Oral History Transcript — Dr. Nathaniel Gerson
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Interview with Dr. Nathaniel Gerson
Nathaniel Gerson; April 11, 2001
ABSTRACT: Topics include his childhood and education; his joining the National Guard; his young adulthood; his working for the Weather Bureau; his education at the University of Puerto Rico, and later at New York University; later work with the Weather Service; work on the Loran navigation system; his work on the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58. Some of the persons mentioned include: George W. Kendrick, Harry Wexler, Louis Harrison.
Korsmo:Mr. Gerson, Iíd like to start, if I may, with your youth and childhood. I understand you were born in 1915 in the Boston area. Where did your parents come from?
Gerson:My father came from Lithuania and my mother came from Germany.
Korsmo:Your mother from Germany and your father from, where?
Gerson:Lithuania, and they both arrived as children with other families on the boat. Their parents were already in the United States. They both came prior to 1900. My father actually landed, I believe, in Halifax and then made his way to Massachusetts, and it was there that my parents ultimately met.
Korsmo:About how old do you think they were when your parents met each other?
Gerson:Oh, I donít know. But at that time, people married young. I believe that my mother was about seventeen. Can you understand me because my voice is not the best?
Korsmo:I can understand you just fine and I turned up the volume a little bit on the tape so we should be just fine. What did your father do for a living?
Gerson:The entire family on my fatherís side was extremely skilled with their hands. They went into various trades. At that time, none of them had any education. I recall the books that my father had, which he studied assiduously. One was a book on electrical engineering. It describes motors, dynamos, transmissions lines. Another was an ICS correspondence course on automobiles. And several of the books had detailed logs, detailed diagrams of the entire Model T. I wish I had them still; they would be classics. And he learned by himself how to take the Model T apart and subsequently became a full time mechanic of automobiles.
Korsmo:Did you help him in mechanics?
Gerson:My father was good with his hands. I never was.
Korsmo:So thatís why you went into science.
Gerson:I think thatís right. What was our bent? I liked physics from high school onwards.
Korsmo:Did you have any particular teachers in high school that got you interested in physics? Or were you always interested in physics and how things worked?
Gerson:Well, I do believe that I first became interested in physics in high school. Prior to that, I enjoyed very much my courses in algebra, later plane and solid geometry. Then once I had a course in physics at the high school stage, I became hooked. I went strictly to the classesĖ not the classes, but the open lectures that they had at MIT in Boston. I recall at that time, we all dressed up but there were few others in the school who went. I discovered that after a while I was the only one who consistently attended and then I realized I really enjoyed it.
Korsmo:So, while you were in high school, you just dropped in on these lectures?
Gerson:Yes. Well, they had them open. There were announcements at the high school.
Korsmo:Do you remember any of the names of the professors?
Gerson:No, itís too far back.
Korsmo:Too far back, yes. But that must have been really exciting.
Korsmo:Did you decide then at that point in high school? Were you pretty sure you were going to go to college?
Gerson:Well, in those years— I graduated in 1932. And I think it was in 1931 my father went into bankruptcy and that changed the entire life of the family, because then my parents became irritated with each other, they sent me away, and also sorts of arguments flared up. Ultimately, my father left because he was so distraught at not having a job that he had tremendous swellings on both hands. For a man who always worked with his hands, it was almost unbearable. So, he finally organized a trip. Fixed up the family car as a bus, took passengers, they all went off to the West Coast to seek their fortunes. He never came back.
Korsmo:So that was in 1931 that he went out West and never came back?
Gerson:Thatís right. Now, I graduated in 1932. I took the famous, at that time, CEEB, College Entrance Examination Board exams. I was admitted to MIT but the tuition was $500 dollars a year. We didnít have the money. So instead I joined the workforce. And I worked sixty hours a week for six dollars.
Korsmo:And what was your first job then?
Gerson:Making delivery, groceries and items from the store to people.
Korsmo:And this was in Boston too?
Gerson:At that time it was in Dorchester.
Gerson:They used to have at that time coal, the black wood stoves, or coal stoves in the kitchens and people would buy coal, twenty-five pounds in a sack. I would take four or five of them and trudge up four or five flights to deliver them. I was so tired on some days. As a young boy, you could do all sorts of things.
Korsmo:So, there was really no time for study while you were working like this, I take it.
Gerson:No. Thatís right. Well, I couldnít think of a job. I couldnít think of college, rather. To show you how bad things were, I once saw an ad in the paper for somebody to work in a warehouse, an old A & P [Atlantic and Pacific] warehouse. When I arrived there, the entire block was crammed with men, much older than I was, all hoping to get a job. I was just a young boy at the time. When I saw that, I realized how hopeless the thing was. I stayed around to see what would happen. Finally, the manager came out about an hour after the appointed time and announced that the job had been filled, and there was almost a riot. So, I did not think of going to college for many years.
Korsmo:How long did the job of delivering and hauling coal last for you?
Gerson:It was months, and then two things happened. I realized I still would like to study, and at that time MIT had a night school. It was called the Lowell Institute where classes were conducted right at MIT in the evenings for men, or students, and boys who would come. I recall the very first session after I signed up. The instructor announced, ďThere were 500 people in the class,Ē he said. ďWhen you graduate, I expect thereíll be less than 100.Ē I was a bit alarmed but determined to study well. I was one who finished the course.
Korsmo:So, you were one of those one hundred.
Gerson:Now at that time money was tight. It was the first of these problems. I would thumb my way along the highway to get down to MIT. And I could get on what they called the mass transit system. The little tickets that I still had from high school, my high school days. And those tickets allowed me to go for five cents, and you could just imagine if I had to worry about five cents. Money was tight.
Gerson:Also, I gave all my salary to my mother.
Korsmo:So, there really wasnít any money and you even worried about the money it took to transport yourself to the night classes.
Gerson:Now later, I left that job because it was too difficult.
Korsmo:The physical delivery job?
Gerson:Yes. And I joined, or rather somebody asked me to help them at a filling station. I learned all about pumping gas by hand. I met people who said, Iíll pay you tomorrow, and that in turn came out of my salary. [TAPE CUT] At this time Mr. Gerson said he would like coffee. We moved to the Cosmos Club bar for coffee.
Korsmo:Was your mother fairly religious if her father was religious?
Gerson:My fatherís family was religious.
Korsmo:Your fatherís family was.
Gerson:And the men set the tone in those days. All the girls were married. He had seven brothers and one sister.
Korsmo:Your father did.
Gerson:So it was a big family, and the family was close. We knew all of them.
Korsmo:Now, did they all come over at once from Lithuania, or were some of them already here?
Gerson:It was a dribble.
Korsmo:It was a dribble.
Gerson:Yes, and at one time my fatherís father went to South Africa to try to establish a vineyard to make wine but he changed his mind and returned to Lithuania. He later emigrated to the U.S. He had taken his oldest son, Sam, with him to South Africa. Sam had served his time in the Russian Army and had been trained as a mason Ė a trade he ultimately brought to the U.S. Sam left Lithuania (Russia) just before the Russian-Japanese War, probably because he felt he might be recalled to active duty. None of my uncles on my fatherís side ever complained about anything. My mother was a bit different. [My motherís father was an intellectual; he could speak 12 languages, most of them fluently. He once gave me a quiz in algebra and later presented me with a copy of Nathan the Wise in German, which I kept for many, many years, and which ultimately I could read (in German)].
Korsmo:You motherís sisters, then, lived in the Boston area, so you knew them?
Korsmo:What were they like? Were they also interested in imbuing you with education like your mother did?
Gerson:My mother constantly imbued us (my brother and me) with the value of education. I still remember that. My wife and I brought up our children with the same philosophy. Things were unfortunate on my motherís side. Her older sister had a miscarriage after marriage and a hysterectomy was performed. Subsequently, they never had children. My mother was sickly because of errors in the cesarean section performed at my birth. I was brought from the hospital to the home of my motherís sister. Later, I was farmed out from one aunt and uncle to another until my mother was well enough to come home. At first we lived at my grandparentsí farm in Lynnfield, MA and later at my Uncle Samís farm, also in Lynnfield.
Korsmo:So this would be your fatherís parents?
Gerson:My fatherís parents.
Korsmo:Do you remember that?
Gerson:I was too young for that. But later, we lived at my uncleís. See, my grandfather, his children, and his brother, my great uncle, who lived in the Lynnfield area, had a farm. They called him Uncle Barnett and their children had farms and they used horses to plow. One of the first jobs I had in summertime before the filling station and grocery delivery jobs. I was riding the horse all day for ten cents an hour while it pulled the plow. I had to hold onto its ears to avoid being thrown off when the plow hit a rock. The hired man behind guided the plow.
Korsmo:That sounds like a difficult job.
Gerson:I slid off the horse and didnít know whether to crawl or walk to my auntís house. I couldnít move because I ached all over.
Korsmo:How old were you when that happened?
Korsmo:Young child, probably.
Gerson:Yes. It would be pre-high school or maybe earlier.
Korsmo:Now did your brother go into science, also, your younger brother?
Gerson:He was good with his hands. He also went to the Lowell Institute. He went for mechanical engineering. Then he married early, much earlier than I did. And then he had to have a job. The courses at Lowell Institute were equivalent to the technical courses taught in college. Thus, the material was equivalent to that necessary for a B.S. but without any of the electives available in college. My brother became a professional mechanical engineer and worked in that capacity until his retirement about a decade ago. His field, finally, involved the engineering problems aboard satellites.
Korsmo:Except you. And how long did you attend the Lowell Institute?
Gerson:I think it was about a two-year course.
Gerson:Yes. I finished with an EE in electrical engineer. My brother enrolled in physics and mechanical engineering.
Korsmo:Then you got the job at the filling station and you were still attending Lowell at night. After that, where did you go?
Gerson:Well, a curious thing happened. Six dollars a week isnít much to live on. So, I discovered there was a thing called the National Guard. So, I joined. I was underage. I made myself a year older. Nobody checked at that time. Donít tell them, theyíll put me in jail.
Korsmo:And this was in Massachusetts then?
Gerson:Yes, the Mass National Guard, 101st field artillery. Then they took a liking to me. They wanted me to go to the officerís training school and become an officer. I couldnít understand it. One day, one of the men in the Guard said, ďWhat the hell are you doing with this group of cutthroats?Ē Thieves, robbers, everything you could think of. There were many from the East End of Boston, a lot of Italian boys. I liked them all. I had no problems. Like one day, we went into a restaurant because we had a parade in Worcester during Armistice Day, so we stopped. It was a really bitter cold, raw day, as only Massachusetts can have. And I was sitting in the back of the open truck because they had motorized the year I joined, got rid of the horses. As I leaned forward, a man passed around a bottle of booze. They kidded me into taking a gulp. They all laughed when I choked and gagged at my first drink of hard liquor. Iíd never had a drink in my life. Each one had taken a swig, wiped the bottle on his sleeve and passed it to the next man. I coughed and coughed!
Korsmo:They all probably thought that was pretty amusing.
Gerson:The group stopped at a small restaurant to warm up and get some coffee. I didnít pay much attention to what happened. During the trip, we wore our khaki greatcoats to keep warm. He coats had pockets large enough to stuff a horse into. During the next company muster, the first sergeant chewed us out forcefully and in good idiomatic English, and he made those responsible pay up. Apparently, the men had swiped everything in sight while a few of them kept the cashier involved in some conversation!
Gerson:A different world.
Korsmo:How long were you in the National Guard then?
Gerson:I should tell you. The reason I joined the Guard was I got a dollar a night for attending.
Korsmo:A dollar a night.
Gerson:Yes. And after three months I got twelve dollars which I turned over to my mother. Donít forget, we related to survival called food.
Korsmo:That must have seemed like a lot of money at that time.
Gerson:I turned that over to my mother. I was still pumping now, too. By this time I was going on the mass transit because I didnít want to get there late. But on the Guard, I would thumb. They went to the big armory on Commonwealth Avenue near Boston University. Now itís part of that. Itís right near Beale [?].
Korsmo:Right, the big armory. Is that where you went for the Guard training?
Gerson:Yes. Amazing what they taught me. I learned a lot. I could take a whole field piece apart.
Korsmo:So maybe you were pretty good in mechanical stuff after all?
Gerson:No no, not that good. I knew everything about the components, but I learned how to take it apart by rote: practice, practice.
Korsmo:Where did you go from the Guard, because eventually you got to the Weather Bureau, right?
Korsmo:We have time.
Gerson:You wonít believe it, but there in the dining room of the Cosmos Club we must not display papers.
Korsmo:Or we can go upstairs, because thatís an important story, how you got to the Weather Bureau. [TAPE CUT] The waiter expressed displeasure at the tape recorder. We went back upstairs.
Korsmo:I think, Mr. Gerson, we were talking about when you attended the Lowell Institute and you joined the National Guard in Massachusetts. And I was going to ask how did you get from the Lowell Institute and the National Guard to the Weather Bureau?
Korsmo:Was there a particular person who referred you?
Gerson:Wait, youíll be surprised. Iíd gone off to maneuvers with the National Guard one summer. I was really grateful Ďcause they fed me, they gave me all my clothes, and I got a dollar a day that I sent home. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a vacation. And again, I was the youngest man by far.
Korsmo:In the National Guard?
Gerson:Yes. I was a kid. All the others were grown men. And I discovered something that has persisted throughout my life. They loved to go and get drunk on beer and whatnot and I couldnít stand it.
Korsmo:You didnít like beer?
Gerson:Well, Iím not a big drinker. Never have been.
Korsmo:You didnít like to get drunk.
Gerson:Iíd get sick after two or three drinks, which is a good sign for me.
Korsmo:A good thing.
Gerson:When they went out in the evening, I remained behind with some of the older men who did not drink. They told me their troubles at home with their wives, children, etc. I could merely sit and listen. I must have been like a psychologist for them because they got it out of their systems and they felt better.
Korsmo:And thatís what most of their troubles had to do with, was family, marriage, et cetera?
Gerson:Also, I had tremendous indigestion with their food.
Korsmo:The older guys.
Gerson:No, it was the food that they served. I was used to a Kosher home up to that time. And all their stuff, there was a lot of fat, fat, fat, which I could never stand at home anyway, because we liked fish. But in any event, Iíve gone astray.
Gerson:I came home from maneuvers. My mother had arranged for somebody to pick me up. And on the way home, she told me that the President himself had looked upon the family and seen our plight and has given me a job. She had gotten a telegram or a letter. I never saw it. Now, I came back on a Saturday or a Sunday. She said that on Monday I had to be in Washington because the President had given me a job at the government printing office.
Korsmo:And this letter or telegram just came out of nowhere?
Korsmo:And you had no prior warning that you were going to be picked for a job?
Gerson:Nothing. But in any event, my mother always thanked President Roosevelt for having picked me out. And just to show you the salary at that time, I was going to get ninety dollars a month.
Korsmo:Which compared to your dollar a day in the National Guard sounded pretty good.
Gerson:Yes. So, off I packed. In fact I guess I scarcely unpacked. I took the overnight train to this great place called Washington, D. C.
Korsmo:Had you ever been to D. C. before?
Gerson:Never been out of the state, except for the National Guard who took me to Vermont. I shouldnít say that. My family traveled a little bit. In any event, when I arrived at Union Stationóthe same building, incidentallyóI was not sure I would get the job because I knew I had to take some sort of test. Now, in those days, they had lockers at the Station. I put my cardboard suitcase with metal corners into the locker. Now, I found I could walk to the printing office. I went there and it was routine except for one item, you know and all that stuff. Physical exam. I had to lift 125 pounds. There were books in a large mail sack.
Korsmo:And you had to lift that?
Gerson:I lifted it.
Korsmo:So you passed that test.
Gerson:When I lifted the mail sack, all the books slid to the other end; when I lifted the other end, they slid somewhere else. I struggled and struggled to lift the sack of books off the floor. And there were two women there, two colored women as we called them at that time, and finally they said, when they saw how determined I was, ďStop, stop, stop, you passed!Ē They were afraid I would hurt myself.
Korsmo:You were pretty strong then?
Gerson:From all that coal.
Korsmo:Sure, you were in good shape from all that coal carrying.
Gerson:So after that, I spoke to some people who had a newspaper, and I found a room at 314 Eighth Street, Northeast. Today, you better not walk there.
Korsmo:Thatís where you stayed.
Gerson:Great, huge, red colored— near a pit where they were building the U. S. Supreme Court building. Fenced in. They were just building it. And I got a room. I think it was $2.50 a week. And now, instead of sending all my money home I sent sixty percent. I did that until the time I was married, and after that I gave all my money to my wife. I sent sixty percent of my salary home because there was my mother and my brother to take care of. And I lived on forty percent.
Korsmo:And what did you do at the Government Printing Office?
Gerson:Straight labor. Bundled publications for the Department of Agriculture, all the departments. And I learned a lot because everything in the world passed through there. Most of the bindery operators were boys at the time. We would read between times when the boss wasnít around. And I read all these public notices, public heath notices about venereal disease. I was frightened out of my wits. That taught me a lesson I never forgot. I read all those unbelievable Navy things about terrible things could happen to sailors. At that time they had [inaudible] aboard ship. Many of the accidents were described in detail. Then I read the presidential papers. They were published about 30 years after the time involved. So I learned the sweep of history, things were placed in perspective. Today we have immediacy.
Korsmo:Is there anything in particular you remember about presidential papers and historical events that struck you at the time?
Gerson:I donít think I do. Donít forget, this was not a crash course. Reading was done at odd moments.
Korsmo:So you had to do it on the sly when the boss wasnít there.
Korsmo:How long did you work there at the Government Printing Office?
Gerson:I felt I did not wish to spend my life at this job so I took a variety of Civil Service examinations. Once I was offered a job at the FBI as a fingerprint classifier.
Korsmo:To be a fingerprint classifier?
Gerson:Yes. They would teach me. They wanted to know if I would go into law. Well, I guess you know what I told them? I just wasnít interested in law. And I still have that letter with J. Edgar Hoover signatureís on it saying they would prefer to have someone who would study law.
Korsmo:So, you didnít go to the FBI?
Gerson:No, no. Then I had another offer to work in Newport News. I thumbed down there, had a heck of a time getting back.
Korsmo:What was the job in Newport News?
Gerson:You know, I donít quite recall.
Gerson:But donít forget, I was just a laborer at that point. But I didnít take that. Finally, I was offered a job on the Redwing Mail Service to work out of Boston. I first had to pass this exam. They sent me to the post office across the street from the Government Printing Office. They were very nice to me, but they gave me this little box with all these cards to sort. So I practiced sorting them and they wanted to see how fast you could sort. So, I would practice in the evenings. Lo and behold I got the job to work the Railway Mail Service in Boston.
Korsmo:Do you recall what year that was? Late Ď30s?
Gerson:The mail service had the same work rules as the transportation industry. After working for X number of days, there must be Y days of not working to allow for resting. Prior to and following each arrival in Boston, I was given a railroad pass to allow me to travel back and forth to Washington. I found an apartment in Boston and moved my mother to Boston and returned the pass. By this time, my brother had already left Washington and returned to Boston independently.
Gerson:So, finally I was with the Railway Mail Service. They used to give me sacks of mail to knock on the table. I meant the magazines. They must have been fifty or more pounds. Iíd dump them on the table all night long and the old man would then sort them into pouches and theyíd be sent to the [inaudible]. In particular, the run from Boston to New York. By the time we reached New Haven, most of the sacks had been emptied and I was exhausted. The men sent me to rest on a pile of dirty mail sacks. All of us belonged to the Postal Union. The union rented a floor in a building in New York near Penn Station. They converted it into showers and cots. So, you came in and signed in which train you came from, and when you get back you take a showerónice, clean linen on the bed. Good towels. So youíd sleep there almost Ďtil train time. Theyíd wake you up, pack you on your way. You culd walk to it from Penn Station. And we had a special entrance through the bowels of the building that led us to the train. We didnít have to go through the waiting room. And our mail key that allowed us to unlock the sacks of mail. That was the thing that allowed us to get behind those barriers and open the door. So I did that through 1938, the year of the big hurricane. In fact, I was sorting mail at the south station terminal in Boston and I saw the roof being torn off by the wind. We were inside so we didnít realize what was happening. So finally, I got one of the last trains going home. Mass transit train, now. And then, went to Andrewsí Station, and I took the trolley. The trolley was literally packed with people because it was the last one getting out. So many trees were down. It got to our street and there were trees and wire lying around. So I very gingerly went home. I was glad to get in. My mother had candles on the table. Now, the pay then was good with all the overtime. But I decided that I didnít want to be a laborer. And this time I was offered a job in the Weather Bureau in Boston. And I really had fun and relaxed at that job. Most of the employees there had a devil-may-care attitude during their off time, but they performed their duties well.
Korsmo:What did you do for the Bureau?
Gerson:First I made the weather maps.
Korsmo:They trained you?
Gerson:They trained me. They taught me how to make the plate to print the map that was sent out everywhere in the New England area. So I would cast it in the morning, first job. Weíd be open and I would do the best I could. Nobody cared if you were slightly off. The important point was to convey the message of what the weather would be for the day. Timeliness was essential and to provide that meant some slight sacrifice in accuracy. But they taught me how to prepare the maps and pour the molten antimony which, when hardened, allowed the maps to be printed. But they taught me. My boss was so impressed with what I did, they couldnít believe it. I didnít make so much. But they taught me an awful lot including how to plot the weather maps, how to analyze the weather maps. I enjoyed it. To illustrate the personalities of the employees at the Weather Bureau: during the hurricane (which occurred while I was with the Railway Mail Service), some of the Weather Bureau crowd had gone to the shore and had seen the boats and yachts being smashed against the sea wall. They saw one man running around frantically, convinced that his boat was doomed, and they offered him $75 for it and he accepted, signed the papers, and ran home. However, that particular boat was not smashed, and it survived. When calm was restored, the new owners went to the marina. They had previously bought sailorsí caps, and, I was told, looked quite jaunty. As they went to their boat, someone asked, ďDo you know how to sail a boat?Ē None had ever been on a boat before but they all answered, ďsureĒ, and off they went sailing their new toy. Somehow they learned how to sail without hurting themselves or the boat.
Korsmo:Off they went. How big was the boat?
Gerson:I never saw it. They told the story.
Korsmo:They told the story.
Gerson:It was a lot. But that was how it was then.
Korsmo:How many people were in the office?
Korsmo:About five of you.
Gerson:Yes. Some guys were just, shall I say, deadheads. Do as little work for their salaries as possible. Some of them were gung-ho. I tried to learn as much as possible about hydrodynamics and so began to study math again. And one day a world famous meteorologist was giving a talk at MIT. Bjerknes. You know him?
Korsmo:Yes. Iív read about him. He was scheduled to give a talk at MIT?
Gerson:I went down to listen to the lecture and then I wrote it up the best I could. Not too bad, now. I had already had the elements of vector analysis and the elements of physics, and I sent that down.
Korsmo:Where did you send it, to Washington?
Gerson:Dr. Sarle. S-A-L-R-E, I think. He was their chief scientist. [Mr. Gerson is referring to Charles F. Sarle, Scientific Services, U.S. Weather Bureau.]
Korsmo:For the Weather Bureau.
Gerson:Yeah. You might remember his name. I may have it wrong. They were all rather nice to me.
Korsmo:And did they respond?
Gerson:He remembered me when I spoke to him several years later. Then I was transferred to New Haven. So I got an apartment, moved everything. I got an apartment and brought my mother down. It was right behind the gym of Yale that was being built. I guess itís a rundown neighborhood today.
Korsmo:Do you know what year that was that you were transferred to New Haven?
Gerson:Must be Ď39. So one day I went to Washington and spoke to various officials at the Weather Bureau. I told them I wanted an assignment where I could work all night and go to the university in the daytime. In the course of time, I received a letter transferring me to the U.S. Weather Bureau in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Korsmo:Before you received your transfer to Puerto Rico, were you doing the same types of activities in New Haven, that is, analyzing and plotting weather maps?
Gerson:Doing some of that as well as broadcasting on the broadcast Ďcause they always had a broadcast to the public. One of my friends says to me one day, ďYou know, the broadcast was lousy and I fell asleep.Ē It was I who had done the broadcast. It taught me a lesson: I must improve my enunciation. One day, in New Haven, there was an ice storm. When I entered the office, I noticed that the anemometer dial was not working. The instrument itself was on the roof of a different building. So I said ďDang it!Ē and finished what I had to do for the morning and got the key and went to that building and went up. The roof was solid ice and so were the rungs of the ladder to the tower. I broke the ice on each rung and slowly proceeded up. At the top, I banged the ice off the anemometer until it turned freely, then returned to the office.
Korsmo:All in one piece?
Gerson:All in one piece. When youíre young, you do these things.
Korsmo:When did you get the letter telling you you had the job in Puerto Rico?
Gerson:It was after that. Hold on. It must have been February or March because I went to Puerto Rico in April of 1941.
Korsmo:Were you excited about going to Puerto Rico?
Gerson:I was. My mother was a bit unhappy. I said, Iíll see if youíd like to be there or not because you know itís difficult for an older person to adjust. So, I wanted to wait. Ultimately she decided not to come, but she came to New York on the boat. The biggest boat Iíd ever been on. I think it was the Columbo or something. And the government had an arrangement. They would buy a room on a ship. And the ship captain would sell as many rooms as he could for the price he could get. The last one left over would go to some poor government employee. I had a first class cabin. I loved it!
Gerson:And we ran into a hurricane. And I noticed every chair had a hook behind it so it wouldnít slide across the room and slam into somebody. They were all, everything was secure so you couldnít get hit by a piece of furniture. I was young in those days so I could go to the dining hall and it was empty except for me. Every body else was seasick.
Korsmo:You didnít get seasick?
Gerson:I couldnít understand also how people could have nineteen course meals. Now, still you track by the waistline whatís in a persons diet. The people would go and eat and I could never do that. I still canít. And the food was, as you might guess, fabulous. In any event, we ran into this hurricane and since I was with the Weather Bureau, Iíd go poking along the ship to the deck. Iím the Weather Bureau, let me see your weather chart. The ship could take measurements; I compared these with the actual forecasts and could then judge how accurate they were. We could take a reading so I could see what they doing, what we were coming to. I am convinced that the weather reports then were materially worse or better than the ones we get today, but donít say that out loud.
Korsmo:How long did the hurricane last?
Gerson:I think it was only two or three days. It was a five-day trip. You know, a cruise ship does things leisurely. So, we landed at this steamy place called San Juan. One of the guys, the man I was replacing, was at the docks awaiting me They thought I was a little stupid because I was in a jacket in this heat. But I didnít learn to take it off until I got to the office. Now, I had a room right in the weather bureau building. And I think they charged me, like, twelve dollars a month, one hundred and forty-four dollars a year, taken out of my salary. So that made all the difference in the world because now I could get up in a moment, in two minutes, take my shower, be up to do the work.
Korsmo:And was the nature of the work similar to what you had done before?
Gerson:With a slight variance. I was going to release Weather Bureau weather balloons, radiosondes, all night long. We would take turns to prepare it because you had to blow them up, make sure the wind is right, get the radiosonde working, so you had to test it. Then launch at a certain time, more or less standardized throughout the world. Had to inflate them. Hope it wouldnít catch those telephone wires. That was dependent upon the wind. And up it went. The balloon radioed the temperature, pressure and water vapor conditions and the measurements were received on a recorder. I transcribed and analyzed them and sent a gist of the important features to Washington via All-America Cable, the local telegraph company. I had to learn Spanish to tell the numbers in Spanish over the telephone because I had to meet the International Weather Code. He would say, ďdagame en Ingles,Ē (tell me in English) but I insisted on a little Spanish. I always told him in Spanish, and he understood fine. I can still count in Spanish.
Korsmo:Now, how did you actually record this data? I mean, were you writing down these numbers?
Gerson:The data came from the radiosonde suspended below the weather balloon. The radiosonde emitted radio signals. Came through the antenna, through the equipment, and they would start recording, and I had to analyze the chart according to a certain methodology. It was all prescribed.
Korsmo:So, they trained you in that?
Gerson:They trained. You learn in a hurry, in less than a week. In a way it was routine, but standardized so that at any weather station was always the same practice. Now something happened there. I was called. There was registration at the university. So, I went down. I was the only one who was dressed up. They knew better. And one of the few people didnít know how to speak Spanish. I recall when I left, tears came into my eyes that I was finally enrolled in the hard part and my mother would be proud of me. I still remember that.
Korsmo:So, you were a regular student now?
Korsmo:And what courses did you take there?
Gerson:You had to take the standard boilerplate. I think English, sociology, social sciences. American History I didnít need. Most of the math I didnít need because I had taken a lot of correspondence courses while I was in New Haven. The University of Chicago had correspondence courses in certain areas.
Korsmo:The University of Chicago?
Gerson:Yes. And one of the famous Ph.D.s in math at Yale, Ed Trachtenburg, I got to know him. And he would help me when I had difficulties. Now math was still one of my deficiencies, so I didnít do them all. Too late now. If not for the difficulties, Iíd be teaching advanced now. I stopped too early.
Korsmo:How about physics? Did you take a lot of physics in Puerto Rico?
Gerson:I had all my physics courses. Loved them. I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a major in physics and chemistryótwo majors. They wanted me to stay on the island and teach, and they told me if I would, theyíd guarantee to send me to the University of Chicago to get a Ph.D. after a year or two. Then all I had to do was come back and teach for three years.
Korsmo:Were you tempted by that?
Gerson:Somewhat, but I was also getting homesick. I missed the change of season. The weather was delightful. The classmates were wonderful to me. They would kid the pants off me. I enjoyed it.
Korsmo:I read something about tephigrams, that you did something with them in Puerto Rico.
Korsmo:Thatís not in Puerto Rico?
Gerson:No. That was afterwards. The article was real, but Iím sorry I didnít keep a copy of that.
Korsmo:I can make you copies.
Gerson:When I was in there, the senior professors in the physics department took a liking to me.
Korsmo:In Puerto Rico?
Gerson:Yes. One was Professor Kendrick.
Gerson:They both had an influence on my life. The other one was Dr. Bueso, B-U-E-S-O.
Gerson:And there is a Bueso building at the university at Rio Piedras.
Korsmo:So, Kendrick and Bueso were major influences on you?
Gerson:Tremendously so. They encouraged me. They went out of their way to help me. Kendrick would drive me home at the end of the class day. Iíd fall asleep in his car. It was frustrating. I had four hours of sleep a night for three years.
Korsmo:Because you were working too.
Gerson:I slept two hours in the morning. Six to eight. And went to the university, eight to 4:30. Came home. Ate. Studied. Slept for two hours. At eight oíclock I woke up and came to work.
Korsmo:And this was during World War II, right?
Korsmo:So, you werenít in danger of being drafted?
Gerson:They deferred me for that. The Weather Bureau had me deferred to work there.
Korsmo:They must have valued you a great deal to have you deferred.
Gerson:Iíd hate to say that. I donít think anybody values me. Some nights it was difficult to sleep because the submarine was off the coast and they were putting depth charges all along where we were. So I had trouble sleeping.
Korsmo:How many people were in the Weather Bureau office there in Puerto Rico? How many did you work with?
Gerson:Most of them worked during the day. I was there at night. There was the chief. Maybe five. I think his name was Gray. The assistant chief was Kronberg, and some others. They were really a very nice crew.
Korsmo:You were in Puerto Rico, what, about three years or so?
Gerson:Three years. Now, one day Kendrick got me involved with something. He used to call me Gerson. I guess for years, people used to call me Gerson.
Korsmo:As opposed to Nate?
Gerson:Yes. He said, ďLook, thereís this Army Radar Battalion. Why donít we put antennas below your balloons and see if we can track them by radar? I knew the wavelength of the radar and cut half-wave dipoles using No. 8 wire, these were then formed into equilateral triangles, which I suspended below the balloons. They thus became a reflector for the radio-waves emitted by the radar. The radar thus provided the azimuthal and vertical angles and the range of the echo. From this, it was possible to determine the height and location of the balloon. At each radar reading, a new value was obtained, so that I could then determine the wind velocity at that altitude. The balloon itself was transparent to radio waves and thus was not visible. Thus, in addition to my regular work, I engaged in a project to determine if radio means could be used to track weather balloons and thus provide wind velocities and height with greater accuracy than provided by the regular method. The work was cumbersome and time consuming because I had to use trigonometric tables and calculate all results with a slide rule and a mechanical calculator. I didnít realize how important all this was but the Army itself would take the results and send them to Washington. One day, a Colonel came to me wanting the results of the radar wind measurements. I had not yet quite finished calculating them because I had been tired. He sat patiently while I finished the calculations, took them from my hand, and said, ďThey will be in Washington this afternoon.Ē Some of the calculations showed ďwild changesĒ in the upper air wind velocity; these could be attributed to errors made by the radar operators. But on the whole, the radar results tracked those obtained by the conventional methods, and in addition, once refined, were more accurate. Ultimately the radio method replaced the conventional method for obtaining upper air wind velocities.
Korsmo:And this is the Army Radar Battalion.
Gerson:Yes. Which they would bring to me. Everything was done by a slide rule over the hand calculator. Donít forget, I still had my four hours ahead to steal from to do this. So I would keep the measurements and I would do everything with sines and co-sines to log the balloon. Took a long time. So, Iíd work it out and plot where the radar said the balloon was, plot where I had said it sounded like where the real pressure of the balloon was. And lo and behold, some wide sweeps to radar. There was no doubt it tracked it, once you refined it a bit better because my method was slow and ponderous by hand. And I came back to the States, they decided to drop that Ďtil they refined it.
Korsmo:The Weather Bureau?
Gerson:While I was in Puerto Rico, I knew little about classified material. But apparently the Army classified my reports. They would send an army colonel down to me. I was still finishing writing it and doing the computation. I was a bit irritated that I was so slow, but I wanted to be correct. He says something about sending it down by carrier if they were classified. I didnít understand what the word meant. That was my first entrance into classification. I didnít know it at the time.
Korsmo:Did you have any clue as to why they would want to classify this data?
Gerson:I learned that during the war, all weather data was classified.
Korsmo:All weather data.
Korsmo:Because thatís so crucial.
Gerson:You know, the Germans had set up a clandestine weather station on the east coast of Greenland which the U. S. Coast Guard finally captured because the weather moves from North America over the North Atlantic and into Europe. The ships are in the ocean and knowledge about the weather they will encounter is important. So the first thing you do during wartime is classified weather data. I learned that by hindsight. When youíre young, classified/unclassified aspects never come into your head.
Korsmo:Right. You donít think about it.
Gerson:You just do it, in any event.
Korsmo:Thatís very interesting. Now you must have been very interested in the use of radar and the new methods and comparing the use of the dipoles versus the old fashioned. Did that get you much more interested?
Gerson:I didnít sleep for a whole week, we couldnít miss our regular courses. In fact, I was so pent up, I couldnít sleep. It took a week for me to calm down and sleep normally again. You get so wound up with adrenaline I couldnít sleep. But you live through the experience.
Korsmo:Right. So after Puerto Rico— This is tape number two with Nate Gerson in Washington, D. C., April 11, 2001. Weíre talking about the Weather Bureau and his experiences in Puerto Rico, 1941 to 1944. So from Puerto Rico, then what happened?
Gerson:Well, I graduated in 1943 and so I was prepared to leave to come back to the States. Kendrick arranged for me to work in Washington at the Technical Investigation Section.
Korsmo:What did they do, the Technical Investigation Section of the U. S. Weather Bureau? What exactly did they do?
Gerson:They did all the work behind the scenes to make weather forecasting more accurate. And it provided aid to the radio meteorologists that would assist them in preparing their forecasts. The meteorologists would provide the best weather forecasts possible to the public. However, absolute accuracy is impossible: we have the same problems today.
Gerson:Now, Dr. Sarle knew me, knew of me because of the news I sent down about the Bjerknes lectures way back when I was in Boston. So they had me work for a gentleman called Louis Harrison. Louis Harrison.
Korsmo:Was he head of the Technical Investigation Section?
Gerson:He was the head of it, yes.
Gerson:I worked with him as his assistant.
Korsmo:What was he like to work for?
Gerson:He was a stickler for accuracy. If you made an error, he never let you forget it. You learn a lot from a boss like that. You may not like it, but you learn a lot.
Korsmo:What kind of methodologies were you using then when you worked for Harrison?
Gerson:Let me give you an example. I had been there about a week, didnít quite know what the job was. Suddenly he was sick. So, all these things he would do came to me. If you think I knew what to do, forget it. Now, I did the best I could. In those days, the altitude of an aircraft above ground was determined by an altimeter which was essentially an aneroid barometer calibrated in feet above ground. It was necessary to adjust the altimeter for the height of the landing place above sea level. Tables were prepared by our office for the airports around the country; the different heights of the airports above sea level required slightly different reference points for the altimeter. For example, Denver is about 5000 feet above sea level. Therefore, its barometric pressure was lower than, for example, a seacoast city like Boston. The difference in height required that an aircraft landing in Denver had a different reference point than one landing in Boston. Further, somehow these reference points changed with the local weather and barometric pressure. All the meteorological maps are based upon sea level pressures, thus requiring that the local pressure must be adjusted to allow for its height above ground. The adjustments are made by using diabatic equations and the perfect gas laws of thermodynamics. While Harrison was ill, a panic call arose from the Denver airport, asking that a new reference factor for the aircraft altimeters be provided. I remembered the thermodynamics I had learned in physics and I calculated new reference points for the altimeters based upon the observed values for Denver. I learned on the job by acting before being taught.
Korsmo:So you just applied what you knew and figured it out.
Gerson:Yes. I used to spend a lot of time in the evenings thinking about things. In fact, I always used to spend time in the evening.
Korsmo:And you still werenít married, right? You were a single guy. So you had a lot of time to work.
Gerson:Yes. Thatís right. Yes. And I wasnít a drinking man. Many people spend time drinking. Sorry, Iím not built that way.
Korsmo:Thatís fascinating. Was your method of computation for that pressure then adopted in Denver?
Gerson:That was the one that was used anyway.
Korsmo:You didnít know it.
Korsmo:You just did it on your own.
Korsmo:Thatís great. So, what other stuff did you do when you worked for Harrison?
Gerson:Incredible stuff. There were things called adiabatic diagrams.
Korsmo:What are those?
Gerson:Now, let me back up a bit. In the summertime you look out and you say, ďOh, look at those beautiful white clouds.Ē Cotton, thatís the type I call them. Have you ever noticed when youíre in an airplane, the bottom of the clouds is as flat as this table? Why is that? Because at a certain level in the air the temperature is decreased below the condensation point, the dew point. So the water, the moisture, condenses into droplets. Thatís why itís essentially flat. The entire air mass has the same properties. At that time, the Weather Bureau used a series of adiabatic charts on which the variations of temperature and pressure were plotted. The temperature and pressure points were those provided by the radiosondes released twice daily at certain stations over the globe [the same type of observations that I had made in Puerto Rico]. The charts also allowed plotting of the dew point with altitude. The charts in use had been prepared before my time. When the charts for each of the observation cities were plotted, they revealed which air mass existed over a wide segment of the continent. The plots for different air masses were quite distinct, so it became possible to identify which came from polar regions (cold and dry) and which came from tropical regions (warm and moist). The boundaries of each air mass were drawn in blue or red; blue for a cold air mass and red for a tropical air mass. When this information was drawn upon a geographical map, it became possible to determine the extent and movement of each air mass. Weather (precipitation, turbulence, etc.) Arose at the boundary between two air masses. Thus, the thermodynamic charts were widely used to determine the thermodynamic properties of an air mass, for example: if a given air mass extended over a wide region of the continent, these charts revealed its identify and changes as it moved over the land. They were invaluable for the forecaster because he could determine from the properties of the air mass the type of weather to be expected. The boundaries between different air masses were called weather fronts, and normally, weather conditions changed during passage of the front over any particular area. Mr. Harrison asked me to revise the charts and I prepared revisions to alter them, in an attempt to make it easier for forecasters in the field. The revisions changed the appearance of the thermodynamic charts and made them easier to use for the meteorologists. Once I had made the calculations, I supervised the preparation of the charts by the draftsmen.
Korsmo:So, thatís what these adiabatic diagrams showed?
Gerson:It showed the structural properties in the air. The moisture content, temperature, and the pressure. Those had to be computed from the data that was sent in by the observers who manned the radiosondes. They were sending in the data. We were plotters. Then you know how this air mass is the same over Boston as over Chicago. Itís along the border between two air masses that your weather occurs.
Korsmo:So you took what was already existing, this method of plotting, and you changed it and revised it slightly?
Gerson:Once the data was plotted, they became obsolete because new weather patterns moved in. I changed the format of the basic thermodynamic charts so that the meteorologist could now easily plot the radiosonde data. After I had approved them, the new adiabatic charts were distributed by the thousands to all Weather Bureau, Air Force, Army, and Navy stations. On one occasion, I designed a new thermodynamic diagram for use in meteorology, the tephigram (essentially a plot of empathy versus temperature). Previous tephigrams seemed difficult for the meteorologists to use; they did not understand the data once plotted upon them. So I designed a new type of tephigram. The coordinate axes were at 60 degrees to each other (normal graphs have axes at 90 degrees to each other). The value of the new tephigram lay in the fact that the radiosonde temperature pressure when plotted seemed more like that on the conventional adiabatic diagrams. At this time, I should note that in addition to providing information on the type of air mass present over a location, the usual adiabatic diagram also provided some indication of the energy content. The tephigram allowed the energy content of the air mass to be more readily determined. For example, by guessing at a possible ground temperature at a certain location, it became possible to better determine whether a thunderstorm might develop. Considerable computation time was spent in constructing the charts and in overseeing their drafting. However, there was a sense of satisfaction in seeing the final printed product and knowing they were being printed by the thousands for distribution to all U.S. sites.
Korsmo:So this was the stuff you were doing then at the Technical Division in Washington.
Gerson:It was behind the scenes. We didnít go and give a broadcast. Other people did that. We assisted the forecasters that come to the right conclusion.
Korsmo:When you were in Washington, did you have contact with other scientists who were working on similar things that you were working on, say at the universities or in the military? Or were you pretty much focused on just the people in the Weather Bureau.
Gerson:There were several incidents when other scientists exterior to the Weather Bureau became acquainted with what I was doing. First, my work mainly revolved around thermodynamics and hydrodynamics. I was constantly exposed to two items which had never been clarified in the literature: a) the adiabatic constant, and b) the pseudo adiabatic lapse rate (change with decrease of pressure). Each adiabatic diagram had a plot showing the regular adiabatic and the pseudo adiabatic lapse rates. Each showed the temperature decreased in a volume of dry or moist air, respectively, as the volume rose to higher and higher altitudes and lower and lower pressures. For humid air, the moisture would ultimately condense forming clouds and water droplets and in the process the heat of condensation will warm the air volume. Thus, when humid air rose in the atmosphere, its temperature would not decrease in the same fashion as that of dry air. On the older diagrams, the temperature of a pseudo adiabatic line had never been determined. I was annoyed by this, because it seemed open-ended. Finally, I began to come to the office at about 7 PM and leave about midnight. I attempted to compute the final temperature for each pseudo adiabatic line, by using Newtonís method of approximations. The equation involved was difficult to handle mathematically. However, I plugged away at it night after night, using a mechanical calculator. Slowly, I obtained the values for each pseudoadiabat at the pressure printed at the top of the diagram. As explanation, each pseudoadiabat, like each adiabatic line, started from the surface at a given temperature and indicated the temperature decrease for a parcel of air at that temperature as it rose in the atmosphere. When I showed the results to my boss, he was a bit astonished. One day, Harry Wexler, whom Mr. Harrison knew well, came in to the office, and Harrison showed him my results. Wexler was quite impressed and said to the two of us: I once had a Masters student working at that problem; he never completed it. Wexler, before the war, had been a professor of meteorology at the University of Chicago. The adiabatic constant also annoyed me. There are certain fundamental constants in physics. (C=velocity of light; pi=ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle, h=Planckís constant, R=perfect gas constant, etc.). To a good extent, the adiabatic constant is a function of these constants. In the Weather Bureau we used the value of 0.288 for the adiabatic constant. I knew this value was incorrect but it was widely used by everyone for dry air. I sought to find a value consistent with the accepted physical constants mentioned above. However, no matter how much I pursued the literature, I could not find sufficient closure among these constants to provide a more accurate value for the adiabatic constant. I did finally conclude, however, that a value of 0.286 would be better than the present 0.288. However, about this time I became involved with other projects that Harrison had in store for me, and had dropped the effort.
Korsmo:So you met Wexler then.
Gerson:At that time, yes.
Korsmo:Did he encourage you?
Gerson:No, we just discussed things. He and Louis Harrison sometimes would be strong disagreements because Louis Harrison was very rigid.
Korsmo:Do things this way, by the book.
Gerson:Thatís right. Yes. I learned a lot from him. But Iíll never be that rigid. I donít know how to be. Itís in your personality.
Korsmo:And Wexler wasnít like that?
Gerson:No. He took a liking to me then and there, Wexler did. But I met him years later different capacity. In any event, one day my old professor from UPR, Dr. George W. Kendrick came into the office. He said, ďHi, Gerson.Ē Then he spoke to Louis Harrison. So I listened. Finally, I discovered they were talking about me. I took Volume 3 of Bluntís text on meteorology, a large book, and put it on my desk to make it seem that I was studying the text. However, my ears, like those of a horse, were attuned to their discussion. Apparently Kendrick wanted me to work for him.
Korsmo:Was Kendrick at this point still back in Puerto Rico?
Korsmo:He had transferred to Washington?
Gerson:Hold on. He was still a professor, but as a sabbatical, he had this job at the U. S. Army-Air Force. He was a consultant.
Korsmo:I see. So he wanted you to work for him.
Gerson:Yes. So I listened with some amazement. Itís amazing to think that way. First time I knew that Mr. Harrison thought anything of me. They debated for several hours over me and I was reminded of the ďRime of the Ancient Mariner,Ē where life and death cast dice for the sailor, and finally Life won. In any event, they came to no agreement. Harrison finally threw up his hands and said, I cannot answer, you will have to speak to the Chief. Kendrick, however, knew the Chief of the Weather Bureau, Francis Reichelderfer. He picked up the telephone, called him, and was invited to come down immediately. He called on me to follow him. Harrison said nothing, so I went. In the Chiefís office, I sank into one of the big leather overstuffed chairs, hoping no one would see me. The two discussed general pleasantries and past associations. Kendrick then told the Chief how much he needed me and pointed out the importance of his project. The Chief listened intently, thought it worthwhile, and finally yelled at me ďGerson, what do you want to do?Ē I didnít know what the job was; I had not discussed it with my wife, and I just didnít know what to say. So I grunted. They both assumed that I had said yes. Arrangements were made for me to terminate my association with the Weather Bureau on a Friday and for Ft. Monmouth to pick me up the following Monday morning. Kendrick was very gracious. He took my wife and myself to the old club for dinner. She got to know him. He was very dynamic individual, full of ideas. He thought faster than most people can speak. But in any event, or, I didnít tell you how I got married.
Korsmo:Thatís an important event. We should probably cover that.
Gerson:I was going to GW, George Washington University, at night. Taking courses in physics. One night in the library, I met a young girl, you know, Navy uniform. We began to talk. Then we started dating. And after several months, I said to her one night, I said, you know, Iíd like to have kids that look like you.
Korsmo:What a wonderful line.
Gerson:Now, I meant it and she took it as a proposal for marriage. In todayís age, thatís a proposition. Times have changed. Now, she didnít answer me for some time. And all I know about her throughout this period was that her name was Saureen. I always thought it was spelled S-A-U-R-E-E-N. I hoped it was not spelled S-O-W-R-E-E-N, because I used to call her Saureen. After we were married, I found out it was S-A-R-E-E-N.
Korsmo:And where was she from?
Gerson:Kansas City. Now wait. She did not answer me for some months. All I knew about her was her name. All she knew about me was my name Gerson. She called me Gers, G-E-R-S. One day, she was looking at a menu, she said, ďYou know, if I make my initials are S-R-E, Sareen Ruth Eve, and if I was married to you my initials would be S-R-E-G, and that spells Gers backwards. So she recognized two things. She had accepted me and she had placed me in an elementary course in feminine logic.
Korsmo:Good for her.
Gerson:Now, with some regret, I should also say that I never passed that course to this day.
Korsmo:Youíre still enrolled in that course?
Gerson:We just had our 55th wedding anniversary.
Gerson:I sent a letter to the general, a request for assistance. I said, ďGeneral Hayden, Iíve been married 55 years. My wife insists that she deserves the medals.Ē I said, ďBoth you and I know is itís really I who deserves it. Would you please help?Ē He sent back and said, ďYou both deserve it.Ē
Gerson:I couldíve sent him another note saying you were chicken. But then I realized he was married, too.
Korsmo:What year did your wife finally consent? When did your wife finally agree to marry you?
Gerson:We were married in 1945. We met in February, we were married in August.
Korsmo:So she was in the Navy then?
Korsmo:And then you both moved to New Jersey?
Gerson:Thatís a long story.
Gerson:You wonít believe what happened. I donít understand it myself sometimes. Every important thing thatís ever happened to me has never been anticipated. Never. My marriage, working for Kendrick, and so on. I donít know how these things happen. But I never planned that this would happen. In any event, Sareen was now pregnant. I left Union Station one morning on the train to Newark, New Jersey to report. And she was bawling on the platform. You know how young lovers are. So, I was waving with my hand and finally I went in. I said, ďIíll be back Friday night.Ē On Thursday, late afternoon, Dr. Kendrick came to me and said, ďGive me two envelopes.Ē I said, ďLetís meet at the railroad station in Newark tonight. Be there at ten oíclock or whatever.Ē So I went to New York, had lunch in one of those cafeterias, and wandered into Penn Station. I opened up one envelope, a one-way ticket to Ottawa. Then I looked in the other envelope: travel orders 120 days.
Korsmo:So he was going to send you to Ottawa?
Gerson:With him, in the same Pullman. We left in the same Pullman car on the train to Ottawa. I had an upper berth and would grab at the struts whenever the train rounded a curve. In any event, I called Sareen from Ottawa the next day. Told her what was happening, that I wouldnít be back in the morning. Ultimately, she moved to her parents in Kansas City. The travel orders given me were the most extensive I had ever seen. They allowed travel via bus, train, air, or ship, and travel anywhere in Canada and the U.S. as needed. They contained the famous phrase CIPIP, which means changes in itinerary as needed. Now I could go to anyplace in Canada, the United States, or Europe that I wanted to. It had a famous phrase in it called C.I.P.I.P, changes in itinerary authorized. I could do anything except commandeer a private plan. Thatís how extensive the orders were. But Iím too dumb to take advantage of those things.
Korsmo:What was your job in Canada then?
Gerson:The job involved testing and evaluating an experimental low frequency loran radio navigational system. The system had been developed earlier by the British, the Germans, and the U.S. for operation over relatively short distances to allow a navigator to determine his location by receiving radio signals from two known transmitters. The Germans used their system for the bombing of Coventry. Two transmitters provided him with a hyperbolic line of position; with three transmitters the intersection of the two hyperbolic lines provided his position. The earlier Loran systems used high frequency radio waves (?2Mhz), thus limiting their useful range to within ?300km of the transmitters, and then over sea. The present system operated at a low frequency and was being tested in Canada under the name MuskOx. It was later extended to MuskCalf and then to Beetles. The present operation was designed as a test of concept. Transmitters were located at Gimbly, No. Battleford, and Dawson Creek. The system was tested. Location accuracies were checked aboard B-29s which flew from Edmonton to the North Pole and to Bermuda. Additionally, observations were made at about 8 ground sites to beyond the Arctic Circle in eastern and western Canada.
Korsmo:Okay. So that was Kendrickís project?
Gerson:That was Kendrickís game. Suddenly, I was into it. I recall the first meeting— Wait. What time is it? I donít want you to get hungry. Youíll bite me.
Korsmo:Itís about one oíclock. Shall we go down here?
Gerson:Shall we have lunch?
Korsmo:Okay. Letís take a break and have lunch.
Korsmo:I think weíre ready to roll.
Gerson:Did my voice come back?
Gerson:You heard it?
Korsmo:Yeah. Your voice is fine.
Gerson:I always worry that nobody can understand me.
Korsmo:I think youíre pretty easy to understand as long as weíre close and youíre fairly close to the mike. So when you were in Fort Monmouth, you were working on expanding the range of the LORAN navigation system.
Gerson:Yes. Now the way they expanded it was to change frequencies.
Korsmo:And this was fairly low frequency, wasnít it?
Gerson:The LORAN system then in use was called Standard LORAN about 2 megahertz, primarily designed for use over the sea. That is because over land the attenuation was so large it had a very, very limited range. The new system used the identical procedure but the radio frequency was dropped to 180 kilohertz. The initial use of the system was in Project Musk Ox.
Korsmo:Iíve heard of this. Could you tell me more about it?
Gerson:Yes, wait. Now first, the newer system was set up in southwestern Canada with the transmitters at Gimbry, North Battleford, and Dawson Creek, and the locations of the old Commonwealth aerodromes. These aerodromes had been used to train men from Commonwealth countries. When they were trained as pilots, they were sent to Churchill Manitoba where they ferried U.S. fighter planes to Great Britain via Greenland, Iceland, etc. Now each aerodrome had the identical floor plan and the BOQ. And some days, I would walk into the washroom but could not tell which aerodrome I was in because I kept moving so fast, you see. Take a trip to someplace else, everythingís the same. Where are you now? You find out in the mess hall. In fact, on some occasions, the officers thought that I was British because of my Boston accent, it was so thick at the time. I was one of two men who had to visit the transmitter sites and all the refueling sites.
Korsmo:What time of year was this that you were visiting them?
Gerson:Fall through winter. I saw a lot of snow. The receiving sites were sprinkled throughout Canada and Alaska. In addition, we had three B-29ís at Edmonton and they flew from Edmonton, actually, to the North Pole and to Bermuda, testing the accuracy of the system. The test was so successful that the entire concept was ultimately adopted as LORAN-C. And it was transferred to a number of chains over the northern and southern hemispheres. I donít know if you know where the chains are? The B-29s flew from the airport at Nameo, Alberta, which had a very long runway. One night we watched the plane take off. It was fully loaded with fuel and traveled almost to the end of the runway before it lifted off. It cleared the fence about a foot.
Korsmo:Were they north-south chains? Or east-west?
Gerson:Let me tell you. One was the North Atlantic. There was the East Coast chain, Norwegian chain, Japanese chain. Did I say Norwegian?
Gerson:I think there was one in the Mediterranean also. I think there was one in the Australian area. Now those chains were supposed to be disbanded with the advent of GPS. You know what Global Positioning System is?
Gerson:The LORAN chains are still in existence.
Gerson:Yes. LORAN C has not been dismantled for two reasons: a) small boat owners have invested in LORAN C equipment and do not want to purchase GPS, and b) the LORAN C signals now contain coding information which allows those using GPS to locate themselves more accurately.
Korsmo:So this is what you did for a year? A couple of years when you were at Fort Monmouth?
Gerson:When I returned from the Canadian North, I worked at Fort Monmouth analyzing radio noise data which we also had obtained at each of the monitoring sites. These were the first data ever published about the background radio noise levels in the subarctic.
Korsmo:Was this classified at the time?
Gerson:No. It was open literature. Declassified by publication. LORAN C was kept unclassified. Loran C remained and still is unclassified. My paper was published in the IEEE after approval by the U.S. Army Air Force.
Korsmo:And you worked with Kendrick on this?
Gerson:Yes until he passed away in 1946. After he passed away, Victor Carson took his place, and after Carson, Stuart L. Seaton. On an occasion, Seaton sent me to Dawson Creek to check on the signal intensity of our transmitter there. They sent me once up on a special trip to Dawson Creek to check on the signal intensity up on the transmitter. So I was given a jeep and a man and certain equipment. Boy, you learn a lot by going out. You never get it from textbooks. Now one place we went into the boonies and the muck was so thick and deep that the jeep sank to its axles. And we were miles away from anywhere. No telephone. Nobody came down. Nothing. The only thing I saw was all these dead trees. There had been a forest fire. And the more I thought about it, the hungrier we got. I finally said, we have to get this stupid vehicle out. So, I made a corduroy road. Do you know what I mean by a corduroy road?
Gerson:We hauled the dead trees over to make a road in front and back. We used a tree as a long lever arm and slowly lifted the rear end of the jeep up out of the muck... Then we put logs underneath. Then we backed up. We had been there all day making measurements before we got stuck. When we finally reached the aerodrome, the mess has was closed but we scrounged food and felt better. That was a lot of work.
Korsmo:Yes, thatís a lot of work.
Gerson:During this period, when I visited all the monitoring sites to check on the system accuracy, Ensign Doen was with me; we traveled together most of the time. During that period, we were stationed at Portage la Prairie, about 16 miles west of Winnipeg. He had brought his wife with him after leaving the Navy and lived in a small apartment in this prairie town deep in the wheat country. There was also a G.S. Hefley who at that time worked for the National Bureau of Standards. Also, a Coast Guard Commander who was assigned with us to check on the overall performance of the Loran program. He was one of those who conducted his measurements about the B-29s.
Korsmo:So, this was hard work but you enjoyed it.
Gerson:Yes. I discovered I liked the North. It gets into your blood. Iím sorry I canít go there now. I keep on writing about retiring to Whitehorse. I donít know if youíve ever been there.
Gerson:Down the Al-Can.
Korsmo:A great place.
Gerson:Have you ever been there? We like it. I finally got my wife to go there about forty years after Iíd been there. We took the bus to Fairbanks. When I first went there it was just a primitive place.
Korsmo:So, you did this while you were at Fort Monmouth. And you did this for about two years, this kind of work for about two years?
Korsmo:And then what did you do? Then what happened?
Gerson:While I wan analyzing the radio noise data, I was still involved in some aspects of testing the accuracy of Loran. Since I had been so far north, I was struck by the fact that the troposphere itself could influence the propagation of radio waves and thus introduce errors into the navigational accuracies provided by LORAN. This thought stimulated me to examining Loran navigational errors during winter, when the temperatures at some of our monitoring sites was so low. I presented my results at several internal meetings at Fort Monmouth and later, after approval, published them in one of the journals. A Captain Trakowski had been at my briefings. Several months later, as I was walking down the corridor, he came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned, he told me he wanted me to take charge of the Electromagnetic Propagation Laboratory which was then headed by Dr. Philip Newman. When I asked him why, he said ďYou are just the man for the job.Ē I never quite knew how he came to that conclusion. The propagation laboratory had two objectives; it was concerned with radio wave propagation for the purpose of communications and with radar propagation for surveillance and the identification of objects. At that time, all long distance radio communications took place by the propagation of HF high frequency (HF) radio waves. These waves propagated from the ground to the ionosphere and back to earth by multiple reflections between the ionosphere and the earth, they could propagate to great distances. The method as (and is) cheap, effective, and simple. However, on some occasions, the ionosphere became inflamed by the sun and could produce communications blackouts which would persist for many days or hours.
Korsmo:What was his name?
Gerson:Captain Albert C. Trakowski. T-R-A-K-O-W-S-K-I. So there was another man in charge of the lab, Dr. Phillip Newman of whom I thought a lot. I just couldnít see myself barging in and telling him Iím in charge now. Thatís not me. So, I stayed away for about a week or two. Now, I was told be sure to leave his desk, so they wheeled him and the desk out. Now, I knew him well and thought highly of him.
Korsmo:Why did they want him to leave?
Gerson:I have no idea. I cannot tell you.
Korsmo:So you went to Cambridge.
Gerson:Now wait. Before that, I completed my thesis at New York University.
Korsmo:Thatís right. You went to NYU while you were at Fort Monmouth.
Gerson:General Kohl, then Colonel Kohl. One day he said to me, Gerson, go to NYU, I want you to go to it. Weíll pay. So I didnít need much encouragement jump at it. So I did.
Korsmo:This was in physics at NYU?
Gerson:They sent me to NYU. Would you believe it? I was really lucky.
Korsmo:And what was your thesis on?
Gerson:Nocturnal ionization of the F2 region. That influenced what I did, believe it or not, because I knew the field cold by that time. I knew the bad points and good points. Once when I was in charge, I started to understand them. So they gave me this job. The assignment given me was that of meeting the challenges of a new service: the USAF, which was to be split off from the Army USAAF. One technique which the existing laboratory pursued before implementing a communications circuit, was as follows: assume two terminals are at points A and B, respectively. First, establish a transmitter at Point A, a receiver at Point B, and see how the communications circuit behaves over a period of time. This test would allow a determination of the radio frequencies required to optimize communications between the two points. This experimental procedure usually was in addition to ďpredictionsĒ for the circuit. The predictions were based upon a nomographic procedure which considered the height of the ionosphere and the seasonal and diurnal variations. However, these variations had been determined by a limited set of ionospheric climatological data and, like weather climatology, could deviate markedly from the actual ionospheric weather at any given time. I complained strongly that the present practice was inadequate, costly, and never-ending. If new sites at A prime and B prime were chosen, the entire process would have to be repeated time and time again. In military operations, the location of units can change fairly rapidly, and the present system, although helpful, was inadequate to supply the needed guidance. I proposed instead that a broad study of ionospheric physics be undertaken. If we knew the physics, dynamics, and the causes of ionospheric changes, we would be able to improve communications predictions. Prior to Capt. Trakowskiís appointing me Chief of the Electromagnetic Propagation Laboratory, I had completed my thesis at New York University where I obtained an MS in physics. I changed the entire concept of the Laboratory; from that of establishing a test for point to point communications to that of understanding physics and the physics of the upper atmosphere. So I changed the whole concept to the physics and they adopted it. And the reason I could do that was my thesis because I knew what could be done and we knew what we didnít know. I could improve what we didnít know better than the literature told me. Most of the literature doesnít tell you what you donít know.
Korsmo:Who else was working in this area of nocturnal ionization? I mean, who were your advisors and who were the people?
Gerson:It was Dr. Korf and Dr. Haurwitz at New York University.
Korsmo:Now, this must have been a fairly new area of work.
Gerson:It was. In fact, Dr. Haurwitz said to me afterwards the day they approved it, they said, ďI hope you stay in the field.Ē So I felt encouraged, although I didnít know at that time what it meant. You know, you go where the job is.
Korsmo:So you brought in new methods to the Air Force lab.
Gerson:A new concept?
Korsmo:A new concept.
Gerson:Yes. Clean the slate, start from scratch.
Korsmo:How many people did you have working with you there? Or for you, I should say.
Gerson:All I was using was a secretary and myself. And I told the guys in there, just keep on, donít bother me. I always said it was good work. The decision was made, otherwise they get very worried. So it was just a secretary and myself. I couldnít understand why the F2 layer allowed radio waves to propagate at night. According to conventional theory, the various layers of the ionosphere, including the F2 layers, would disappear at night. However, radio waves did propagate at night, indicating that the F2 layer still remained throughout the night. Well, it took me about six months. Now, there was something interesting and peculiar. One of the things I wanted to do was I couldnít understand why the [inaudible] allowed radio waves to propagate at night. If the F 2 and lower layers disappeared at night, no communications would be possible because the radio waves would have escaped into space instead of being returned to the earth. In short, no sun, no ionization, means no ionospheric layers because the electrons and positive ions recombine to form neutral atoms.
Korsmo:You got in an airplane and went to the North Pole?
Gerson:My boss had been a pilot and knew about airplanes. He game me a lot of grief. He complained that to realize my concept, certain struts which strengthened the aircraft fuselage would have to be cut, making my concept impossible. (To implement my experience, an ionospheric sounder had to be installed aboard an aircraft, and to install the sounder implied cutting the fuselage and then repairing it. My boss, Col. Fletcher, felt that was not possible, hence his objections.)
Gerson:Booker. Dr. Booker had been at the Cavendish Laboratory in England and was internationally famous as an ionospheric theoretician. He was on the scientific advisory board of the Air Force. Then he started off. I pulled him into a room one day. He was on the scientific advisory board. ďDr. Booker,Ē I said. He listened to me. He off his glasses. He said, ďWhat an interesting concept.Ē So I didnít say anything yet. Nobody bothered me. And looking back, I think thatís my forte. I bring the idea in in everything Iíve done.
Korsmo:So, you got your plane and you found outÖ
Gerson:Do you want to hear something funny? My boss didnít want me to go.
Korsmo:Now, who was your boss again?
Gerson:Milton Greenberg. He was at the time chief of the Air Force Cambridge Research Directorate.
Gerson:Heís now Chief of Air Force at Cambridge Research. So, although my name was on the listing, I didnít go, sorry I didnít go, but you canít go back. They flew to Thule, Greenland which was used as a base of operations. From Thule, the plane took off, flew to the North Pole, circled around to the extent of the gas supply, and returned to Thule. Measurements were made from takeoff to touch down. And by heavens, there was the ionosphere, violent as the North Atlantic during a storm and with sufficient ionization to support radio wave propagation. And unbelievable changes that nobody expected. So first, they gave me verbal approval to present it at an URSI Meeting in Washington. Then they changed their minds. So I came to the meeting and we all sat in a room. I told Marcella Phillips, of the National Bureau of Standards, that, sorry, they couldnít approve release. So we just discussed things. You know, a bull session. Nobody suspected that the ionosphere could be so persistent and dynamic at the North Pole where no sun was present for months. Obviously, ions moved in from lower latitudes, or a new non-solar source of ionization was present. About a week later, I had to deliver the same thing, a big URSI meeting. The Hague, I think it was the Hague in the Netherlands. Guess what they approved for them, but not in the U.S. You figure that. So I presented it there and everybody was startled. They changed all the concepts. Nobody suspected that happened after the North Pole. Obviously, either ions were being shoved in or the [inaudible] was wrong or else a new source for ions must be present. We know today that bursts of solar electrons penetrating into the polar atmosphere produce the ionization and its variability. Now, something happened here that affected the IGY. Every time I wasnít working or if I was away, the plane was in Oklahoma City.
Korsmo:Why was it in Oklahoma City?
Gerson:Well, thatís exactly what I asked. They told me the pilot claims there was oil leaks.
Gerson:And I discovered the pilotsí wives were in Oklahoma City. So, I know I couldnít beat it. So I called the IGY committee. I told Berkner we needed a place at the South Pole. Not the aircraft; a station, at the South Pole. Get continuous measurements, also. So, they gave me my South Pole station. Thatís how that developed because of the pilots. I give credit to the pilotsí wives.
Korsmo:Well, at this URSI meeting at the Hague, who was there listening to you?
Gerson:A substantial, international audience.
Korsmo:All the people who were working in this area? Did they ask you a lot of questions? Was there a lot of discussion afterwards?
Gerson:Yes. I donít recall all the details. All I could do was to describe what happened. We hadnít had time to analyze it ourselves. But it stimulated a lot of thought. Sooner or later there would be consensus of opinions, different opinions, you choose one. New information gives you insight, gets you out of the rut.
Korsmo:Do you remember what year that was, the URSI meeting at the Hague?
Gerson:Let me just say early 1950s.
Korsmo:I can find it somewhere.
Gerson:I donít know if the Air Force still has the paperwork or not.
Korsmo:Well this tape is about to run out so I think Iím going to change this one.
Korsmo:I was going to ask you how it happened that you became secretary of the U. S. National Committee for IGY.
Gerson:I havenít got the foggiest notion. They asked me to join it.
Korsmo:Who asked you?
Gerson:It must have been from the Academy. At the first meeting Kaplan said, ďNate, youíre secretary.Ē He said to Shapley, ďYouíre vice-chairman.Ē I donít know about those things, they just happen to me.
Korsmo:When you were working at the Air Force Lab, did you come in contact with people like Kaplan before the IGY Committee was formed in 1953?
Gerson:He had a student called Kellogg, Will Kellogg, W. W. Kellogg, who was in charge of atmospheric research at NCAR.
Gerson:And then he retired several years ago. Now, Kaplan used to go and tell everybody that his two brightest stars were Kellogg and myself. I donít know where he got that notion but he and I used to have long chats. He took a liking to me. Iím just lucky.
Korsmo:And so, did you two work together at all?
Gerson:I had changed the name of the laboratory from Electromagnetic Propagation to Ionospheric Physics Lab. Since the Air Force viewed the Arctic as a threat over which Soviet bombers might fly, I decided to include ionospheric and auroral physics in research for the laboratory. At that time, a definitive identification of all auroral spectra had not yet been established. I therefore initiated research with groups at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Alaska, and the University of Western Ontario. The thrust of the work was to examine auroral luminosities and auroral ionization. Dr. Kaplan, during his earlier years, had undertaken laboratory studies of nitrogen, its emissions, and afterglow. I knew of his work. He was elated that I was pursuing similar work for the atmosphere and wanted me to continue. He seemed to be impressed with my objectives and the researchers I had chosen to undertake the investigations. He always took time to speak to me at length during his visits to the laboratory.
Gerson:I donít know how Berkner or Tuve knew about me except through my publications.
Korsmo:So you didnít really deal with them before 1953?
Gerson:No, occasionally. After I was chief, after the Lab was established, I said to myself, something is wrong in the U.S. The only reason they look at the ionosphere is for radio wave propagation. I said, I want to know the physics. And I knew the literature because my thesis came through it. So one day, my boss, who at that time was Colonel Fritz Oder, this was pre-Greenberg, said ďNate, can we do anything with these guys at Penn State?Ē I looked at Penn State. They were doing work for Newman. Old contract. They were looking at low frequency propagation and I realized that was not physics. So I wanted somebody who could get involved in physics. So I went down and spoke. I had two long days. I spoke with Arthur Waynick and the EE Department Head, Erick Walker. Dr. Walker subsequently became president of the university.
Korsmo:At Penn State?
Gerson:When I visited, I had come prepared with a shopping list of research topics which I wanted to pursue. It included items in atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric dynamics, atmospheric structure, etc., etc. Since most of the research done in ionospheric physics was conducted outside the U.S., I wanted to include within the contract sponsorship of an international conference on ionospheric physics. However, even internationally, most investigations had as their goal improved radiowave communications. The first conference thus became limited in scope to that field: mainly radiowave propagation with some papers on the character of the ionosphere. I discussed all these items in detail with Dr. Waynick but I was not fully convinced that he understood or wanted to follow my guidelines. Thus, when we later met with Dr. Walker, I went over each item in detail. Only after he approved did I feel comfortable. [The first conference made me realize that to stimulate research in atmospheric physics, a broader net was necessary. I wrote an editorial which Science published, stating that the present emphasis in physics on high energy and cosmic ray physics, required modification. I emphasized the need to explore the atmosphere and felt that more focus on this field was necessary. I also told myself, after the first conference, that at least two other conferences were necessary, one on ionospheric physics (at Penn State) and the second, on auroral physics, which I felt could be held at the University of Western Ontario. Both conferences were held. I tend to believe that they gave a large impetus to additional research in these fields. [NOTE: The summary of some of these earlier events was published in Physics in Canada in the 1960s-79s under the title ďCooperation in GeophysicsĒ.]
Korsmo:But you felt that beyond radio wave propagation there were other fundamental physics of the ionosphere that people werenít looking at.
Gerson:We in research should be curious. I think thatís the driving force for research. It has to be.
Korsmo:So in this kind of work you were doing with Penn State you think that may have attracted the attention of people like Kaplan?
Korsmo:They probably knew you through—
Gerson:Yes. They must have. And Berkner also, at one time said to me, ďWhy donít you incorporate these conferences into the framework of URSI? However, I felt that incorporation within URSI would dilute the thrust of the conference. My emphasis was to introduce under my conference framework a series of seminars which would educate the audience, bring them up to the forefront of present knowledge, point out the discrepancies in the science, and expose them to new concepts which might be explored. Looking back, I am a bit amazed at how successful the conferences were, and particularly at the number of new researchers and studies that were attracted into the field.
Korsmo:I saw the minutes of the first IGY meeting that you wrote in March of 1953 and I noticed there was some discussion of whether we should have an IGY. For example, Merle Tuve was saying things like, ďWell, if we canít get data from Russia, why do we have to have this big international program?Ē And there was a lot of concern about getting data from Russia and whether it was going to be classified. Do you recall those conversations?
Gerson:I do. And Berkner was the driving force. And he won again. He used to tell us that every time the U. S. has had an agreement with Russia, they lived up to it. Donít worry, he used to tell us. If they sign the agreement, theyíll cooperate. He was right. He took a chance, Merle didnít. Now I was too young to be able to get into those things. Thatís high level. But Berkner always claimed that if you get an agreement, if they sign it, theyíll do it. He was right by hindsight.
Korsmo:What was the main thing that struck you? Here you were, sitting in a room with these folks like Berkner and Kaplan and Tuve?
Gerson:Oh, seeing new people and being impressed with their grasp not only of atmospheric physics and geophysics but also their discussions about individuals and national policies and attitudes. Many had ties with foreign collaborators and knew second hand some of the objectives and motivations of the countries involved. The entire experience educated me to a new dimension of research: how to work with various groups, how to motivate them, how to think of the planet as a whole, and some of the future problems facing mankind.
Korsmo:What did you think of this whole thing? Were you just thrilled about this? What was your reaction?
Gerson:I was too dumb to have any. I figured I had to do something. Iíd say something. Theyíd yell at me or not yell at me. All I could do was be honest.
Korsmo:But it looked like you took very good notes and you must have written down pretty much everything that was said.
Gerson:In my recent past, some have been upset because I tend to view problems on a grand scale and sometimes from a high level. Some people cannot understand this approach and believe only in the chain of command, or a stovepipe attitude: ďIf the boss said it, itís correct.Ē Few have the courage to tell the Emperor he is naked. One of my phrases has been, ďIf you want to change a procedure or research thrust, start at the tope and not at the bottom.Ē Starting at the bottom is too viscous and too many people believe in turf and perk Ė something I have never thought of personally. The advantage of starting at the top: Convince the decision makers. To convince them, I adopted a simple procedure. The first time a new view is expressed, there is always a negative reaction. I wait 6 - 9 months and in the meantime, educate the subalterns of the decision maker. At the end of this time, I mention it again to the man at the top. Now, usually, he has a neutral comment. Somehow he remembers that he heard it before so the idea is not that novel. Also, in the interim, some of his subalterns have spoken to him. However, it has still not percolated. But if I wait 6-9 months and mention it a third time, I obtain a positive response and action. It is very very important never to say, ďI told you so.Ē Looking back, I am amazed at how many actions I have caused within the government. I can only say that it was my experience as secretary of the USNC of the IGY that caused me to adopt this policy. Obviously, what I suggest should not be wild and impossible.
Korsmo:It seems to me from reading from the Minutes of IGY, which of course, you wrote. It seems like you had very strong personalities. How would you say, for example, that Berkner and Kaplan divided up the work between them?
Gerson:Both were diplomats. Both were far reaching. Furthermore, Odishaw knew exactly how to drive a wedge thatíll get what you wanted done. Odishaw knew things that I never knew, probably never will. Iím not that skillful administratively. Thatís not my forte. I will lose every time.
Korsmo:And what was the style of those meetings, those national committee meetings?
Gerson:Very informal. We invited comments. I recall I blew my stack. I said I shouldnít have done itótoo late.
Korsmo:How did some things get on the scientific agenda and some things not? For example, oceanography was discussed and some people wanted it on the agenda of IGY and other people didnít want it on the agenda of IGY. Do you recall how that process worked? Was that just simple discussion?
Gerson:It was simple discussion. Then weíd turn it over to a panel and the panel decided.
Korsmo:The technical panel?
Gerson:Items which we felt were worthless could be dropped at our level or referred to the panel for more exhaustive discussion. In one sense, referring items to a panel was a safe procedure. The full committee was not tarred with refusing to consider an item: the panel would refuse it. The procedure is a well-known administrative ploy.
Korsmo:Could you talk about when the satellite got on the agenda? I think there was some discussion about whether the Russians were going to put up a satellite and then the U. S. was going to put up a satellite. Who was going to take responsibility for that.
Gerson:Now what time period are you thinking of, because now it gets critical. There was an evolution in thinking. Was it pre-Roman meeting or after?
Korsmo:Was there any discussion pre-Rome meeting?
Gerson:There were some discussions within the community about launching a geophysical satellite for the IGY. Kaplan was careful not to call it a satellite and he invented the term ďlong-playing rocketĒ.
Korsmo:Yes, yes. He called it a long-playing rocket. I see.
Korsmo:So that was Kaplanís euphemism.
Gerson:Yes. He didnít want to use the word satellite. I think Berkner forced the issue. During the Rome IGY meeting he announced that the U.S. would launch a geophysical satellite during the IGY. This announcement was made without the governmentís knowledge.
Korsmo:At one point, I think it was the end of 1955. No, end of 1954. And at that point, Berkner, according to some of the correspondence in the archives, suggested hiring a technical director of IGY.
Korsmo:Or was Odishaw hired before that? He may have been hired before that.
Gerson:Well, he worked about the right time.
Korsmo:And what exactly were Odishawís duties? Just to make things happen and to go to different agencies and talk to them?
Gerson:I can tell you what I think. He was a remarkable boy, a real lovely man. Skilled, polished, knowledgeable. I canít praise him too highly. I think, as I look back, he had one overriding objective, to make it work, make it work well for the United States and internationally. Because, the U.S., needed it. Weather is not just national. It doesnít stop at the boundaries. Itís not just that it doesnít stop at the boundaries, you have to know whatís going down. Itís one earth. The U.S. has to know whatís going on. What happens there can happen here. Itís that old statement Ė ask not for whom the bell tolls. Itís part of that. As a principal power, the U. S. has an awesome responsibility. It must act correctly and from current, correct knowledge. Another one of Berknerís comments was this: who should be in charge of some of these large things? He used to tell us, he always lectured us, the only people, the only countries that have knowledge of large organizations are the U. S. and USSR. Each has a large area, many functions, and many departments. Thus each nation develops its own internal bureaucracy and although there may be differences, there is also a commonality. These bureaucracies must cause actions. They do it on a pragmatic basis and despite differences between the two nations, each views its activities on a broad scale.
Korsmo:Was there any concern on the IGY committee about the quality of data that would come from Russia? That is, if there would be some kind ofÖ
Gerson:Nobody ever mentioned that. Nobody thought about it. At least I didnít.
Korsmo:And how much, when you were secretary of IGY committee, how much work, percentage of your time, say, did that take up? Because you were still at the Air Force Cambridge Lab, too, right?
Gerson:More than you think. I used to work on the stuff at night.
Gerson:Yes. Put in a lot of time. There was a lot more stuff that I had in my files after I left the Air Force. I donít know what happened to it.
Korsmo:Do you think itís still at the Air Force Lab? Itís worth looking maybe.
Gerson:So many changes, I donít know where.
Korsmo:You have your other papers in the Library of Congress. And it could be that there are some papers in Cambridge.
Gerson:Iím sure there are.
Korsmo:Yes. So thatís worth looking for. Well, maybe we should wrap it up for today.
Gerson:Yes. Iím afraid Iíve given you a long session.