The physics professor’s teaching skills led to major research contracts for CU Boulder
Before the arrival of the first federal laboratory in Boulder, Professor William B. Pietenpol quietly advanced scientific research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Pietentol, who was born in Iowa and earned his doctorate. at the University of Wisconsin, was hired as an assistant professor of physics at CU in 1920. In 1935, he was head of the department.
The professor was not known for his research or his publications in the field. Instead, he worked on the art of educating students, with entertaining stories to illustrate particular concepts. He drew circles on the board 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 glued to his students. One student called his class “Pietenpol’s Magic Hour,” according to Neff.
Pietenpol’s memorable teaching was essential in CU Boulder’s journey to scientific greatness.
In the late 1940s, the US 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 a 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 1947. Pietenpol accepted the challenge and assembled a group of professors and graduate students. In April 1948, their “biaxial pointing control” proposal landed the Air Force contract for $ 69,000, the largest science grant to date for CU Boulder.
What became known as The Rocket Project led to additional grants and collaborative projects for the officially named Upper Air Lab, located in the basement of the Hale Science building.
With the Upper Air Lab established and flourishing, Pietenpol ended his career overseeing the construction of a new physics building, completed in 1952, ready to enter the atomic age.
Pietenpol retired two years later in 1954, after 33 years at the university faculty.
Although he was working on some of the most cutting-edge research of the time, Pietenpol found the time to get involved in the community and the campus. He loved the role of timekeeper at CU Boulder track and field competitions and was a frequent tennis partner of Fred Folsom.
Like many faculty members, Pietenpol and his family settled in an area adjacent to the university. In the mid-1900s, a professor could buy land within walking distance of campus for a few thousand dollars and pay for the construction of a new house with a college salary. He and his wife built two of Boulder’s most distinctive homes. A stately Italian Revival home on University Hill at 707 14th Street, built in 1924, is now protected by historic University Place. After becoming empty nests, the couple built another house up the hill at the 13th and baseline in the Italian Revival style. This house with its considerably smaller footprint is now an individual historical landmark.
To put it mildly, Pietenpol has seen a lot of changes in his life. Born before radio and television, he turned his teaching skills into a career in rocket science.
William Pietenpol died in 1966 at the age of 80, long before he could take full advantage of his lasting contributions – two historically designated homes that add beauty to the architectural landscape and a helping hand to help Boulder become a global hub atmospheric research.