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My Meteorological Branch Summer

June 29, 2013

In the early 1960’s, I entered Honours Physics at university.  My main interests were radio and electronics.  It was the heaviest course I’d ever taken.  I wrote seven exams, and headed off to my summer job with the Meteorological Branch, Department of Transport.  They wanted me, and the other summer students,  in Toronto for our introduction to the jobs.  I decided on the train as an economical way to get there.  The trip took almost two days, most of it through northern Ontario.  I soon grew tired of seeing endless views of rocks and trees as we passed through that part of the country.  I ate in the snack car and slept in my seat.  I vowed not to do that again.

In Toronto, I met the other students.  There were maybe a dozen of us.  We listened to an address about the Meteorological Branch.  Today, it’s called the Weather office of Environment Canada.  I don’t recall now if the address was done by its head, P. D. McTaggart-Cowan, but his name was certainly mentioned at various times.  Then we all filed into a room, one at a time, where we signed the official secrets act.  I’ll bet it’s still on file someplace.

Our next stop was the research station at Scarborough.  There we had a week of classes, learning all about weather.  Our main textbook was a book called Weather Ways.  It was intended primarily for pilots.  This was enjoyable, but then we had another exam to see how much we had learned.  The last thing I wanted was another exam.  I had with me a crashed radiosonde that I found outside of the station.  I spent most of my exam time tracing out the circuit of that transmitter and its instruments.  After the classes, most of the students went to meteorological offices all across Canada.  A few, like me, stayed at the research station.

There were four of us at first.  We walked up and down the streets near the research station, knocking on doors.  We wanted to find somebody who would take us as boarders for the summer.  I didn’t expect anybody would want all four of us.  I was sure we’d have to split up, but we soon found a family that was willing to take all of us.  I don’t think they knew what they were getting into.  Fortunately, two of the students moved away to other stations part way through the summer.  That made it easier on this kind family.

The Scarborough research station ran a radiosonde school that provided training for radiosonde operators all across the country.  They had a low pressure hydrogen generator for inflating the balloons, along with a very impressive radar tracking system to follow their ascent.  That equipment was made in France.

It also had three research labs, each headed by a scientist.  One of them specialized in ultraviolet radiation from the sun.  Those wavelengths are absorbed by ozone in the atmosphere.  Back then there was little interest in the ozone layer.  I recall seeing an ultraviolet photometer with a scanner attachment.

The solar radiation lab was where I worked that summer.  Instruments were installed on the lawn behind the station, with cables leading back to the lab.  There was a room full of chart recorders, each one connected to a solar radiation instrument.  These were the old style chart recorders with timing motors, a vacuum tube servo amplifier, and a pen with a container of ink.  On cloudy days, the pens would scoot from one side of the chart to the other whenever the sun went behind a cloud.  All the observations on these charts had to be integrated to obtain solar radiation data for publication.  This was done by a draftsman who counted the number of squares below the inked lines.  They had tried mechanical integrators attached to the chart recorders, but they were not reliable enough.

In the next lab, a scientist was designing and building an automated weather station.  Technology was the limitation in those days.  Relays, timing motors, and vacuum tubes were all he had to work with.  He showed me a commercial flip-flop built with transistors on a circuit board.  It was too expensive to be of use at that time.  How quickly technology has changed.  Automated weather stations are in wide use today.

I worked on various aspects of solar radiation that summer.  It was all new to me, except for the electronics.  I used an optical bench and a black body radiator.  I did some research on one type of solar radiation detector, specifically on its deviation from the cosine law at low sun angles.  I also contributed to some projects.  One of these was a sequencer, built from a timing motor with a series of cams and microswitches.

I was sitting at my desk one day, working on a report, when I was approached by the draftsman.  He was a man I respected.  He pointed out to me that I was lighting up one cigarette after another.  I hadn’t even noticed.  I had started smoking about a year earlier, at first year university.  When he said that to me, I decided to quit smoking right then.  Well, I didn’t exactly quit, but I switched to little cigars for a while before I really quit.

We were walking around Scarborough one day when we noticed a bookmobile parked on one of the streets.  We decided to investigate.  I thought this might be an ideal place to get a book or two for reading in my spare time.  I climbed up on the bus.  When the driver spotted me, he grabbed me and threw me off the bus before I could say a word.  I couldn’t believe what had just happened to me.  Then he said something about stinking up the place.  Ah, it must have been the little cigar in my mouth!

At the end of that summer, I flew home by Air Canada.  It was my first plane trip.  I had the money then, and wanted to travel in style.  It was a summer that I’ll never forget.

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