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Walter Orr Roberts papers

Identifier: COU:1356

Scope and Contents

The Walter Orr Roberts Papers span the years 1940-1990, with the bulk of the material dating from 1940-1957 an 1973-1990. They include Roberts professional correspondence and records from the High Altitude Observatory (1940-1957), the University of Colorado (1950-1990), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (1960-1968), the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (1960-1990), the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies (1973-1981), and the numerous professional organizations and scientific societies in which Roberts participated, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, and U.S.-Japan Committee on Scientific Cooperation. Material in the collection includes correspondence, meeting minutes and memoranda, congressional testimony, research contracts, data, grant and project proposals, reports and papers, speeches, travel records, and workshop and conference records. A small collection of media includes audio lectures and interviews, research films of clouds and solar phenomena, large format weather maps, and mostly unidentified photographic and lecture slides. See each series' scope and content note for more details.


  • Creation: 1940 - 1990

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for access.

Conditions Governing Use

The University Libraries do not own the copyright to this collection. Researchers are responsible for contacting the copyright holder(s) for this material and obtaining permission to publish or broadcast. The University Libraries will not grant permission to publish or broadcast this material and are not responsible for copyright violations resulting from such use.

Biographical / Historical

Born in West Bridgewater Massachusetts in 1915, Walter Orr Roberts graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Amherst College in 1938 before entering graduate school at Harvard University, under the supervision of Dr. Donald H. Menzel.

In 1940, Roberts was appointed superintendent of the Climax Observing Station of the Harvard College Observatory in Climax, Colorado, where he established a research program for the newly installed coronograph, the first in the Western Hemisphere. Invented by Bernard Lyot in the 1930s, the coronograph is a solar telescope designed to photograph solar prominences and corona through artificial eclipses of the sun. With his thesis, “Preliminary Studies of the Solar Corona and Prominences with the Harvard Coronograph,” Roberts received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1943.

In 1946, the Climax station was incorporated as the High Altitude Observatory of Harvard University and the University of Colorado, with Roberts remaining on as director. The observatory took on contracts to build equipment and conduct research for both public and private institutions, including the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards, the Naval Research Laboratory, and the Radio Corporation of America, and conducted a data reporting program providing atmospheric condition reports to numerous radio and air travel companies. In 1948, the High Altitude Observatory contracted with the U.S. Army Air Force to establish a second high altitude observing station in Sacramento Peak, New Mexico.

In 1953, the High Altitude Observatory split with Harvard and came fully incorporated under the University of Colorado, which put Roberts in charge of raising and managing funds for the expanding facilities and on-going research. He showed himself uniquely adept at building long-lasting relationships with small, private and foundation contributors, like Trans World Airlines, the Boettcher Foundation, and the Fleischmann Foundation, whose trust and support he would enjoy for the rest of his career.

In 1956, Roberts became head of the newly founded Department of Astro-Geophysics at CU Boulder, what would become a prominent Ph.D. program in atmospheric science and astrophysics, where Roberts would continue teaching until his death. In the same year, Roberts founded the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Research at the High Altitude Observatory, signaling the shift in his attention away from astronomy and toward the effects of solar phenomena on the Earth’s weather and climate. In 1957, the High Altitude Observatory participated in the International Geophysical Year project, a program to compile and centralize Earth science data from institutions around the world. The High Altitude Observatory, now with offices and laboratories on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, was chosen as the World Data Center for Solar Activity during the International Geophysical Year.

In 1956, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences began a plan for a national research center for atmospheric sciences, and Roberts was approached to take on the role of director. In 1960, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) began operations in Boulder, Colorado, funded largely by the National Science Foundation and managed by the newly incorporated University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). Walter Orr Roberts served as the director of NCAR from 1960 until 1968, as well as President and CEO of UCAR from 1960 until 1973, remaining an active trustee of UCAR until his death. In 1961, the internationally renowned architect I.M. Pei was selected to design the NCAR Mesa Laboratory in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, and the building was dedicated in 1967.

From 1974 to 1981, Roberts served as director of the Program on Food, Climate, and the World’s Future at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. He increased his research, writing, and speaking on climate change, warning of the dangers of global warming to our world food supply. In 1979, he published The Climate Mandate with Henry Lansford, on the implications of climactic variations, and he delivered expert testimony on the topic to the United States Congress in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

Throughout his career, Walter Orr Roberts served as an active and influential member in a wide variety of personal and professional organizations and programs, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study, the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, the Pacific Science Board of the National Academy of Science, the International Institute for Environment and Development, and U.S.-Japan Committee on Scientific Cooperation. He also served as a trustee of the Mitre Corporation, the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, and the Winrock International Livestock Center.

In addition to his scientific research, Roberts was a vocal figure in debates on science and public policy, science education, and international relations. He lectured throughout the 1950s on the dangers of nuclear war and the necessity of international collaboration on scientific projects, often traveling to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan, to improve relationships among scientific communities. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Roberts testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on his desire for cooperation among Soviet and American scientists, especially after the launch of Sputnik in 1957. He wrote regular editorials for the Boulder Daily Camera and Denver Post about issues of peace, international relations, and global agriculture through the 1980s.

A globally celebrated scientist, educator, and advocate, Roberts received many honors and awards, including 10 honorary doctorates, a medal from the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Regis University Civis Princeps award. The land surrounding the NCAR laboratory in Boulder, Colorado is now named the “Roberts Mesa.” Roberts died of cancer in Boulder in 1990. He was survived by his wife of 50 years, Janet Roberts (Smock), with whom he had four children.


120 linear feet (111 boxes, 27 reels, and 7 flat storage drawers)

Language of Materials



This collection contains the papers of internationally celebrated solar astronomer Walter Orr Roberts (1915-1990), a principal figure in many scientific developments in Colorado. Superintendent of the High Altitude Observatory in Climax, Colorado from 1940 to 1957, Roberts was named founding director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado in 1960. He served as director of NCAR from 1960 to 1968, as well as President and CEO of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) from 1960 to 1973, continuing as an active trustee of UCAR until his death. Walter Orr Roberts also served as a professor of Astro-Geophysics at the University of Colorado, a fellow of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and an active member of numerous professional organizations and scientific societies. This collection contains correspondence, research proposals, reports, speeches, and organization records from throughout Roberts career, reflecting his interests in solar astronomy, atmospheric science, nuclear disarmament, climate change and its influence on the world’s food supply, and increased collaboration between American and foreign scientists, including those of Japan, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union.


The Walter Orr Roberts Papers are arranged in the following five series:

I. Correspondence

II. Professional records

III. Personal papers

IV. Publications and writing

V. Media

Most file names appear as originally filed by Roberts and his administrative staff. File names listed in brackets were named by the processing archivist, based on content. Files within series are arranged by topic, alphabetically, and chronologically. Full published books and reports have been removed from the collection and can be found by searching the CU Boulder library database.

Physical Location

B11 B12; B-MC-8-D1-7

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Original 1976 accession contained 30 boxes, secured by the archive through Nancy Mikesell, assistant to Walter Orr Roberts. 15 subsequent accessions occured between 1981 and 2011, from the offices of Walter Orr Roberts, Roger Olson, Betty O'Lear of UCAR, and the University of Colorado museum. Full list of accessions available by request.

Processing Information

A number of published books, reports, and periodicals were removed from this collection by Jamie Marie Wagner in 2019, because there are copies readily available from other sources, including the CU Boulder Libraries general collections. They were formally deaccessioned to the CU Boulder Libraries' acquisitions department in November 2022. A list of removed publications is available in Box 58 of this collection.

Processed by Katherine Harris, 2004, and Jamie Marie Wagner, 2018
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Colorado Boulder Libraries, Rare and Distinctive Collections Repository

1720 Pleasant Street
184 UCB
Boulder Colorado 80503 United States