAR boasts several scientific divisions for research in atmospheric chemistry, climate and global dynamics, mesoscale and microscale meteorology, aircraft hazards mitigation, solar physics and societal impacts.

In 1984, during a time of concern among historians about the preservation of postwar American science, the NCAR Archives was established through the efforts of Spencer Weart and Joan Warnow of the AIP Center for History of Physics, George Platzman of the University of Chicago, and others. The mission of the Archives continues to be maintenance of the institutional records management program as well as identification and collection of historic records. The Archives became a full-time operation in 1999.

Two oral history programs were begun in 1986. One program, the AMS Tape-Recorded Interview Project (TRIP), is supported by the American Meteorological Society and managed at NCAR. AMS-TRIP interviews are conducted nationally and internationally; scientists interview scientists. Sixty-six interviews have been completed to date including eminent figures such as Horace Byers, Joseph Smagorinsky, Susan Solomon, George Cressman and Norman Phillips.

Walter Orr Roberts and I.M. Pei

Walter Orr Roberts, NCAR's first director, talks in the late 1960s with I.M. Pei, architect for NCAR's flagship building, the Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Courtesy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

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The UCAR/NCAR Oral History Project was also established in the mid-1980s to capture the history of NCAR and UCAR. In addition to individual interviews, mainly conducted with the founding generation at NCAR, Archives staff have conducted group interviews about important field programs such as the National Hail Research Experiment in the 1970s and the Kuwait Oil Fires Project (sampling smoke after the Gulf War), as well as interviews with scientists, engineers, and pilots who were involved with NCAR’s Lockheed Electra research aircraft, which was recently retired. Audiotapes and/or transcripts are available for both projects; please see and click on the links below “Oral History Collections.”

In addition to managing finance and contract records, the Archives collects the personal papers of NCAR scientists; records of divisions, sections and offices; records of field programs; records of the computing facility; UCAR administrative records; and documentation of the design and construction of our flagship building, the Mesa Laboratory, by I.M. Pei in the 1960s. (For security reasons, after September 11, 2001, drawings and plans of the Mesa Laboratory are no longer available for public research.)

Our largest single collection, records of the NCAR Director’s Office (600 cu. ft.), ranges from 1976 to the present. This collection is inventoried, but can only be used with permission of the Director’s Office.

Other major collections include the papers of Philip Duncan Thompson (50 cu. ft.), the first associate director of NCAR, who enjoyed an important career in the Air Force working on numerical weather prediction prior to assuming his post at NCAR in 1960. Thompson was responsible for helping develop the intellectual mission of the new lab and recruiting the early scientific team. This collection is processed, and an exhaustive finding aid is almost complete. Oral histories with Thompson are transcribed and available for research.

NCAR's early days of scientific ballooning

In the early days of NCAR, researchers decided that their top priority for a facility was a place for scientific ballooning, ranking above even an aircraft facility. Balloons have been used for studies of everything from weather to the origin of the universe. Courtesy of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

click on photo to see larger version.

The papers of Warren M. Washington (15 cu. ft.), an African-American scientist who began his career in 1963 at NCAR modeling the general circulation of the atmosphere, include voluminous correspondence. They document his years of developing ever more sophisticated climate models, as well as directing the activities of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division. Dr. Washington’s efforts to mentor young scientists and students of color are reflected in this collection. Currently he is a Senior Scientist at NCAR and serves as President of the National Science Board. This collection is mostly processed, and a finding aid is being developed. Oral histories of Washington are transcribed but only partially edited.

The papers of postwar scientific ballooning pioneer Vincent E. Lally (10 cu. ft.) showcase his innovative designs for zero-pressure and super-pressure balloons for use in programs such as the Global Atlantic Research Program (GARP), the Tropospheric Wind Earth Radio Location Experiment (TWERLE), and others. Lally was the first director of the National Scientific Balloon Facility at Palestine, Texas (now a NASA facility), and a Southern Hemisphere ballooning facility in Christchurch, New Zealand. This collection is rich in published papers, but photographs and correspondence as well as personal notebooks andballoon logs help fill in the details. A finding aid is being developed. An oral history of Lally is transcribed and available for research.

The Archives is undertaking an exciting new initiative to collect and document the numerous scientific instruments developed and used in field projects since 1962. Through photographs, films, technical reports, drawings, contract records, project records and detailed oral histories, we in the Archives hope to create a comprehensive catalog of NCAR instrumentation to better describe and understand the observational mission of the lab. Although many instruments are very large, sited on remote platforms such as buoys, or used once and then recycled, there are still a great many records about instruments available in various machine shops and in the files of engineers and scientists.

Not all NCAR instruments are meteorological. The High Altitude Observatory—NCAR’s solar physics division—has been in operation since 1940, when then-Harvard graduate student Walter Orr Roberts (later the first director of NCAR) set up a coronagraph in Climax, Colorado, to monitor coronal activity during the Second World War. Later part of the University of Colorado, HAO merged with NCAR in the 1960s. Documentation of HAO’s coronagraphs, polarimeters and solar seismological instruments will help showcase the division’s work over the years. The Archives holds a large collection of HAO records from 1940, including lab notebooks, drawings and specifications, correspondence, photographs, films and project records. Along with the Thompson papers, the HAO collection (45 cu. ft.) offers a unique look at the early years of NCAR.

For further information about the Archives, see or contact Diane Rabson, Archivist ( or Nicolle Alida, Archives Assistant ( Write: NCAR Archives, PO Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307-3000, phone 303-497-8508, Fax 303-497-8523.

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Phone: 301-209-3165
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