Vincent J. Schaefer (July 4, 1906-July 25, 1993)

Atmospheric scientist Vincent Schaefer, who invented cloud seeding when he worked at General Electric in the 1940s, was one of many scientists who played an important role at the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, N.Y. He didn’t do his own research there, but as a member of the board of directors in the 1980s, he helped to guide its research programs. But long before he became a director, he was running an educational program at the Preserve that gave students hands-on experience doing real science at a biological research station.

Vince Schaefer

Vince Schaefer

In the 1960s, Dr. Schaefer had established the National Sciences Institute (NSI), a 10-week summer program that nurtured budding scientists all over the country. Hundreds of high school students were given the opportunity to find out what scientific research was all about. One of NSI’s campuses was at the Huyck Preserve. For several summers, students lived in the Preserve’s Mill House, developed and conducted their own field research projects, and reported on their findings. What was special about Rensselaerville is that there also happened to be a think-tank organization—the Institute on Man and Science—there, too. In addition to being field biologists, the students could attend the lectures held in the village’s Conkling Hall.

Dr. Schaefer was good friends with my grandparents Lee and Katherine (Huyck) Elmore who, in 1963, co-founded the Institute on Man and Science with Reverend Everett Clinchy, founder and first president of the interfaith National Conference of Christians and Jews. Dr. Schaefer thought Rensselaerville would make a perfect place for an NSI program. He knew students would thrive by being immersed in the dual cultures of a biological field station and an intellectually stimulating town.

I was a high school student myself in those days. In fact, I spent the summer of 1968 with my grandparents and worked for the Institute—helping with household chores at my grandparents’ house where Institute speakers and guests stayed, and selling books outside Conkling Hall before the lectures. I attended the lectures, too, and was pleased to be able to sit with the NSI students at a special table that faced the auditorium’s stage. We called those students the Mill House Boys, because they lived in the Mill House and there were no girl students that year. To read more about the Mill House Boys, go to https://lscnews.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/the-mill-house-gang.

I think I met Vince Schaefer a few times when I was young. He must have stopped in to check on his students and the local NSI directors throughout the summer. And he visited my grandparents often. But I really got to know him when we served on the board of the Huyck Preserve together in the 1980s. (He died at age 87 in 1993.) People seemed in awe of him and referred him as “the man who invented cloud seeding.” His favorite words were “fascinating” and “serendipity” and he had a boyish enthusiasm for everything he undertook.

Born in 1906 in Schenectady, N.Y., Dr. Schaefer never had a formal college education (he received honorary degrees later in life, and everyone started calling him “Dr.” Schaefer then). He left high school in 1922 at the age of 16 because his parents needed him to work to supplement his father’s income. He entered General Electric’s four-year apprentice program to learn the machinists’ trade and wound up in the G.E. Research Laboratory when he completed his training.

But Dr. Schaefer yearned to work outdoors. So in 1927, he left G.E., worked with the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery for a year and a half, was employed by a stone company, and founded the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club. In 1929 he returned to the G.E. Laboratory machine shop and made models for a number of scientists including Irving Langmuir (winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry). In 1932 Dr. Langmuir invited Dr. Schaefer to become his assistant. By the late 1930s, Dr. Schaefer was conducting his own research.

Vince Schaefer as a researcher at G.E.

Vince Schaefer as a researcher at G.E.

In 1946, Dr. Schaefer discovered the concept of cloud seeding. He had been experimenting with different substances—salt, dust, chemical agents, and others—to create ice crystals in super-cooled clouds in a four-cubic-foot cold chamber (a black-velvet lined deep freezer). To produce the clouds, Dr. Schaefer merely exhaled into the chamber; the moisture from his warm breath condensed in the cold air to form a cloud. He was trying to figure out what substances might create ice crystals around which water droplets would form to create rain or snow.

Vince Schaefer (right) discovered cloud seeding using a cold chamber, a deep freezer lined with black velvet.

Vince Schaefer (right) discovered cloud seeding using a cold chamber, a deep freezer lined with black velvet.

He struggled for months to coax crystals to form without much luck. Then on the hot, humid morning of July 12, when the cold chamber was too warm for his breath to form a cloud, a serendipitous event occurred. Dr. Schaefer decided to use dry ice—solid CO2—to cool the chamber down. Suddenly ice crystals appeared and formed a strange bluish fog. The crystals were forming around the CO2 nuclei and forming condensation trails. It was snowing inside the chamber! Dr. Langmuir urged Dr. Schaefer to try seeding some real clouds.

So Dr. Schaefer designed a built a motor-driven CO2 dispenser to do the job. On November 13, 1946, when the atmospheric conditions were right, he went up in a Fairchild plane to scatter crushed dry ice into super-cooled clouds. After dropping three pounds of dry ice, he looked back and was thrilled to see snow falling from the cloud through which they had passed. The plane made several more passes through the clouds as Schaefer dispensed more dry ice through an open window. Dr. Schaefer was amazed. The cloud seemed to be exploding with snow crystals.

A few days later, Dr. Schaefer seeded a super-cooled ground fog. He put some dry ice in a small bag made out of mosquito screen, tied a rope to it, then headed into a dense fog in the Great Flats, near his home in Schenectady. He swung the dry ice container above his head as he walked through the fog. At first it looked as if he had created a denser fog. Then all of a sudden the fog was gone as the crystals, created by the dry ice, settled to the ground!

At about the same time that Dr. Schaefer was doing his experiments with CO2 cloud seeding, his G.E. colleague Dr. Bernard Vonnegut (brother of the writer Kurt Vonnegut) discovered that silver iodide could also be used to seed clouds and fog.

Today, airports such as the one in Salt Lake City use cloud-seeding techniques to dissipate ice fog that occurs in the winter. But cloud seeding in general turned out to be impractical. After all, you can’t aim a cloud and force it to rain where you want. And there were concerns about disrupting weather patterns and stealing rain. Cloud seeding is still done in some countries though.

As far as I know Dr. Schaefer never tested out his cloud-seeding or fog-clearing experiments in Rensselaerville. He continued to work for G.E. until 1953 when he left to become director of research at the Munitalp Foundation (1953-1958). Then he started helping the American Meteorological Society develop programs to encourage students to become interested in atmospheric sciences. That work led to his founding of the Natural Sciences Institute, which continued into the late 1960s. He thought it was so important to inspire young people to pursue their interest in the sciences.  In the early 1960s, Dr. Schaefer helped to create the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, part of the State University at Albany, N.Y., and served as its director from 1965 until he retired in 1977.

He never stopped working though. He consulted on several projects, authored the Peterson Field Guide to the Atmosphere, and received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He took on new research interests including geology. He was fascinated by the nature and structure of rocks and would slice them into large, thin, translucent pieces that were works of art. He prepared museum exhibits from his rocks and even used them to make beautiful lampshades and trays. My grandparents had several of them. He was also interested in preserving natural areas, including Vrooman’s Nose, a landmark overlooking the Schoharie Valley near Middleburgh, N.Y. (During World War II, Dr. Schaefer and colleagues from G.E. used Vrooman’s Nose as a vantage point from which to observe and photograph artificial fog smoke screens they created.)

He also envisioned the Long Path in the 1930s, now a 347-mile-long hiking/walking trail in New York State, prepared a field guide for the trail in the 1990s, and advocated for its extension. As if that weren’t enough, he was also interested in Dutch barns, built a scale model of one, and edited a research publication on them. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Huyck Preserve, he was also a trustee of the Mohonk Preserve located on the Shawangunk Ridge (part of the Appalachian Mountains), in Gardiner, N.Y.

I always appreciated his enthusiasm for the Huyck Preserve and all that he did when he was on the board of directors. In addition to providing research advice, he helped us work through some of the more mundane problems that field stations often face. For instance, we had an old boathouse on Lake Myosotis that was no longer used and it was uninsured. There seemed to be no choice but to have the building demolished. But rather than let the historic building be destroyed, Dr. Schaefer arranged for it to be dismantled and moved to another location miles away where it would be put to good use.

Dr. Schaefer was fantastic: in his enthusiasm for life, his creativity in meeting challenges, and in his ability to inspire people. We miss you Vince.

About L. Stephenson Carter

L. Stephenson Carter is a science writer/editor and was also on the board of directors of the E.N. Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, NY.
This entry was posted in Huyck Preserve, Natural History, researchers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vincent J. Schaefer (July 4, 1906-July 25, 1993)

  1. Pingback: What I Learned on Lake Myosotis | lscnews

  2. Pingback: July 4: The Birthday of Vincent Schaefer | lscnews

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