In Retrospect: Physics professor’s teaching skills led to significant research contracts for CU Boulder


Before the first federal lab came to Boulder, Professor William B. Pietenpol was quietly moving scientific research at the University of Colorado Boulder into the big time.

Pietentol, who was born in Iowa and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, was hired as assistant physics professor at CU in 1920. By 1935 he was department chair.

Carol TaylorIn Retrospect

The professor wasn’t known for research or publications in the field. Instead, he worked at the art of educating students, with entertaining stories to illustrate particular concepts. He drew circles on the chalkboard behind him without looking, according to former Camera science writer Todd Neff in his book, “From Jars to the Stars: how Ball came to build a comet-hunting machine.” The lessons stuck with his students. One student called his class ‘Pietenpol’s magic hour,’ according to Neff.

Pietenpol’s memorable teaching was pivotal to CU Boulder’s path toward science greatness.

In the late 1940s, the U.S. Air Force was looking for experts who could design an instrument capable of aiming at the sun from a spinning rocket. According to Neff, CU Boulder was an unlikely candidate. But one member of the Air Force research team, a former student of Pietenpol, believed his remarkable teacher could solve the problem. They met at the university in November of 1947. Pietenpol accepted the challenge and assembled a group of professors and graduate students. In April of 1948, their proposed ‘biaxial pointing control’ landed the Air Force contract for $69,000, the largest science grant to date for CU Boulder.

What came to be known as the Rocket Project led to additional grants and collaborative projects for the officially named Upper Air Laboratory, located in the basement of the Hale Science building.

With the Upper Air Lab established and thriving, Pietenpol capped off his career by supervising the construction of a new physics building, completed in 1952, ready to join the atomic age.

Pietenpol retired two years later in 1954, after 33 years on the university’s faculty.

Although he was working at some of the most cutting edge research of the day, Pietenpol found time to be involved in the community and the campus. He enjoyed the role of timer at CU Boulder track meets and was a frequent tennis partner of Fred Folsom.

Like many faculty members, Pietenpol and his family settled in a neighborhood adjacent to the university. In the mid-1900s, a professor could buy a lot within walking distance to campus for a few thousand dollars and pay for constructing a new home on an academic salary. He and his wife built two of Boulder’s most distinctive houses. A stately Italian Renaissance Revival home on University Hill at 707 14th Street, constructed in 1924, is now protected by the University Place Historic District. After they became empty nesters, the couple constructed another home up the hill at 13th and Baseline in the Italian Vernacular Revival style. This home with its considerably smaller footprint, is now an individual historic landmark.

It’s an understatement that Pietenpol saw a great deal of change in his lifetime. Born before radio and television, he turned his teaching talents into a career in rocket science.

William Pietenpol died in 1966  at the age of 80, well before he could fully enjoy his lasting contributions — two historically designated homes that add beauty to the architectural landscape, and a hand in helping Boulder become a world center for atmospheric research.