Scientists got rough introduction to Boulder

By Carol Taylor

For the Camera

The first employees of the new branch of the National Bureau of Standards’ Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL) came to Boulder in 1951, but it would be another three years before the NBS building was complete.

For many of those scientists, Boulder was a world away from the urban Washington, D.C., facility they were familiar with.

Memories of 1950s Boulder were shared at a recent dinner for early CPRL employees. Dale Hatfield, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons Center and an early CRPL engineer, organized the commemorative event held at The Academy.

About 50 people attended, including National Academy of Sciences fellow Gordon Little, physicist William Utlaut, physicist John Richardson, computer programmer Jan Falcon and other influential NBS scientists and engineers.

For those of us who were not here when big science emerged, the tales those folks told were a rare glimpse into arguably the most important turning point in Boulder’s history.

According to “Significant Papers from the First 50 Years of the Boulder Labs,” “about the time these large construction projects began, NBS negotiated for a temporary facility in Boulder. The Colorado National Guard Armory on Foothills Road (now North Broadway) was transferred to the CRPL.”

Robert Lawrence, a 27-year-old young man with a master’s degree in physics from Yale University, transferred to Boulder in 1952 to work for the CRPL at the Armory.

He took the job as physicist, despite being discouraged by a Princeton-trained senior scientist he worked with at the Washington NBS.

“Boulder is an intellectual desert,” the man warned. He further advised Lawrence he would jeopardize his career by coming to Boulder and risk lagging behind in science if he ever decided to return to the East Coast.

Lawrence, now 90 years old, didn’t heed the advice but was a bit unprepared for what he encountered.

“Boulder was a shock to many of us,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “There was nothing to rent in Boulder!”

He remembered one apartment building but found nothing suitable for his young family. Lawrence eventually found a place in the mountains west of town.

It was not long before Lawrence read an article in the Daily Camera in which the chair of the physics department at the University of Colorado said he did not believe in quantum mechanics.

“It shook me up a little bit,” recalled Lawrence, who had been assuming he could continue his physics studies toward a Ph.D. in Boulder.

Clearly, CU was not the scientific powerhouse we know today.

As Todd Neff wrote in his book, “From Jars to the Stars,” about Ball Aerospace, “Indeed the CU physics department was unremarkable … One student joked that the CU physics department was ‘the only one in which the optics man is blind, the acoustics man is deaf and you can’t get a spark out of the electricity man if you tried all day.’ ”

At a recent book signing for “A Scientific Peak: How Boulder Became a World Center for Space and Atmospheric Science,” author Joseph Bassi discussed the qualifications for selecting a site for the new branch of the NBS.

“A top level university was not a requirement,” he said, noting that at that time, CU was considered “middling” at best.

Lawrence remembered that they didn’t interact much with CU in those early days. The scientists faced resistance from CU when they offered to teach a class on radio propagation in the ionosphere, at no expense to the university. CU balked, according to Lawrence. The CRPL scientists were not certified educators, university officials explained.

However, the Boulder general public had great interest in what was happening at the CRPL. The Daily Camera sent reporters to interview the scientists and take photos. CPRL often received front-page coverage of its projects, Lawrence said.

Lawrence got some laughs when he told a story about the time he didn’t have a nickel for a downtown parking meter and received a ticket. He turned it over to NBS staff liaison Jessie Berkley. She promptly telephoned the Boulder police chief and said if NBS employees were going to be expected to put nickels in the meter while driving government vehicles, the city would need to provide receipts.

According to a U.S. Department of Commerce publication, all personnel and equipment from the Armory site finally moved into the new NBS building, 325 Broadway, by April 1954.

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