Charles B. Moore, 1920-2010

Doctoral Ceremony for C. B. Moore, 2004 New Mexico Tech Notes Passing of Noted Atmospheric Researcher

[Note: times of services will be posted here when established. For an appreciation of Moore's scientific contributions, please scroll down.]

SOCORRO, N.M., March 4, 2010 – Charles B. Moore, renowned researcher on atmospheric physics, passed away on March 2, 2010, in Socorro.

Moore was professor emeritus of physics at New Mexico Tech and former chairman of Tech’s Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. Although he retired in 1985, he remained active in his research until the last few years, when Alzheimer’s disease affected him. He is survived by his wife, Wilma, and their three children, Charles III, Rita, and Malcolm.

Moore took a long and circuitous route to the heights of his profession, managing to bypass a Ph.D. along the way, until 2003, when he was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by New Mexico Tech. He received numerous awards from fellow scientists, including a fellowship awarded by the American Geophysical Union, the Otto C. Winzen Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Atmospheric Electricity Community.

Moore was born on October 28, 1920, in Maryville, Tenn. He started college at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1940, but like many of his generation, his education was interrupted by service in World War II. He served as a weather equipment officer for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China-Burma-India theater, and later was a weather observer in occupied China.

Moore returned to Georgia Tech, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1947. He was then recruited for Project Mogul by New York University, which conducted the project for the U. S. Army Air Corps.

He later recalled that the extended field trips were what ended his graduate schooling.

Project Mogul involved launching balloons to carry microphones up to the base of the stratosphere, where the temperature of the atmosphere is highly effective at refracting sound waves. At the time, 1947, the United States was concerned with listening for nuclear testing by other countries, especially the Soviet Union, so the microphone-bearing balloons were launched to listen for the sounds.

The experiment succeeded in detecting U.S. nuclear tests in the South Pacific, 6,000 miles away, but it also added an important footnote to American cultural history. A balloon launched by Moore in June of 1947 later proved to be the item that is enshrined at Roswell as a “UFO.” Moore didn't realize the part he had played in the drama until he happened to see a newspaper picture of the pieces of the “UFO” in the 1990s.

Moore was considered a pioneer in the development and testing of modern polyethylene balloons as atmospheric research tools. In 1947, he made the first flight in a such a balloon, and in a later test, he made a 24-hour balloon flight from Minneapolis to New Jersey. In 1957, he made a record-breaking flight to the altitude of 82,000 feet in a pressurized balloon gondola, with Commander Malcolm D. Ross. During this flight, he made the first measurements which discovered traces of water vapor in the atmosphere of Venus.

After he carried reconnaissance cameras to high altitude for the U.S. Air Force, a program to fly balloons carrying these cameras over the Soviet Union was established by General Mills, for whom Moore worked until 1953. He was then offered an opportunity to work for Arthur D. Little, a research company in Cambridge, Mass., again on a project involving research by balloon. While there, he designed and built the first alkaline-metal vaporizers used in rocket-borne ionospheric probes. Also at Little, Moore met and began his long collaboration with Dr. Bernard Vonnegut.

Vonnegut was well-known as the scientist who had discovered that silver iodide could be used for cloud seeding. In 1956, Moore and Vonnegut were invited to New Mexico by E. J. Workman, then president of New Mexico Tech, to conduct thunderstorm research at Mt. Withington, some 70 miles west of Tech. For three successive summers, Moore and Vonnegut hauled truckloads of equipment to and from Boston each year, until the fateful day in 1958 when Moore suggested that what they needed was a mountaintop lab where the equipment could be kept year round.

Workman and his colleague Marx Brook liked the idea, but instead of Mt. Withington, as Moore proposed, they decided to put their lab in the Magdalena Mountains, closer to Socorro and within line-of-sight of the campus. By 1964, their lab – Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research – was built and ready to put into operation. In 1965, Dr. Stirling Colgate, the new president of New Mexico Tech, offered jobs to both Moore and Vonnegut. The latter chose to stay at Arthur D. Little – and later moved to SUNY Albany – but Moore was delighted at the opportunity and came to Tech as an associate professor of physics and research physicist.

In 1969, he became the chairman of Langmuir Laboratory. During his time at the helm, Moore greatly expanded the lab's facilities. He obtained funding for and organized the construction of a large addition to the Main Building, a balloon hangar, an airplane hangar, and underground shielded rooms (Faraday cages) on South Baldy Peak for studying nearby lightning. He was also responsible for the construction of a vertically-scanning radar and for solving the political problems to allow the launching of instrumented rockets into thunderstorms over Langmuir Laboratory. In addition, he organized the modification and instrumentation of an airplane that has flown into thunderstorms for many years.

Moore also taught techniques of launching balloons in severe weather to a number of Tech faculty members and students, many of whom continued their work in the field. Thus, he was the mentor of many of today's scientists who study electrical properties of severe storms.

Moore nominally retired from New Mexico Tech in 1985, but continued to be active in research. He developed the first real improvement to the lightning rod since Benjamin Franklin invented it in the 18th Century, by proving that blunt-tipped rods were more effective than pointed-tipped ones. As a result of his work, most of the lightning rods manufactured in the United States today are blunt-tipped.

Moore was a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and received New Mexico Tech's Distinguished Research Award in 1984 and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1997. He was a fellow in three scientific societies: The Royal Meteorological Society, American Meteorological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Upon presenting Moore with an honorary doctorate in 2003, Dr. Daniel H. López of New Mexico Tech said, “In a real sense, this is not an honorary doctorate at all. Charles B. Moore has been a leader in the field of atmospheric physics, and he has done research that would have earned him a Ph.D. many times over, had he consented to accept one before now.”

Dr. Paul Krehbiel, an atmospheric researcher who knew Moore well, commented, “Charlie was a person of many talents. He was a pioneer in the study of thunderstorms and lightning and a font of scientific knowledge. He was a true student of history and a historian in his own right, and possessed an excellent memory. He was a mentor and educator of many, myself included. His legacy lives on in the ideas, studies and projects that he developed and worked on over his long and amazingly varied career.”

Dr. William Winn, who worked with Charles Moore for many years, said, “Charles inspired me and many other young investigators with his enthusiasm, independent thinking, and precise use of the English language, and he was a delightful companion because of his good humor and storytelling skills."

-- NMT --

(Kathleen Hedges)


Dr. Paul Krehbiel, one of C. B. Moore's colleagues at New Mexico Tech, presented this appreciation of Moore's scientific contributions.

Charles B. Moore
October 28, 1920 – March 2, 2010

Charles B. Moore (more familiarly known as ‘Charlie’, or C.B.) had a remarkable career studying a broad range of atmospheric electric and related meteorological phenomena. He was an experimentalist and observationalist extraordinaire, able to look at problems both from a practical and theoretical standpoint and to document the results in numerous publications.

Charlie was born in 1920 and, like many of his generation, his career was profoundly altered and influenced by the Second World War. Following Pearl Harbor he interrupted his undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering at Georgia Tech to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was enrolled in the Army Air Corps meteorological training school that led him to become Chief Weather Equipment Officer in the 10th Weather Squadron, setting up and operating remote meteorological stations behind enemy lines in the China-Burma-India theater. He served with distinction under rigorous conditions alongside Athelstan Spilhaus, Sr., who had been one of Charlie's instructors in the meteorology school.

Following the war, Charlie completed his undergraduate studies at Georgia Tech and in 1947 was recruited by Spilhaus to New York University to work on the Constant Altitude Balloon Project. Together, they pioneered the use of polyethylene balloons for atmospheric studies [Spilhaus, Schneider, and Moore, 1948]. The balloons were initially used during the top secret Project `Mogul' to monitor for the widely anticipated Soviet nuclear tests. An early test flight in New Mexico with neoprene balloons was not recovered and became the cause of the infamous `Roswell incident' of extraterrestrial notoriety. During his retirement Charlie documented the post-war activities that led to the development of polyethylene balloons in a detailed scientific contribution to a book on the Roswell incident [Moore, 1997].

Being a student of history and possessing an excellent memory, Charlie was an excellent source of knowledge about the people and history of things past, but almost never talked about his own, usually substantial role in things. One had to read between the lines, fill in the blanks, and seek other sources of information to ascertain his real and usually substantial role in things. By doing this, one finds out that Charlie was the first person to launch a modern polyethylene balloon, was the first person to pilot the new balloons, and played a major role in the first high-altitude photographic reconnaissance flight using the balloons. The latter flight produced spectacularly detailed pictures from 90,000 feet and led to the subsequent development of the U-2 surveillance aircraft. For these and his later accomplishments in the field of scientific ballooning, Charlie was awarded the Otto C. Winzen Lifetime Achievement award in 1997.

In 1953, Charlie joined the Arthur D. Little Corporation to work with Bernard Vonnegut. There he developed techniques for vaporizing sodium, cesium, and calcium from rockets for high-altitude studies of winds and sodium in the upper atmosphere. In 1959, Charlie and U.S. Naval Officer Malcolm Ross piloted the Strato-Lab IV polyethylene balloon to 81,000 feet altitude and used a 16-inch telescope and spectrograph to obtain the first evidence of water vapor on Venus. This pioneering experiment, conducted with John Strong of Johns Hopkins University, initiated a long string of studies on water in the Venusian atmosphere. (The 50th anniversary of the flight was recently commemorated on NPR’s StarDate program of Nov. 29, 2009 - see

Charlie's work in atmospheric electricity commenced in 1953 with a three-year joint study with Bernie Vonnegut of dispersing fog by using electrical charge releases to upset the colloidal stability of the fog. The results of their few experiments on natural fogs were inconclusive, but the studies demonstrated that the atmospheric electric field could be substantially altered and enhanced over large areas downwind of the charge releases [Vonnegut and Moore, 1958; Vonnegut, Moore, et al., 1961].

In 1956, 1957, and 1958, to test the ideas of Vonnegut's convective hypothesis for the electrification of storms, Moore and Vonnegut conducted an amazingly comprehensive set of thunderstorm electrification studies atop Mt. Withington, New Mexico [Moore et al., 1959a and 1959b; Vonnegut et al., 1959a, 1959b]. The Withington studies were the first to identify a number of important electrical features of storms, such as electric field excursions associated with precipitation and the end of storm polarity oscillation. In a separate study of the Worcester, Massachusetts tornadic storm they determined that large severe storms might have an inverted polarity electrical structure [Vonnegut and Moore, 1959]. This was an amazingly prescient finding that was rediscovered some 40 years later during the STEPS 2000 project, which is continuing to raise major and definitive questions about storm electrification processes.

The Withington results challenged precipitation-based electrification ideas by indicating that electrical effects could be detected inside the cloud before the onset of detectable precipitation. The studies also showed that precipitation falling out of the cloud carried the opposite sign of charge than the precipitation mechanisms would predict. The results substantially enlivened the already lively debate on the relative merits of the various different electrification mechanisms. Charlie went on to become a leading critic of the then-currently popular precipitation mechanisms involving collisional charging of hail [e.g., Moore, 1965, 1975, 1977]. In further pursuit of the convective electrification ideas, between 1959 and 1964 Moore and Vonnegut made observations of lightning in warm (non ice-containing) clouds around the Bahama Islands [Moore et al., 1960], obtained intriguing results on the effect of releasing space charge into small cumulus clouds in Illinois [Moore et al., 1962], and made U2 flights above convective turrets in Florida storms [Vonnegut, Moore, et al., 1966]. Each of the studies lent additional credence to the convective electrification ideas.

Charlie came to New Mexico Tech as a faculty member in the Physics Department in 1965. I came to Tech in 1966 to work with Marx Brook, an advocate of precipitation-based electrification ideas. I got jump-started into the field of atmospheric physics and atmospheric electricity in a graduate course on the subject with Charlie. Charlie was a natural-born teacher and a font of knowledge on a wide range of topics in physics and chemistry for both colleagues and students alike.

It was at Charlie's recommendation to Brook in 1958 that Tech's Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research was conceived and built. Charlie had recommended that it be built on Mount Withington in the San Mateo Mountains further west of Socorro, but Tech president E.J. Workman instead built it on the southern end of the South Baldy ridge in the Magdalena Mountains, within line of sight of the Tech campus. Charlie arrived at Tech shortly after the Laboratory opened. He became the Laboratory's Director in 1969 and went on to establish it as a premier facility for studying airmass storms and lightning. He designed and constructed a number of physical facilities for the Laboratory and a variety of instrumentation facilities for the Laboratory's scientific studies, including a 3-cm radar, networks of electric field mills, acoustic microphones, and rain gauges, and time-lapse camera stations. He also acquired two Special Purpose Test Vehicles for Atmospheric Research (SPTVAR) powered gliders from the Office of Naval Research, converted them from drones to manned aircraft, and working with colleagues William Winn and Dan Jones, outfitted them with innovative configurations of electric field mills and related instrumentation for in-situ storm measurements. To enable the SPTVAR and other research aircraft (as well as instrumented rockets) to probe storms unimpeded, Moore and Winn worked with the FAA to establish Restricted Air Space R5113, at the time the only restricted air space designated for non-military use. In 1980, working with the New Mexico congressional delegation, Charlie was instrumental in getting Public Law 96-550 passed by the U.S. Congress, establishing 31,000 acres around the laboratory as a preserve for scientific research, called the Langmuir Research Site. Among other things, this paved the way for Langmuir becoming a site for Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) studies and, more recently, the site of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO).

During his 16-year tenure as Director, Charlie and a number of colleagues and students conducted a steady string of investigations at Langmuir Laboratory. These included studies with Bill Winn of rocket soundings of electric fields inside storms [Winn and Moore, 1971; Winn, Schwede, and Moore 1974], which showed that the electric field strengths in storms were less than the values normally considered necessary to initiate lightning; studies of point discharge and ozone production beneath thunderstorms [Shlanta and Moore, 1972], which also laid the groundwork for Charlie's later lightning rod studies; electric field, conductivity, space charge, and particle charge measurements in the bases of storms from captive balloons [Rust and Moore, 1974; Binford, Moore, and Winn, 1975]; radar studies of precipitation development in storms [Holmes, Moore, et al., 1977; Szymanski et al., 1980]; aircraft measurements of electric fields and particle charges inside storms [Gaskell et al., 1977, 1978; Christian et al., 1980]; free balloon soundings of electric field profiles through storms [Winn, Moore, et al., 1978; Winn et al., 1980; Winn, Moore, and Holmes, 1981]; studies of lower positive charge regions in storms [Holden et al., 1980]; and continued charge release experiments that resulted in anomalous electrification in the lower parts of storms [Moore et al., 1986; Moore, Vonnegut, and Holden, 1989].

The above studies, and the numerous follow-up investigations spawned by the studies, have provided much of our current understanding of the electrical nature and properties of thunderstorms. Many of the experiments and techniques developed by Charlie and colleagues he recruited to become involved in the studies have become primary observational tools for the continuing studies of thunderstorm electrification. Of particular importance was the use of instrumented aircraft and free balloons for studying the electrical charge structure of storms [e.g., Gaskell et al., 1977; Winn, Moore, et al., 1978; Christian et al., 1983]. The free balloon sounding technique that Bill Winn and Charlie developed has played a continued and increasingly important role in understanding the electrical properties of the large and often severe Great Plains storms.

Charlie did not limit his research work to the questions of thunderstorm electrification but actively pursued a number of related studies as well. Of particular note was his work with rocket-triggered lightning, lightning rods, and volcanic lightning. His studies of volcanic lightning during the Surtsey eruption in 1963 [Anderson et al., 1965] and (with Marx Brook) of the Heimaey volcano in 1973 [Brook, Moore, and Sigurgeirsson, 1974] were the first ones of their kind, and showed that the lightning occurred as a result of the volcanic cloud becoming positively charged when molten lava contacted saline sea water.

(As an aside, the Surtsey papers reflect Charlie's unselfish habit, picked up from Vonnegut, of often putting himself relatively far down the list of authors on papers, despite often having played the lead role in conducting the studies and of writing them up for publication. The volcano and triggered lightning papers are a few examples of this.)

Moore's early experiences at Mt. Withington and his studies of corona discharges from wires led to the understanding that fine wires or points tend to protect themselves from being hit by a lightning discharge. But a simple experiment conducted with the large Van de Graaff generator at the Boston Museum of Science demonstrated that fast-moving wires would actually trigger a discharge if the speed of the wire tip were faster than that of the ions it was releasing [Brook et al., 1961]. This result provided the major impetus to the idea that lightning could be triggered by small, wire-trailing rockets and led to the development of triggering techniques both in the U.S. and in France. Charlie and graduate student Ronald Standler first succeeded in triggering lightning at Langmuir in 1974; Charlie went on to conduct a long series of classified and unclassified experiments with the U.S. Air Force on the effects of lightning transients on sensitive electronic equipment and other objects, and using strong lightning transients to simulate the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion [e.g., Baum et al., 1983, 1987].

In 1970, Moore and Brook helped investigate the Apollo 12 lightning incident at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. They showed that the lightning had been triggered by the rocket, due to the rocket having a long electrical length and having been launched into a marginally electrified storm [Brook, Holmes, and Moore, 1970]. A significant aspect of the study was that it included the first application of analytic ellipsoidal formulations to the problem of electric field intensification at the tips of elongated objects, something that Moore introduced to the study and used to considerable advantage in his subsequent lightning rod studies. The recommendations of the study led to the installation at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) of a network of electric field mills and indirectly to the development of the automated Lightning Detection and Ranging (LDAR) system, both of which have been important atmospheric electric indicators for range safety operations at KSC and Cape Canaveral. Charlie also advised NASA that an umbrella-like catenary cable system be used to protect rockets from lightning while sitting on the launch pad; the recommendations were not followed until after two Skylab rockets were damaged by lightning strikes while awaiting launch. Since implementation of catenary protection no lightning damage occurred, despite numbers of strikes to the launch complexes.

As a result of his earlier studies and his work at KSC, in the early 1970s Charlie initiated a long and still-continuing series of investigations into the use of different types of lightning rods and schemes for lightning protection. This resulted in detailed studies of the response of sharp and blunt lightning rods to downward-developing lightning leaders as they approach ground [Moore, 1975, 1998; Moore et al., 2000a, 2000b], to experimental evaluations of the actual performance of different types of lightning protection techniques and devices [e.g., Moore et al, 2003], and to a series of publications on the theory and practice of lightning protection [Moore et al., 1981; Moore, 1983, Moore et al., 1998, 2002a].

Charlie retired from his formal teaching and faculty position in 1985, but continued to remain active and highly productive in his research work. Most of his lightning rod studies have been conducted during his ‘retirement’. From his observations that sharp objects tend to protect themselves from being struck, Charlie pioneered the idea that blunt rods make better lightning protectors than the sharp ones visualized by Benjamin Franklin and long considered a necessary and important feature of lightning rods. Charlie’s ideas in this regard have been supported by long-term field tests involving the two types of rods as well as other protection devices [e.g., Moore, Aulich, and Rison 2003]. The field tests have been sufficiently convincing that the mainstream lightning protection industry has rapidly moved toward adopting blunt rather than sharp lightning rods.

An important sidelight of the lightning rod studies has been that Charlie and colleagues William Rison and Graydon Aulich became involved in testing more esoteric types of lightning protection systems, in particular the so-called `early streamer emission' devices and various types of lightning `preventors'. Their tests have shown such devices to be essentially worthless. Despite this, some manufacturers of the devices threatened the U.S. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) with major legal action because the Association would not grant a standard for the devices (the patents for which describe them as being `ornamental'). Under the substantial litigation threat the NFPA was intimidated into proposing that its NFPA 780 standard be dropped, a move that would have been a disaster for lightning protection in the U.S. In his usual, largely unsung manner, Charlie initiated a persistent effort to retain NFPA 780. The situation hung in the balance for several years but in 2000 was ultimately successful, thanks almost entirely to Charlie's persistence on the matter. Part of Charlie's contribution to saving NFPA 780 was a lengthy compendium of historical documents and quotes testifying to the beneficial effects that lightning rods have had over the 250 years since Franklin invented them.

At the beginning of his retirement, Charlie undertook a five-year study of helicopter charging. Such charging causes potentially lethal sparks between a cable lowered from jet-powered helicopters and a grounded object (such as a person undergoing rescue) -- a major concern for military operations. He and Marx Brook conducted an extended series of field tests to determine the mechanism of the charging (a positive-feedback induced charging effect from the jet exhaust) and devised a way of controlling the charging that was subsequently patented by the Navy. Like all his writings, the series of reports that he wrote on the helicopter charging studies were models of clarity and practical scientific exposition.

As a crowning glory to his career, in a special experiment made possible by his lightning rod studies, Charlie and his colleagues succeeded in detecting X-rays from lightning [Moore et al., 2001]. A number of investigators had attempted to do this ever since C.T.R. Wilson first suggested the idea 75 years ago, but it was Charlie's persistence in the pursuit of science that finally led to the observations.

Charlie’s post-war ballooning expertise and studies wound up taking priority over him obtaining advanced academic degrees. In partial rectification of this, in 2003 Charlie was awarded an honorary Ph.D. degree in Physics from New Mexico Tech. The award went well beyond an honorary degree -- it was a belated and well-deserved recognition of his numerous and wide-ranging achievements. Among his earlier recognitions, Charlie became a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969, the American Meteorological Society (1976), and the Royal Meteorological Society (1978). In 1984 he was one of the first recipients of Tech’s Distinguished Research Award. In 1993, he and longtime colleagues Bernie Vonnegut and Marx Brook were presented with special Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Atmospheric Electricity Community. Especially well-deserved and appreciated was his selection as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2005. In one of those particularly fitting and poignant occasions, at the induction ceremony Charlie was congratulated by A. Fred Spilhaus, Jr., Executive Director of the AGU and the son of A. F. Spilhaus, Sr,. under whom Charlie began his long career.

[References to C. B. Moore's publications]


Paul Krehbiel,
Professor, Department of Physics
Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research