Boulder Laboratories 50th Anniversary


U.S. Department of Commerce Laboratories in Boulder, Colorado:

NIST - National Institute of Standards and Technology

NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

NTIA - National Telecommunications and Information Administration


Lecture Series






Blast from the Past:
Tales of the
Boulder Labs
(A series of articles reprinted from the Boulder Labs Weekly Bulletin, an in-house newsletter)

Braudaway Dedication Day Story

Retired staffer David W. Braudaway, PhD, LFIEEE, NCSLI Wildhack Award recipient, was on stage for the dedication of the Boulder Labs and had a part in equipping the new facility and in arranging sound for the dedication. Below are excerpts from his reminiscences of Dedication Day, 1954.

There was no practical way to do remote television at the time of the dedication, BUT the major networks and Channel 2 from Denver arrived early on September 14, 1954, to do sound recording of the speeches. As Braudaway recalls, all four arrived in new, identical black Jeeps, and after seeing the sound system he and the very low-bid contractor had set up the day before, demanded, in unison, a totally separate power feed and a location elsewhere. The news teams couldn't believe that the contractor's rusty looking sound system could be reliable! Separate tables were quickly set up on the south side of the main platform and a separate power cable was run from Building One to feed their equipment. Each crew broke the box seals on brand-new, latest-design, identical portable premier tape recorders; cables, microphones, and tape boxes. All were sealed-in-the-box; NOTHING COULD GO WRONG!

Braudaway did the speaking tests and announcements before the ceremony in 1954; during the ceremony the sound was at comfortable level but nobody in the audience had any trouble hearing. Indeed, there was a report that the ceremony was heard faintly on Federal Boulevard in Denver. Those few in between Boulder and Denver heard it easily; the peak power used was 208 watts.

It must be noted that no sound recordings were made that day, however. The manufacturer of those new, latest-design, portable recorders had built a flaw into the microphone's mixer circuit and all signals were shorted out!

Afterwards, the TV broadcast people re-inspected the contractor's rusty sound equipment and expressed admiration; the reputation of the Bureau's sound provider had risen from flunky to expert. The sound system did honor to the speeches and especially the formal dedication of the NBS site by President Eisenhower.

But why did the contractor make such a low bid? Our sound expert had been retired for a good number of years; his business had been supplying sound for the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Wyoming, but he had never had opportunity to supply sound for a President. While the minimum bid received for the dedication sound was 20% higher than the allocation, our fellow wanted to be sure he got the contract for such an auspicious event, so he bid more than 70% lower than the allocation!

Read the entire story: BraudawayReminiscences.htm

Antarctic Disappearance

Carl R. Disch, ionospheric physicist for the National Bureau of Standards Boulder Labs, disappeared on May 8, 1965, from the Ionosphere-Forward Scatter station near Byrd station in the Antarctic. Disch was a member of the Boulder Laboratories’ 1964-65 Antarctic research team. The team was spending the year as part of NBS’s contribution to the Year of the Quiet Sun (the period of low ebb for solar activity).

Disch was returning to the main station after a visit to the radio-noise installation when he apparently missed a handline. The temperature at the time was -45 F, with strong winds. In spite of the severe weather conditions the station personnel mounted a lengthy and thorough search for Carl. Not a trace was ever found.

"In all there were 29 (19 military and 8 scientists) and one dog who wintered over. Unfortunately, we lost a scientist by the name of Carl Disch and our Husky dog during the winter months. Carl wandered away from the "life line" that connected the weather tower to the main tunnel on May 8th and Sastrugis "Gus" disappeared August 18. Far as I know they've not been found. We tried in vain to find Carl but at the time the wind was raging with minus 45 temperature. All we could do was tie ropes around our waists, spread out on both sides of the D-8 cat and walk along hoping to stumble over him. Was like finding a needle in a haystack blindfolded. " --Jim Bartley, a former winter-over resident of Byrd Station. He spent 13 months there in 1964 and 1965)

A memorial service for Carl Disch was held in his hometown of Monroe, Wisconsin on May 14, 1965, attended by Dr. T.O. Jones, Head of the Office of Polar Programs, and Stephen Barnes from the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory, National Bureau of Standards. To find out more about Carl Disch, go to .


Boulder Labs Bring Growth to Boulder

When Boulder was chosen as the site for the new labs, the people of town were excited.  At the time, the population for the entire county was only 48,296. The residents saw an opportunity for economic development with the arrival of the Boulder Labs, but little did they know what kind of impact the influx of DOC staff would have.

Imagine the effect on sleepy little Boulder when the population grew from 20,000 to 72,000 in our first 10 years in town! Boulder hadn't even had a  traffic light until 13 years before we got here! Housing developments sprang up and the Denver-Boulder toll road was built to accommodate all the people and the traffic they created. It must have been a shock for all the locals to see their town grow so quickly.

As former NBS scientist C. McKay Allred once remembered, a local fellow who worked at the Court House was dismayed to see NBS employees show up as a group to get Colorado drivers licenses. The Court House worker had donated $200 to the community effort to buy the land for the labs, but now he wanted to donate $1,000 more to get rid of all the people who were inundating his processing system. He was kidding, we hope!


See You on the Radio: How Time got on the Air

The radio station known today as WWVB began life as radio station KK2XEI in July 1956. The transmitter was located in Boulder and the radiated power was less than 2 W. Even so, the signal was monitored at Harvard University in Massachusetts. The purpose of this experimental transmission was to show that the frequency error due to Doppler shift induced by the ionosphere was small. In April 1960, the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) moved the experimental transmitter to Sunset, Colorado, just northwest of Boulder. A signal of less than 15 W was broadcast, but was received as far away as New Zealand.

In 1962, NBS began constructing a new transmitter site north of Fort Collins. This 158 hectare (390 acre) site would become the home of WWV, WWVB and WWVL (a 20 kHz transmitter). The site was chosen because of its exceptionally high ground conductivity, which was due to the high alkalinity of the soil. On July 5, 1963, WWVB became operational, broadcasting a 7 kW signal on 60 kHz. WWVL began transmitting a 500 W signal on 20 kHz the following month. The WWVL broadcast was discontinued in July 1972.

A time code was added to WWVB on July 1, 1965. This made it possible for radio clocks to be designed that could decode the signal and automatically synchronize. The time code format has changed only slightly since 1965; it uses a scheme known as binary coded decimal (BCD) which uses four binary digits (bits) to send one decimal number.

The radiated power of WWVB was increased to its current level of 50 kW in 1999. This power increase made the coverage area much larger, and resulted in the design of many new low-cost radio clocks that “set themselves” using the WWVB signal.


International Geophysical Year

From July 1, 1957 to December 1958, some of the Boulder Labs were involved in the International Geophysical Year, promoting new observations of geophysical systems around the world. In 1956, in preparation for this enormous undertaking, the World Data Center system was established (including one in Boulder) to collect, archive, and distribute this crucial data.

The International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it was called, was modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933, and was intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. Although representatives of 46 countries originally agreed to participate in the IGY, by the close of the activity, 67 countries had become involved.

NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center was created in 1965 from existing data programs, particularly the Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory. Initial holdings included gravity, seismic, tsunami, geodetic, and geomagnetic data. NGDC also operated world data centers (WDCs) for gravity, seismology, and geomagnetism data related to the International Geophysical Year.

Two NBS scientists were influential in guiding American participation in the IGY. Physicist Alan H. Shapley of NBS was appointed Vice-Chairman, and Hugh Odishaw, also of the Bureau, was appointed Executive Secretary (later, Executive Director).


Nobel Names on Campus

Did you ever notice the names of the streets on the DOC Boulder campus? They're definitely not the usual trees, birds, and presidents you see on most street signs. Marconi and Curie might strike a chord with you, but what about all those other names? Anderson, Appleton, Compton, Kusch, Millikan, and the rest--what's that about?

In a memorandum dated November 17, 1952, John L. Swinnerton, chief of NBS's Engineering and Drafting Office, suggested naming streets at the Boulder site after Nobel Prize winners in the physical sciences. In 1958, the roads and driveways on our campus were assigned names after winners of the prize in physics.  Of the names selected, Appleton and Marconi had been awarded Nobel Prizes for work in radio. Kusch was a consultant to NBS on the atomic clock program during the period 1948-1955.  No one seems to remember why the other names were selected.

Two men, Walter H. Brattain and Charles Townes, associated with NBS in the past, had also been awarded Nobel Prizes in physics. Townes was a consultant to NBS on the atomic clock program and Brattain was in the former Radio Section during the period 1928-1929. In his 1986 history, "Achievement in Radio," Wilbert Snyder suggested that Brattain and Townes would be fitting selections for naming new roads on the Boulder campus.  Little did he know that we'd soon have our very own local prize winners to honor:  Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman!

Snyder's book is available in the library, and more information on the Nobel Prizes may be found at


NOAA Measures Boulder’s Big Winds

If you've experienced a Boulder winter you know first hand that we have BIG winds. Thanks to NOAA's Aeronomy Lab scientists we can prove our windy claim to fame to the rest of the world. And we can have advanced warning when those mighty winds are going to blow.

In 1975, the Aeronomy Lab developed the first Doppler radar wind profiler, located about seven miles west of Boulder, near the town of Sunset in the front range, for the measurement of the winds up to 10 kilometers. The Sunset radar was the first designed specifically for tropospheric wind profiling. It was a pioneering step in wind-profiling technology that later involved other Boulder labs (ETL, FSL) and resulted in improvements to daily weather forecasts and warnings.


Our Common Ancestor

Did you know that all the agencies of the Boulder Labs have a common ancestor? They all can trace their roots back to the old "Bureau of Standards," and the Bureau's radio laboratory. Here is how the ITS branch of the family found its way into being.

The Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, or ITS, began in the 1940s as part of the National Bureau of Standards. At that time, it was called the Interservice Radio Propagation Laboratory, which later became the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL). If it weren't for CRPL and the special physical environment it needed, we all might be working in Maryland right now; you see, CRPL was the lab that the Boulder site was obtained for.

In 1965, CRPL was transferred from NBS to join the United States Weather Bureau and the Coast and Geodetic Survey in a new scientific agency of DOC: the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). At that time, CRPL was renamed the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences and Aeronomy (ITSA). In 1967, the telecommunications function of ITSA was transferred into the newly formed Office of Telecommunications (OT) within the Department of Commerce.

Finally, under the President's Reorganization Act #1 of 1977, OT and the Office of Telecommunications Policy merged to form the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Since that time, ITS has performed telecommunications research and provided technical engineering support to NTIA and to other Federal agencies on a reimbursable basis.

More recently, ITS has expanded its historical role by conducting cooperative research and development with U.S. industry and academia under the provisions of the Federal Technology Transfer Act of 1986.


The Fourth of July and the Boulder Labs

The Fourth of July has a surprising role in our history. Who could have known that a simple holiday picnic on Flagstaff would hold the key to the Boulder Labs' future in Boulder?

In June of 1949 the director of NBS, Dr. Edward U. Condon, attended the Echo Lake Cosmic Ray Symposium at Mount Evans. Present there was Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, Superintendent of the High Altitude Observatory of the University of Colorado, who was convinced that Boulder was the ideal location for the new Central Radio Propagation Laboratory. He invited Dr. Condon to visit Boulder that weekend and take a tour of the CU campus. Condon agreed to the visit and returned with several members of the CRPL staff to enjoy the Fourth of July holiday in Boulder.

Roberts took his guests up Flagstaff Mountain for a spectacular picnic. After the heat and humidity they were used to in Washington, D.C., the committee soaked up the beauty and breezes of Boulder. They knew they'd found the perfect site for the new radio propagation labs! All that remained were selection formalities and the donation of land to seal the deal.


The Big Move to Boulder

By the spring of 1954, an initial wave of 30 NBS staff members had made the move to Boulder from Washington, D.C.  A part of the tropospheric group, Arthur J. Estin had been the first to transfer in April of 1950, about four months after Boulder was selected as the Labs' future home.  He was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs until a temporary facility was obtained in Boulder.

From April until late summer, a total of 52 large moving vans moved 512 metric tons of equipment from Washington to Boulder. Packing some of the delicate and unwieldy laboratory equipment taxed the skill of the movers. Taking no chances, Bureau personnel hand carried the four quartz crystals of the National Primary Frequency and Time Standard to ensure their safety.

1954 was the year of the "long, hot summer." All-time heat records were broken that summer as the NBS migration went into full swing. Travel by car was the norm, but air-conditioning was not. The 1,800 mile trip was an ordeal for all who drove through the July heat wave of up to 118°F on the route across the mid-west, and 104°F in Boulder. The new NBS residents found Boulder a hot and parched contrast to the lush green of the East coast.

A resettlement committee eased the transition for NBS staff by assembling a library of information on Boulder and Boulder real estate. They provided information on Federal moving regulations and on moving companies, temporary housing, schools, and a host of other things associated with moving a large group of workers and their families. Additionally, a group of Boulder citizens made a "Good Neighbor Trip" to Washington early on to meet with many of the staff members who were being assigned to the Boulder facility.

In late 1955, the Boulder Chamber of Commerce surveyed NBS employees on how they liked Boulder. Out of 75 replies, 41 were favorable, 21 neutral, and 13 unfavorable. Apparently, Boulder's beauty and climate had won over most of the NBS staff.


Boulder Citizens Give Us our Site

When the 81st Congress allocated $4,475,000 for the construction of the radio laboratory, no appropriations were slated for the purchase of property. At the time, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Palo Alto, California, were under serious consideration for the site of the new laboratory because they had viable locations, and land available. The Boulder Chamber of Commerce made a move to enter the competition. Led by its President, Vergyl H. Reynolds, and Junior Past President, John F. Allardice, the Chamber created the Standards Committee on February 27, 1950, in order to raise funds to purchase land. Two tracts of land totaling 217 acres were available south of town that could be obtained for approximately $70,000. The land was situated west of Marshall Road (now South Broadway) and south of Green Mountain Cemetery.

On March 2, James J. Yeager, a Boulder businessman, accepted chairmanship of the campaign. By early April, Yeager had a large group of Boulder citizens organized for the Boulder Chamber of Commerce–U.S. Bureau of Standards Radio Laboratory Fund Campaign. The campaign officially kicked off at 7:30 a.m. on April 1 at a breakfast addressed by Elmore Peterson, Dean of the Business School. A short two weeks later, over $90,000 was collected and the campaign was over. The largest contribution came from the Boulder Elks Lodge No.566 totaling $10,000. All contributions of $100 or more were recognized by public announcement and later by inscription on a metal plaque that was placed in the lobby entrance.  The final negotiated price for the land was $63,000 with the excess money used to purchase land east of town on Arapaho Road. (This tract of land was known as the Boulder Industrial Park and was later occupied by the Ball Brothers Research Corporation.) On June 13, 1950, the deed to the land was transferred by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce to the United States of America.

If you'd like to see the donor plaque and a photo of the deed transfer ceremony they are outside the museum in 1-1201.


Top-knots and Hydrogen

Did you ever wonder about those funny "top-knots" on Building Three? They are clues to an interesting part of our past:

On August 29, 1949 the Soviet Union detonated that country's first atomic bomb. The United States' response to this development was to accelerate research for the production of the super bomb, or hydrogen bomb. Initial designs called for copious amounts of liquefied hydrogen. No large liquifier facilities existed this side of the Mississippi, and none could supply the amounts required. Therefore, on March 28, 1951 it was announced that a large hydrogen liquefying plant would be constructed at the Boulder site. Construction was completed in a little over a year, an incredible feat of engineering.

Building Three, the new Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory, was capable of producing 350 liters of liquid hydrogen an hour, and supplied the liquid used in the world's first hydrogen bomb. This bomb, code named Mike, was exploded on November 1, 1952, at Elugelab Island in the South Pacific. It was the first hydrogen thermonuclear device and was considered highly successful, producing 10.4 megatons of TNT equivalent. [See photo at,ivymike ]

As you may imagine, any building producing that kind of fire power needed some pretty significant safety measures. Building Three was designed with a blast wall that would give way rather than let the building explode. Additionally, ventilation fans were placed on the roof, providing a way for hydrogen to escape, and preventing explosions. The fans were so powerful they could completely exchange the air of the entire building every one minute!

Subsequent hydrogen bomb tests did not require large amounts of liquid hydrogen, so the liquifier program faded out nearly as fast as it had come in. Much of the original machinery is still in place in Building Three, and part of the building is still in use today.  The top-knot vents you see are reminders of the liquifier program.


International Geophysical Year

A world-wide cooperative scientific study of the Earth, the International Geophysical Year began in 1957. In preparation for this endeavor, in 1956, the World Data Center system was established, including one in Boulder, to collect, distribute, and archive crucial geophysical data. Currently, 42 WDCs work on data that encompass most facets of the global environment. WDCs are generally co-located with national data centers and are funded by the respective nation. Boulder's WDC is located with the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC).

The International Geophysical Year lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 1958, a period chosen to occur during a solar maximum, to notice unusual effects of the sun on the Earth.  The IGY encompassed eleven Earth sciences: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity.


NBS and Boulder’s Water Meters

When the National Bureau of Standards, NIST's precursor, moved to Boulder, homes did not have city water meters. As the population grew, an equitable way of charging for water use was needed. NBS staff provided a method of installing meters by freezing individual service lines with liquid nitrogen without disrupting service to the entire area. This technique saved money and avoided inconveniencing customers.


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Last revised: May 17, 2005