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Technological uproar

Sometimes people ask me why I came to New Mexico Tech originally. One reason was that I was impressed by a speech that Tech's president Stirling Colgate gave at my high school in Hobbs, New Mexico, while I was still a senior there. He told a story from his college days in Connecticut. He used the house boiler at Sigma Chi to heat the swimming pool for house party weekend, which necessitated bypassing the thermostat.* This was, according to him, an example of his theme---``technological uproar.''

He mentioned a legendary place called the Capitol Bar, which he referred to as the ``off-campus campus center,'' and talked about the folk singing that often went on in the basement. (The Capitol's customers were almost all from Tech in those days, and there were never any fights. One of my classes met there one semester.)

The recruiters from New Mexico State projected an image of competence and big budgets, but I was more attracted by the spirit of fun and adventure that radiated from Dr. Colgate when he talked about New Mexico Tech.

Most of the speech was about two experiments he was running that studied cloud formation by injecting ionized smoke into the atmosphere. The first project was the smoke ring generator, which was basically an oversized vortex gun. He had his crew build a large box with a round hole in the top and a canvas sheet on the bottom. An aircraft engine was mounted on the side. When oil was added to the fuel, it gave off smoky exhaust, which was blown into the box by a fan blade mounted on the engine. A rope attached to the center of the canvas sheet on the bottom was pulled tight and then released so that it expelled some smoke from the hole in the top of the box, blowing a smoke ring several feet in diameter, which was supposed to go into the air a long ways. Wires were strung across the hole in the top to put a charge on the smoke ring.

The second project was an adaptation of this apparatus that used a long piece of clear plastic sleeving to conduct the charged smoke into the sky. The sleeving was about ten feet in diameter and about a hundred feet long. Its base was attached to the hole on top of the smoke ring generator. The fan on the aircraft engine blew smoke into the sleeving and made it stand up. At the top of the sleeve was an inflated rubber ring, made from a surplus life raft with the bottom cut out. A small drogue parachute on top provided drag.

Colgate said that this apparatus was called the PBC, but he never mentioned in his speech (or in the NSF grant report) that this stood for ``Paul Bunyan's Condom.'' The wall of the bathroom in the northeast corner of Workman Center used to have a picture of the PBC, standing proudly, with the Playmate of the Month retouched into the picture, her arms wrapped around it and a big smile on her face.

Tech's politics were a curious inversion of what was going on elsewhere at the time. While radical students at Berkeley were picketing their conservative administration, Tech had a pretty conservative bunch of students and a relatively radical president.

College students love to complain, and Colgate had an interesting way of dealing with criticism. Two or three times a year he would hold an open forum in the canteen and invited anyone with a complaint to air it in public. If your problem had gone through the normal channels and was still unresolved, he would say right there what he planned to do about it. Of course, if you hadn't gone through channels, he would show no mercy; he understood the delegation of authority.

One of these forums seemed to be turning into a gripe festival about the cafeteria and the dorms. After about the tenth complaint, Colgate suddenly said, ``I could turn over control of the dorms and the cafeteria to the Student Council.'' The student politicians eyed each other nervously. They loved to complain, but the prospect of all that responsibility put out their fire in a hurry. Before ten minutes had passed, the subject was closed, and the administration was still running the dorms and the cafeteria. With Colgate, you never knew if his proposals were serious or if he was just making a point.

With a male-female ratio of six to one, there was a lot of complaining about the lack of social life (read: sex). One night at the Capitol my friend Speckled Trout and I listened raptly as Colgate described his plan for a student-run bordello. He had all the logistics figured out. The Student Council would rent a house within walking distance of campus, and hire two female students. The charge would be ten bucks a throw, with a small rake-off to pay off the authorities and the rest split fifty-fifty with the Student Council. Was he serious? I'll never know.

The spirit of technological uproar rubbed off on the students. With limited opportunities for recreation, the happiest students were the ones that made their own fun, as Fred Kuellmer (then Dean of the College) put it.

Two students that lived this advice to the hilt were Harry Hat (Jim Combs) and Joe Hat (Earl Griffith). Harry always wore a khaki baseball cap, and Joe always wore a porkpie hat. Both of them were extremely competent with electronics; they were nerds long before the term was invented. Within a week of starting college, Harry and Joe had bought a surplus radar and were working on it. The first edition of the student newspaper (El Arrastre) in the summer of 1966 had a cover picture showing Harry and Joe working on their radar; the caption was ``They've Landed.''

Harry found out that jets from Holloman AFB often used Socorro Peak as a radar target for simulated bombing runs. He made a jamming device and left it on the mountain, and for some time all the bombing scores went completely to hell. Eventually the folks from the Air Force tracked down the problem. The way I heard it, two MP's came and yanked Harry right out of class one day and took him to see the base commander. After screaming and threatening for the better part of an hour, the commander mentioned that he really wanted Harry to go to work there after he graduated, because he seemed to know more about radar than most of the radar specialists who worked there.

Harry also experimented with making flying saucers, a popular diversion for dorm residents. One version was a hot-air balloon made from plastic drinking straws, birthday candles, and a dry cleaning bag. The straws were glued together into an X shape and about twelve birthday candles were mounted on the straws; the dry cleaning bag formed the enevelope. I saw several of these launched from South Hall, and they were probably responsible for a fair number of UFO reports.

One more ambitious flying saucer was specifically designed to upset the folks at White Sands Missile Range. The envelope was a surplus weather balloon filled with natural gas. The payload consisted of a highway flare, a hundred-foot steel surveyor's measuring tape, and a long fuse. The measuring tape was weighted at one end and rolled up and secured with a piece of waxed string.

After the prevailing wind had blown the balloon out over the north end of the range, the fuse burned to the end and lit the highway flare and burned the string around the steel tape. The radar operators at Holloman were rather upset when a hundred-foot long radar target appeared suddenly on their screens. They scrambled several interceptors. There were reports of a bright red light in the sky, but the interceptors never found the large airplane they were looking for.

A correction and apology from 2009

Tangential to some correspondence about whether the famous Socorro UFO incident might have been a hoax staged by Tech students, Dr. Colgate read this page in 2009 and asked me to correct an erroneous early version which read:

One weekend they were at a party at a sorority house and they decided to tie down the safety valve on the boiler, stoke it up, and leave.

Here is Dr. Colgate's remembrance.

A total mis-truth and fantasy.
I used the house boiler at Sigma Chi to heat the swimming pool for house party weekend. It required by-passing the thermostat control. I was in charge and no danger all the time. not [a] soro[r]ity
I was a licenced marine engineer at the end of the war, and never, never by-pass a safety valve.
I gave the same talk at Los Alamos a number of months later; students appreciated the honesty concerning their technical world. will have to demand a retraction from John Shippman.

I deeply regret this untruth and would like to apologize to Dr. Colgate.

I wrote this story for the Tech student newspaper sometime in the early 1980s, based on my faulty memories of a talk he gave at Hobbs High School probably sometime in 1965. I am entirely responsible for the error, and will gladly correct anything else I got wrong from that era.

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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2009/10/04 22:48:23