- Science at Godwin -

Pre Sputnik Science and engineering at Godwin.
Dick Brockmeier.
Sputnik and beyond.

- Introduction -

While biology, chemistry, physics, and "science" were taught at Godwin as far back as 1942, only in about 1950 were there full time teachers in each of these subjects. Wayne Stafford was the physics instructor from 1951 until he retired. Norman Dice joined the faculty in 1953 taught physiology. Russell Koons was on the faculty in 1954, and was the chemistry teacher, although he could also teach physics and algebra. Each of these people not only taught rigorous classes, but left room for more interested students to dig deeper. Russell Koons would put a large jugs of water up on the counter, next to the sink, open the end, and move the bottle to one side a bit as the water drained out. The bottle would then rock back and forth as the water drained out.

While he said nothing, and hoped at least one student would ask why the bottle did that, it was in fact a demonstration of clock action. Just as the heavy weight in a coo-coo clock, or the spring in a windup clock, provide the energy to run the clock, so here did the escaping water provide energy, and the bottle would oscillate until no more water could escape from the jug. All of these teachers had ways of seeing whether their students were really connecting to the subject. And of course that included the timeless method of testing, which motivated some students in ways that other methods did not.

Before WWII the US did not have a particularly strong tradition in science. Nothing like, say, the Germans. There was a great deal of high quality engineering, reflecting a more pragmatic, can-do approach. The high technology of the time, represented by things like the magnificent US railroad system, and the innovations that made it possible, and the steel, auto, oil, mining industries that used it, represented a blend of empirical methods and just plain sweat. Thomas Edison invented the concept of the industrial lab, and was one of the first to engage in a business of inventions for hire. Edison, or a customer, would identify a need, and often as not Edison would come through with a breakthrough innovation, otherwise called an invention. AT&T, dating back to the invention of the telephone in 1876, grew into an institution that provided universal telephone service for generations. In the early 1900s the process of electrifying the US began, and speeded up during the Great Depression, as otherwise out of work set of manpower went about building transmission lines across the country. Often these lines used abandoned railroad right of ways, or paralleled railroad tracks. Example of this are the power lines one the former interurban track that passed through the middle of Frank Rackett's property, and those just west of the Grand Rapids and Indiana tracks.

Many of these technologies were life altering. It's now hard to imagine someone in the 1920s or 1930s getting electricity, telephone, and an automobile, all within the span of 5 to 10 years. Few new things today ever rival the fundamental impact on people's lives that these technologies did. Think to the last time your electricity was down, and how your life seemed to be basically on hold until it came back up. For someone that had not had electricity before, day and night took on a different meaning - one could now have effective lights, and perhaps a radio. A host of household appliances, now taken for granted, eased the labor of everyday life, and created spare time for doing things other than just getting through the day.

Incredible as all of these things were and are, they were not fundamentally science. The science needed almost entirely came out of Europe. Nikola Tesla, a Serb born in 1856, invented A/C electricity in about 1880, and in a very real sense made the modern world possible. The thermodynamics needed to design and improve steam locomotives and power plants was almost entirely developed in Europe. So was much of the chemistry needed to develop the oil and chemical industry in the US. In Germany there was a close alliance between industry and the universities. Industry used the results of fundamental discoveries made in the universities, and in turn provided financial support. That many fundamental problems worked on in the universities also had practical applications was by design.

This kind of approach was much less common in the US at the time, although it is very common in year 2005. Between about 1915 and 1935, if a physics student in the US wanted to learn the latest results in physics a stint in Europe, particularly Germany, was essentially a right of passage. Jobs in science were not all that easy to come by at the time, and mostly consisted of those in education or the few industrial labs. AT&T's Bell Labs, GE labs, and RCA's Hazleton labs being some major examples. But for the most part, even large companies mostly got by as best they could in matters of science, and mostly used the Edison trial and error approach to solving problems rather than any fundamental investigation.

This all changed during and after WWII. While wars like the US Civil War, and WWI, each saw large amounts of technical innovation, mostly in the area of military technology, WWII was fundamentally different. Within a span of about 10 years, one saw the emergence of radar, jet planes, the nuclear industry, and space travel. After the war one witnessed the evolution of the Cold War, and another 45 years of technological and scientific advances that culminated in putting men on the moon by 1969, just 24 years after WWII ended, the satellite industry, and the transistor, invented in 1947, and integrated circuit, which continues to affect every aspect of life today, and has made possible things like the home computer and the Internet. The Internet alone is having a profound affect on the way people work and share information of just about every kind, as well as the speed with which many tasks can now be accomplished.

So the importance of science was in the air after WWII. But having won the war, there was something of a national mania to get back to normal, mostly meaning the way things were before the war. While a large number of world class scientists came to the US and stay as a result of the war, they mostly settled in to US universities and the large scientific labs created during the war to create technology needed for the war. Part of project "Lusty," both the US and the USSR gathered as much German technology as they could get their hands on after the war, and brought it back to their home countries. This included jet engines and planes, and V-1 (Buzz bomb ) and V-2 Rockets. And the rocket team of Werner von Braun.

The US and the USSR settled in to a Cold War pattern in the 1940s and early and mid 1950s. The USSR had an atomic bomb by 1949, and continued to develop rockets. Early on with the help of their own German rocket scientists hired after WWII ( not captured, as often claimed ), and later using Russian rocket scientist brought up to speed by the Germans, and led by Serge Korolev. Often called the Russian von Braun, Korolev was little known in the West. It was somewhat his idea to bring attention to the USSR by creating a series of space stunts, in the form of USSR firsts.

The very first occurred on October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. While it did impress the West, in some ways it was probably also the undoing of the USSR. While impressed, many in the US were also very frightened at the thought that the US was behind in rocket science. While in retrospect not true, what Sputnik did for US science education set in motion a process that would last for three or four decades. Students across the US were encouraged to study science. Large amounts of federal money poured in to science programs of every kind. Universities expanded, and jobs in science were there for the asking. The competitive atmosphere between the US and the USSR poured fuel on the fire, and the space race was born. A race where the accomplishments were a metaphor for the scientific and technical prowess of the host country.

The effects of the space race, and the science and technology involved, gave science and engineering a cache that attracted students in a way never before seen. Phrases like "rocket scientist," today's "it doesn't take a rocket scientist," "nuclear physics," and "electronic brain," were often heard. And almost everyone knew at least one physics formula, E=mc2, even if they had essentially no idea what it really meant. Einstein became a household name, and to this day is synonymous with intelligence in the extreme.

So in the late 1940s and early to mid 1950s a high school student studying science would have almost boundless opportunities. But "predicting is hard, especially the future," and only a strong interest in technology and science would have motivated a student to pursue a career in these fields. A few did.

- Pre Sputnik Science and engineering at Godwin -

In the 1930s and 1940s technologies like radio, electricity, and automobiles were still fairly new in the average household, yet, unlike year 2005, still relatively tractable for many people. Anyone from weekend mechanics to professionals could work on cars with some good effect. Engines were relatively simple, if not particularly reliable, and so anyone who owned a car was in the position of having to either tinker with it, or get someone else to. Words and phrases like "timing," "points," "valve job," "carburetor problems," and to a lesser extent, "tires," kept millions of car owners on their toes. Unlike today's cars, which can be expected to go one hundred thousand miles without much care, an engine of the late 1930s through much of the 1960s, would find itself needing a valve job after only 50 or 60 thousand miles. Air and oil filters were not as good as today, nor were materials in many cases. Gaskets of all kinds rotten, and one might find water in places in an engine where it wasn't supposed to be.

In year 2005, many of these issues seem quaint, if familiar at all. But for decades, Godwin students became familiar with what was under the hood of their car, or, more likely, their parent's car. And this often led to more serious involvement with cars. After the industrial arts building was erected, and ready for use about 1946, Godwin students could learn about the engineering aspects of cars and other mechanical items at essentially any level of interest. This included things like welding, mechanical drawing, turning blueprints in to physical examples, and overhauling engines, of which three were available. Many went on to careers at all levels in the auto industry.

Electricity and radio showed a similar pattern. Both were still something of a wonder to most people who had still not become so familiar with them that they ceased to be amazed any longer. Electricity was and is at the core of modern life, and in the 1930s and early 1940s yet, not everyone even had reliable electricity, or the appliances it made possible. Many houses were wired in a retrofit manner, and with wiring so small that when overloaded, many a house burned down as a result. The modern house, with three or four outlets in every room, was largely unknown.

Radio was probably even more of a mystery. Entertainment came from far away places, and if one learned a thing or two about antennas, and listened late at night, one could receive the "clear channel" stations like WGN from hundreds, and occasionally even a thousand, miles away. Photographs from the 1930s and 1940s show that the household radio was often as not the center of entertainment within the home. Quality, scheduled programming offered something for all age groups in the house. And the opportunity to just site back and listen perhaps engaged people's imaginations in unique ways. A suggestive mystery program, like "Inner Sanctum," would let people's minds wander and fill in the details in novel ways.

But radio also provided more opportunity for involvement. Many students learned to build crystal sets. Together with a typically large antenna, and sensitive headphones, one could listen to a radio station and no battery or other means of power was needed. This all seemed rather magical to many, and provided many students with an opportunity to learn why this was possible.

Like automobiles, radios were rather straightforward in construction at the time, if not necessarily simple in principle. And like the automobiles of the time, they were fundamentally not very reliable. The reason was the tubes. The two to four tubes in the typical radio ran very hot, and had lifetimes of perhaps hundreds of hours. But it was not hard to find a radio parts store, or even a drugstore, that had a tube tester, with green, yellow, and red regions, which determined whether a tube was good, marginal, or needed replacement. There were only a few kinds of standard tubes, so a store would typically stock all of them. So a customer would carefully extract all of the tubes from a radio, unless perhaps one of them was clearly dark, indicating that, like a lightbulb, it was bad, and take them to a store that had a tube tester. In this way, most people that owned a radio became their own repair persons, much like the house auto mechanic. This same process was also part of owning a television set in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

One could do more than just listen however. The complement of the radio receiver was the transmitter. While home radios mostly received signals from commercial transmitters, the phenomena of ham radio operators sprang up early in the history of the industry, and allowed individuals to obtain licenses to transmit signals on frequencies allocated for such purposes by the federal government. There were ( and are ) classes of licenses that determined whether one had to use Morse code to send signals, or, with a higher class license, could use voice. Similar restrictions applied to a transmitter's power rating, which to an extent had to do with the range of a signal.

Some of all this seems quaint in 2005, where people tend to communicate using the Internet, and have little to no interest in how it works in any fundamental way. But with electricity, automobiles, and radio in the 1930s and 1940s, there was the opportunity to learn as well as use the technologies. And the more one understood, the better one could make the technology perform, and in that sense the more satisfaction one could experience. And this opened the door to almost any level of professional and scientific work. Many an engineer in the days before PCs began to learn science and engineering through their involvement in ham radio, working with cars, and by constructing electronics projects. Now largely forgotten names like Heathkit, and magazines like Popular Electronics, provided avenues for greater involvement. And for a few, the interest and understanding continued to grow for the rest of their lives.

At the Godwin of the 1940s, for example, one saw radio and electricity clubs. Interested students began to see the importance of antennas, and to some extent how they worked. In the early 1950s, many students could fix a radio, over and above replacing tubes. The students knew how to read the schematics, or "wiring diagrams," and with the proper equipment, how to test voltages in various places in the radio to see whether they were what they should be. If not, some component migth need replacing, often because of the heat the tubes generated. Stores like "Radio Parts," around the 500 block on Division Avenue, were gathering spots for both professional and amateur radio enthusiasts in the 1940s and 1950s, and, as the name implied, sold the parts needed to repair or build a radio.

The skills a student learned in these ways gave them a head start when some of then went on to more advanced instruction. Already familiar with construction techniques, including how to read blueprints and schematic diagrams, and various levels of repair and maintenance, they were in a good position to start more formal work. It was also common, if somewhat less efficient, for people to become very advanced at what they did through the school of hard knocks. They learned what they needed to know through personal initiative, hands on experience, and on the job training. In a world of outsourcing, and a deadly global competition where efficiency and productivity is all important, this is no longer a familiar path to a career, but in the 1950s yet, and even somewhat beyond, self education was the rule as much as the exception.

- Dick Brockmeier -

Dick Brockmeier in 1955, left, and in 1984. Left click on the images for larger versions.

1984 photograph provided by Helen Brockmeier, widow.

Dick Brockmeier, Godwin class of 1955, epitomizes the kind of student who would likely go on to a successful career in science, but was somewhat exceptional in that he was also well rounded in addition to being outstanding academically, a characteristic he maintained throughout his life.

Left click on any image for a larger version.

Science at Godwin in 1955


Honor society

Radio club

Science club - 1959

Taken in his freshman or sophomore year, an annotated photograph from 1952 suggests that Dick Brockmeier's promise was already evident.

The Godwin radio club was still popular in 1955, and the photo above suggests that Dick Brockmeier might well have led the club in his senior year. He held a ham radio license to the end of his life - W8QPP. Shown in a photograph of the honor society in 1955, he was class valedictorian.

After graduating from Godwin, he studied physics, first at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, and then obtained a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, a.k.a. Caltech, in Pasadena, California. He then returned to Hope, and remained there for the rest of his life. A summary of his schooling, accomplishments, and interests after graduating from Godwin are shown in a curriculum vitae.

For those interested, Dick Brockmeier's entire doctoral thesis can be viewed at thesis. A PDF reader will be needed to view the document. It will be largely incomprehensible to without a background in particular kind of physics involved, but as a thesis is timeless in the sense that a thesis written in year 2005 would have a similar structure.

An early interest in computers put him at the forefront of their use as a research tool. Computers were expensive in the late 1950s and early and mid 1960s, and tedious to use compared to today. Punch cards, tapes, FORTRAN ( FORmula TRANslation ), and batch processing were way one worked with computers at the time. The amounts of memory were tiny compared to anything in year 2005, and one spent a great deal of time locating and fixing errors in programs, and trying to figure out ways to extract as much performance from them as possible. Computers still used vacuum tubes until the mid and late 1960s, and were unreliable. The Internet did not even exist as a concept.

Still, the computers of the time were a major advance in the ability to analyze the data experiments produced, and were the first steps into a digital age that continues today. Dick would retain an interest in the uses of computers in physics for the rest of his life, and operated and early bulletin board ( a term rarely used in year 2005 ), BITNet, and also teach courses on the use of computers in physics. While today's ( year 2005 ) computers are vastly more capable, and the Internet is today a marvel that could scarcely be imagined even by 1990, someone had to do the early work, and Dick was always at the forefront of what could be done at any given time. He was interested in text processing and graphics, as indicated by he involvement with the Amiga computer - an early entry into the world of graphics. The Amiga was an early, but sophisticated attempt to put graphics processing in the hands of a wider community of users, and while it did not have lasting commercial success, it did develop an almost cult like following. Here again, it was state of the art for computers that ordinary people ( non military ) could afford.

Asked what he thought should be taught even at the earliest grades in elementary school, he responsded "patterns, teach them to recognize patterns in sounds, in numbers, in letters, in colors, in everything." Pattern recognition comes in to all aspects of science and computing. Scientists and engineers recognize patterns in data, and part of science and engineering is going from the special case to the general statement, which is a way of reducing a pattern to a theory. Computers are very good at spotting patterns once properly instructed to do so. So while some people naturally learn to do this, it would likely benefit most to learn the notion of pattern recognition as early as possible.

His widow, Helen, has kindly provide a photo collage which shows some of the range of his interests.

Left click on the image for a much larger version.

Professor James Van Putten and Dick Brockmeier were graduate stucents together at Caltech, and later became colleagues at Hope college. He provides the following perspective on Dick's work at Hope, and points out that Dick was well ahead of his time in bringing computers to physics and the classroom after he returned to Hope in about 1966:

"Dick was four years behind me at Hope College. Upon graduating from Hope with a Physics Major, he enrolled as a graduate student in Physics at the California Institue of Technology in Pasadena, California. Where I soon joined the faculty.

Dick discovered on arriving at Caltech that the Physics program at Hope College was woefully weak. Realizing that he did not know some of the most fundamental mathematical techniques used in Physics he set out and taught himself these before classes began. This was a typical example of how he would teach himself anything he really wanted to know.

At Caltech, Dick joined the research group of Felix Boehm, a noted nuclear physicist. For his thesis experiment, Dick choose to attempt a measurement of how adding a neutron to a nucleus changed its shape, something that had not been done before. He succeeded in his measurements using a very precise experimental method that he developed himself. In order to glean the information from his data, he developed very sophisticated computer analysis techniques that were run on Caltech's computer which, though huge, had hardly the power of an early personal computer from Radio Shack.

On graduating from Caltech, he was recruited by Hope College to help rebuild the Physics Department. A couple of years later, he recruited me to join him. Together we began research at Hope and won a large grant for the establishment of the Vande Graaff Accelerator Laboratory there. The machine that we installed in 1968 was just recently replaced by a more modern one.

Soon it became clear that Dick's interests were more in the area of Computer Science (which really did not exist as field) than in Physics. He started the Computer Science Program at Hope College which eventually became a separate department. During this time he continued to teach physics with great enthusiasm. In fact, keeping his ideas from overwhelming all of us was a mounmental endeavor. He was instrumental in bringing the first comercially made computer to Hope and in installing a large (for its day) time sharing computer system on campus so that students and faculty members could dial in to it from the offices, rooms and homes rather than submitting boxes of cards to be processed at a later time. This was a major accomplishment at the time as few universities, let alone colleges, could offer such facilities to their students and staff.

When he was stricken with cancer, he was working on a way to bring computer technology and multimedia methods to the classroom. This was at time when most persons thought that this was a ridiculous enterprise. Dick with his great foresight, was pushing all of us in the correct direction. One of the ironies of his death was that he was stricken with exactly the same type of cancer that claimed his idol, the Nobel Laureate Richard Feymann."

Many of Dick's interests and activities outside the academic world would be familiar to almost anyone living in the suburbs at the time. There was time to smell the flowers. He enjoyed flying a small plane. He also had an interest in astronomy.

The image of Dick by his 8 inch telescope - he operated how own home observatory - is part of a story about a cruise to view Halley's comet in 1985. The ship's resident astronomer, Dick was able to combine a personal passion with an opportunity to share his delight on being able to get a good look at the comet while floating around the Carribian seas where there was little man man background light to interfere with the light of the comet. Read more about the adventure below.

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An interest in science, or just about any other subject, can be kindled by a chance encounter at an impressionable age. Schools hope to do this, and often do. Individuals do this by spending the time to introduce young people to their own hobbies and interests. In addition to his classroom work, Dick Brockmeier was known to show neighborhood children the wonders of astronomy, and flying. A serious astronomer, one can see his own children below next to a newly installed telescope, purchased in the 1960s in California.

Left click on either image for a larger version.

Scince often, perhaps most often, proceeds in unanticipated and somewhat random ways. People discover things of great significance without themselves intially realizing just what they have unleashed. Rudolf Mossbauer, a German scientist, exemplifies this. He persued a hunch, and discovered an important technique, called the Mossbauer effect. It was more important than he at first realized, and he won a Nobel Prize.

The details, which are quite technical, can be seen by left clicking on the item blow. Dick's widow, Helen, said that he carried the piece around in his wallet for years, as a reminder of how science truly progresses.

Left click on the image for a larger version.

Item provided by Helen Brockmeier, widow.

Sadly, Dick's life was not to be a long one. The items below summarize his final days, and show that he was active and involved right up to the end. As a model for future Godwin students, while details would be different today, his life in science is timeless, and any Godwin student today wishing to pursue a career in science can learn from his legacy.

Left click on either image for a larger version.

Former colleages continued to point out the insights that Dick had in the area of computers even after he was gone, as illustrated in this letter. The ability to visualize the future with any accuracy is what enables some people to see what is important today, and spend resources appropriately. It's of course sad that Dick did not have longer to make use of this ability.

A memorial has been set up in Dick's memory. Those wishing to contribute can send donations to:

Dick Brockmeier Memorial Fund
Hope College
Holland, MI 49423

- Sputnik and beyond -

October 4, 1957, witnessed an event that was to change US science education in the US for three decades or more. For reasons now known to be more akin to politics than science, Serge Korelev, "the Russian von Braun," convinced his superiors to allow a number of space spectaculars. Each was mostly devoid of science, and mainly intended to show the West, and the US in particular, how technically advanced the USSR was. On that October day, the world's first satellite, Sputnik, was launched. Containing only a radio that issued a steady stream of beeping sounds, Sputnik was launched in an orbit that crossed the US, and thereby allowed US citizens to watch it pass from west to east.

Perhaps unintentionally, by having it travel over the US a precedent was set, and the US could now feel free to send satellites over the USSR. And thus was also born the era of spy satellites.

Sputnik did impress average Americans, but it also caused a low level panic. The average citizen of the time thought of the USSR as being backward, and now all of a sudden felt that the US was behind the USSR in various areas of technology. President Eisenhower and Warner von Braun knew this was not the case. Von Braun could have launch a satellite as early as 1955, using an Army Redstone missile, but was prevented by politics from doing so by an edict that reserved the first launch for the Navy Vanguard missile. Alas, this had a tendency to explode rather than go in to space, and several attempts to match the launch of Sputnik only made the US look more inept. Finally, Eisenhower had to respond to public fears, and NASA was created as a vehicle for doing space exploration, which was to be a civilian enterprise.

Talk of a US/USSR missle gap made US citizens even more anxious. The USSR then poured fuel on the fire by eventually launching a number of dogs, and then men and women, in to space. While again these events had little practical consequence, they did convince the public that something was seriously wrong with US technology. Secrecy prevented the US government from spelling out the actual situation, because that probably would have compromised the spy programs that were obtaining the information.

What developed was a major spectacle of one upsmanship that cost both the US and the USSR fantastic amounts of money, and only tangentially produced anything of value. In the early 1960s president John F. Kennedy announced that the US would send men to the moon and return them safely before the end of the decade.

The first order of business was to try to produce enough scientists and engineers to make this happen. To this end, tremendous amounts of money were put in to every level of educations, and universities in particular expanded rapidly, especially in the areas of science and engineering.

At the high school level, by the early 1960s one saw the emergence of summer science camps. Things like the "Honors Institute for Young Scientists," which combined five weeks of study in the student's local area, and a week on campus at a nearby university. The subjects were usually chemistry, mathematics, and physics - each student would concentrate on one of the three. The program, then in its fifth year, available to Godwin students is illustrated by the open house for the summer, 1962, program, shown below.

Left click on the images below for larger versions.

By the early 1960s universities were beginning to turn out more students in the areas of math and science, and those would fill teaching roles at new, expanding universities. By this time science and the Cold War space contest between the US and the USSR were very much part of the public consciousness, and rocket launches commanded a great deal of television news coverage. People because aware of what a rocket scientist more or less did for a living, and today one still has "it doesn't take a rocket scientist to..." to suggest that designing, building, and launching rockets is a demanding occupation. This only increased the desire of many young people to get involved.

With the stated goal of going to the moon by late 1969, and almost limitless amounts of money available, the early and mid 1960s were great times for American science. At the top of NASA was Werner von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists, who led the American rocket effort for decades. American science education would be strong for another two or so decades, in ways that perhaps only unlimited opportunity could encourage.

The US would successfully go to the moon and back many times. The US was beginning to cash in on the tremendous investment in science and the moon program. The USSR moon program fell hopelessly behind, and in the end it could only complain that maybe going to the moon was not such a good idea anyway. In other words, it lost the race.

In the early 1970s Vietnam would become a major national distraction, and essentially all of the funding going into NASA and the space program would then go in to the "Vietnam conflict." ( A formal war was never declared. ) Von Braun, who had dreams of turning the mighty Saturn 5 rocket, which worked flawlessly every time during the moon shots, to Mars, quit NASA in disgust a few years after the moon shots ended, and died in 1977. US science education would flourish for another decade or more before the country seemed to loose a sense of direction. While in 2005 yet the US continues to garner Nobel Prizes based on work done 20 and more years ago, the future of science seems less certain.