The Top Secret Observatory

My grandfather got to work at a top-secret government facility beginning in 1948 documenting solar phenomenon vital to America’s security interests in World War II and after.

The Harvard College Observatory studied solar flares

Founded by Dr. Donald Menzel, a Harvard College astronomer, the Harvard College Observatory studied solar flares.

Solar flares stir up ions in the upper atmosphere, rendering radio communication noisy and weak. Sometimes the flares create complete radio black outs.

By the 1940s nations relied on radio waves to communicate everything. Without clear radio signals, radio communication was garbled, delayed or even lost.

Effective radio communication became the highest priority for the United States during World War II. Understanding when solar flares might impact Earth thus became very important.

How Observatory studied solar flares

Lyot Coronagraph, Harvard College Observatory

The study of solar flares is really cool.

Scientists at the Observatory used a type of instrument (a Lyot chronograph) that blocked out light emitted by the sun.

They essentially created an artificial eclipse.

During this artificial eclipse the scientists photographed the corona of the sun.

The corona is the aura of plasma around the sun.

Twice daily, weather permitting, Walter O. Roberts and his team created and photographed artificial eclipses.

While the photographic plates were still wet, they looked for solar prominences, the blobby, spiky looking gaseous features that extended outward from the surface of the earth.

These prominences could cause radio communication problems.

So the scientists also measured them, to determine what impact, if any, a prominence might have for America’s radio communication networks.

Why they studied solar flares

After the scientists measured and coded the prominences, they telephoned it to Leadville for immediate transmission via Western Union’s priority government wire. This information was of the utmost and highest security for the U. S. Government.

The information was interpreted, recoded for radio transmission and transmitted to all major Allied commands via the London and Pearl Harbor military headquarters.

With the information gathered at the Observatory, all commands knew when radio communication would be weak or blacked out. Knowing when radio communications might be poor or nonexistent they could plan maneuvers accordingly.

This knowledge saved lives. 

Harvard College Observatory and residence, taken by William Sanborn

My grandfather continues top-secret work using same equipment

My grandfather worked at the the Harvard College Observatory at Climax beginning in 1948. He continued this top-secret work using methods Walter O. Roberts and his scientists followed in World War II. 

Walter Allen using the coronagraph at Harvard College Observatory, circa 1948-1949

My grandfather was well qualified for this work. He worked for the photogrammetry corp during World War II.

He studied mechanical engineering and physics at the University of Colorado.

My grandfather captured some of the more mundane aspects of the Observatory, such as the replacement of the roof of the Harvard College Observatory.

He photographed this day-to-day life while providing confidential information for the U.S. Government. For him, I think, this was all no big deal. He had done it during the war and was happy to do it after the war.

What I find most rewarding about the history of Climax and the Harvard College Observatory is how it connects my family history to that of a scientific outpost vital to the success of the Allied Forces in World War Two and after.

Family history rarely contains famous people. But all families have participated in the so-called making of history. In fact, most of history is the history of people like my grandfather.

A kind of dance exists between family history and social history, one I find endlessly fascinating. We both make history and are made by it.

Bartlett Mountain Glory Hole Behind the Harvard College Observatory

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