Storms Above the Desert


The Early Days


On March 23, 1961, not long after the unheralded silver anniversary of atmospheric physics, a group of men sat in a meeting room at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. Six of them were from the Advisory Panel on Atmospheric Sciences of the National Science Foundation, or NSF; seven more were drawn from the school's atmospheric physics researchers. Tech needed a lot of money to build a mountain lab, and the NSF had it.

This undercurrent of money ran throughout a discussion of atmospheric research. Tech was one of the pioneering institutions in the field. The school's president, E. J. Workman, had come there just after World War II, back when it was still the New Mexico School of Mines, bringing the beginnings of atmospheric physics with him. The study of thunderstorms, born in the Depression and reborn after the war, had gone through some lean years, but now the field was prospering--thanks in part to money from the NSF.

Although Tech was acquiring a name in atmospheric research, the work had never had a single, focal research facility. Trailers scattered like buckshot north, south, and west of Socorro served as scientific work sites. In results the work was up-to-date, but in spirit it still recalled the days when Workman had chased thunderstorms with an instrument carrying Packard roadster. For several years, he and his colleagues had wanted to build a mountaintop lab: there would gather all the researchers, and it was to be located where storms would come often. Now there was a chance to get the money--and never in his career had Workman been accused of passing opportunity's door without knocking. Out of a brief discussion in a spartan meeting room came a $200,000 grant, followed by $300,000 the next year, to build the Irving Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research.

On the day they were talked into honoring the school's standing request for a building on top of a mountain, the NSF representatives were negotiating in Workman's territory. In fact, they were practically negotiating in his living room. The elderly physicist lived in the research building where they were gathered. His living quarters were upstairs, next to his research tower. Downstairs was his office as president of the tiny college. By day he ran the school and worked in his lab. By night he worked in the lab or wandered the halls, thinking his thoughts and turning off the lights in empty rooms. Perhaps he was lonely; perhaps he was merely busy. But he was undoubtedly at home. For a quarter of a century his name had been synonymous with lightning research in New Mexico, and he had done much of that work while president of the school in Socorro.

In 1961, Everly John Workman was sixty-two years old and had been president of New Mexico Tech for fifteen years. The school had virtually disappeared during World War II; for a long time thereafter it was what Workman made it. Nothing was too big for him to tackle, and nothing was too small to attract his attention. He had personally designed both the school's basic curriculum and the first nine holes of its golf course. He had taken the Atomic Energy Commission to court and won. And if a construction worker laid a crooked tile or hung a sticking door, he, President Workman, personally wrote it up and demanded that it be set right.

Colleagues, employees, even innocent bystanders were swept up by this one-man whirlwind. Workman was disliked by many people, but he was scorned by no one. That much energy inspires a certain hushed respect, even in one's enemies.

E.J. Workman with student technician Anne Myers

E.J. Workman, on a visit to the lab in 1979, with student technician Anne Myers. New Mexico Tech Information Services.

Workman first came to New Mexico in 1933. He was then at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, an institution with departments the size of the entire School of Mines. "Jack" Workman, a thirty-six-year-old journeyman researcher with a growing reputation in his field, became the head of the physics department during his third year at UNM. Then, teaming up with Robert Holzer, a member of his faculty, Workman organized a whole new arm of the university: the Research and Development Division.

That move sounds more dramatic than it actually was. The tiny new division had a dynamic leader, a sharp junior partner, and a thoroughly grandiose name. The only thing it did not have was money. Workman's budget for equipment and supplies one year was $300. The Virginia Academy of Science took pity on him and chipped in another $50.

The brand-new Research and Development Division began in poverty and was obviously going to stay there for some time. Workman pragmatically looked for something that could be researched and developed for $350. Looking up to the skies in desperation, he found the thunderstorm.

Albuquerque just happened to be a great place to study thunderstorms. The clouds that dot the skies of New Mexico on hot summer days tend to be small, isolated, and relatively stationary. They are born over solar-heated local terrain and move only a few miles before dying. These characteristics make them easier to study than the big frontal storms in the congested skies of the East.

More pertinent to Workman was the fact that storms were an ideal subject for the R&DD to study during the Depression. Storm behavior was a young, wide-open field of inquiry, and the pioneering exploration of it could be done for practically nothing. For all intents and purposes, Workman was founding his own science. That meant building a foundation for later work by observing in detail exactly what happens during the life cycle of a lightning stroke or thunderstorm.

Fortunately, this work did not require expensive technology. Want to know the strength of the updrafts in a convective cloud turret? Get a stopwatch and a theodolite, sit out in the desert, and measure the rise and fall of the cloud tops. Need to find out what steps are involved in a lightning stroke? Build a camera that has its film mounted on a rotating disk so you can get side-by-side images of the successive stages. Want a real bargain in scientific knowledge? Sit down with pencil and paper, and try to use these data to figure out how a cloud might work.

Some researchers have pointed out that atmospheric research was evolving through the same stages that medicine had passed through several centuries earlier. Workman and Holzer were studying the anatomy of the thunderstorm, identifying the phases of its life cycle, noting the roles of different parts. The physiology of the storm could be studied only after the anatomy was known. While learning the anatomy, they found, as is usually the case with basic research, that each answer they found gave birth to two or three more questions.

Workman and Holzer continued in this way for six years. They watched thunderstorms and swapped photos of unusual lightning strokes with other researchers. They wondered how long it would be until they understood exactly what was going on above their heads. After all, how complicated could a thunderstorm be? In those early years, Workman and his colleagues amassed a body of basic knowledge that would stand them in good stead later on.

As their knowledge and budgets grew, they turned to more-advanced problems. Then as now, one of the most tantalizing puzzles in atmospheric physics was the question of how clouds become electrified. Workman and his colleagues set up electric-field meters in the desert. When thunderstorms passed overhead, the readings told them, more or less, where the charging mechanism was located in the cloud. They figured out that the centers of charge were high enough to involve ice crystals and super-cooled water droplets, a finding that would become very important.

That discovery led to more questions. How do the ice crystals become electrified? What is the nature of the particles that make up a cloud? Could such knowledge be put to a practical use? The scientists paid a local garage to weld a steel roof onto an open Packard and outfitted the car with instruments. In this lightning-proof rolling laboratory, they pursued thunderstorms along the primitive roads of New Mexico. (Workman, an atrocious driver, later outfitted his own car with various sensors. With the accelerator firmly planted to the floor, he would duck under the dashboard to check the readings on a chart recorder. His passengers just gaped, awaiting their doom, as the blurred scenery sped by.)

But a few months after the thunderstorm season of 1941, the scientists' days of cloud watching in the desert came to an abrupt halt. The Research and Development Division found itself in military service. It was a rude interruption to the project, but both the R&DD and atmospheric physics in general would benefit from it.

In World War II, the military looked upon the wide-open wastelands of New Mexico and saw paradise. In the mountains north of Santa Fe a private boys' school, named Los Alamos, was selected as the intellectual center of the Manhattan Project. Huge volumes of mail suddenly pouring into a place as small as Los Alamos would have given away the secret location, so Workman's Physics Department address was used as a mail drop for the atomic bomb project. But the R&DD itself, eighty miles from the excitement of the Manhattan Engineering District, was put to work on a exotic device for which there was a pressing need: the proximity fuse.

Ordnance designers had known for a long time how to make bombs explode on impact. They also knew how to make time-delay fuses that would detonate artillery shells after a preset time of flight. Until World War II, impact detonation served well enough for attacking ground targets, and time-delay shells were thought to be good enough for antiaircraft use.

World War 11 brought the art of using explosives to a new level of sophistication. Shrapnel rounds are most effective against personnel if detonated a few feet above the ground. Anti-aircraft shells don't kill reliably unless they are set off close to the airplane. Bombs destroy certain types of structures more easily if exploded nearby, thus setting up a shock wave. Time-delay detonation was no longer accurate enough. Instead, the military needed a fuse that could actually sense the distance to the target. The Federal Office of Scientific Research and Development called on Workman to help invent one.

The proximity fuse, a great advance in weapons technology, was basically a primitive pulse radar. Implanted in the nose of a shell or bomb, it shot radio waves at the target and measured the time lapse until the waves bounced back. When that time was short enough, it detonated.

The theory was simple enough. The problems were all practical: how to make a rugged, reliable, easy-to-manufacture proximity fuse that would fit into the fuse-hole in a shell. Workman spent most of the war on the project, shuttling back and forth between Albuquerque and Washington, D.C. As improved designs were introduced during the war, Workman specialized in testing them. For a time, the tallest wooden towers in the world stood on the desert between Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains. Workman and his crew suspended airplanes between the two towers to serve as targets for proximity-fused shells.

They proved that the fuses worked as claimed, firing round after round to alleviate the peculiar angst of artillery men, who fear that a new, untried device may go off inside the gun. They were less successful in dealing with a fear that haunted Army security men--the specter of an unexploded shell landing behind enemy lines with the precious secret still humming away in its nose. The Navy, untroubled by that worry, began using proximity fuses against Japanese aircraft in 1943. The Army finally had to break out the fuses in 1944 to defend against V-1 buzz bombs. Later that year, proximity-fused shells were used with great success by the Navy against Japanese kamikaze planes and by the Army against German troops in the Battle of the Bulge.

Most of the proximity-fuse work was done clandestinely, but the secret was out by the end of the war. In a June 23, 1947, ceremony at Los Alamos, General Omar Bradley personally commended Workman and R&DD researcher John S. Reinhart for their efforts. "We can go a long way," said Bradley, "if we develop weapons so terrible that we won't have to use them, and thereby make war farther away." (Even as Bradley let slip his unintentional double entendre, the nearby White Sands Proving Range was working with captured German V-2 rockets and American copies.)

Thanks to military research, the R&DD was off and running by 1946. Workman's shoestring operation had grown into a 200-member department. In addition to testing proximity fuses, the division had studied such things as high velocity projectiles for penetrating tank armor and had tested the combat survivability of the new B-29 bomber. Meanwhile, thunderstorm research had not been entirely forgotten; since lightning can interfere with radio communication, the War Department had funded some investigations. But that work had been sporadic and limited in scope. When his war duties were over, Workman was eager to return to his primary interest, the thunderstorm.

But by 1946 the UNM president under whom the R&DD had grown and prospered had died, and his replacement wanted a piece of Workman's action. Lucrative Navy and Signal Corps contracts were being administered personally by Workman. The new president wanted the money to go through the university, which would then take some of it, Today it is standard procedure for universities to take as much as 50 percent off the top of every research contract. Upwardly mobile professors try to build reputations for securing outside funding, and administrators look with favor on the ones who bring in the biggest grants and contracts. But in 1946, Workman would have none of that.

The UNM president laid down the law: Either the contracts go through the school, Jack, or there will be no contracts. Fine, replied Workman. I'll move to the School of Mines and take my contracts and my people with me! The president called his bluff, only to find that Workman was not bluffing. Governor John Dempsey called a special meeting of the regents of both schools to discuss the matter. In a single afternoon, Workman and most of his key people resigned from UNM and were hired by the School of Mines.

When Workman went south to Socorro, he took all of the R&DD research contracts with him, an action that slashed the financial resources of UNM. Along with him came about half the people on the R&DD staff and in the UNM Physics Department. The only catch was that there was no place for them to go. The School of Mines had only 111 students in 1946, and the small town of Socorro had no place for the huge influx of scientists to live. So Workman, adding insult to injury, leased the buildings of the defunct Sandia Girls' School in Albuquerque and kept the R&DD right in UNM's back yard.

Radar Convoy Leaves Sandia Girls' School

The radar convoy leaves the Sandia Girls' School for the move to Socorro, 1949.
New Mexico Tech Archives.

Soon, more presidential trouble had Workman on the move again. The president of the School of Mines resigned for personal reasons, and the school's regents asked Workman to assume the interim presidency. He grudgingly agreed to take the job temporarily, while searching for his own replacement. Meanwhile, he lived in Albuquerque and commuted seventy miles to Socorro when necessary.

At the time, Socorro already had an absentee mayor; the prospect of also having an absentee president at the School of Mines was not well received by the townspeople. Soon, though, Workman's deeds made everyone angry enough to forget such trifles.

One of Workman's trusted administrative troubleshooters in the R&DD was Bill Glance, a retired Marine colonel. The newly chosen temporary absentee president sent Glance down to Socorro with orders to slim down the school's grossly oversized Physical Plant Department. Eleven employees (one for every ten students, and about one for every tree on the campus) found themselves out on the street. This provoked special dismay because they had gotten their jobs through local political patronage and had never dreamed that a grim-faced gringo from Albuquerque would send them packing.

Workman's next step was to disband the School of Mines basketball team. The team was a thoroughly mercenary outfit with a seven-foot player and a good record of tournament wins. A few of the players stayed on after the team was broken up, but three of them left the following year in a cheating scandal. The school never fielded another varsity team in any sport.

Having outraged the community, Workman tilted his lance at the faculty. The School of Mines had been, for all practical purposes, a trade school for geologists and mining engineers. Workman, who knew quite well how fast science and technology were progressing, thought the curriculum would have to be broader, deeper, and harder to prepare students adequately for the future. He decided, for example, that calculus should be a requirement for graduation in every field. That was such a heresy in 1946 that three different state agencies investigated his professional competence, but, as usual, he got his way in the end.

The calculus requirement was just the first step in a stem-to-stern redesign of the curriculum (to Workman's specifications, of course.) Since not all of the old faculty members agreed with his plans, he had to throw some of them out--in one case, literally.

After three years, Workman's interim presidency was beginning to look permanent, but he was still commuting between Albuquerque and Socorro. The expiration in 1949 of the lease on the former Girls' School forced his hand. The Atomic Energy Commission wanted to condemn the buildings for what would become Sandia National Laboratories, so it pulled rank on Workman, not realizing that he would fight back in court. Although Workman lost the suit to keep the buildings, he forced the AEC to pay the R&DD more than $600,000 for the privilege. Since the R&DD owed only $300,000 or so for the facilities, the division had a substantial bank account when it loaded its instruments on trucks and headed for Socorro.

Table of Contents

Next: Chapter 3 -- Tampering with the Weather

Previous: Chapter 1 -- The View from a Height