The Schellenger Laboratories were founded at Texas Western College in 1953. Newton Schellenger willed $144,000 to the school for “the study of electricity” that allowed for an Electrical Research Center, an Environmental Test Center, and a Special Projects Center that simulated atmospheric conditions in order to conduct classified experiments in conjunction with the federal government. The project grew to include various research and development projects for both the United States government and private institutions. The experiments were conducted on campus and as far away as Alaska and Antarctica.
The projects undertaken were “supported with Administrative flexibility” under the supervision of the president of the university. The director of Schellenger Labs was responsible to the president of the college, and personnel on sensitive projects had a minimum of a “secret” level security clearance. Many of the projects concerned rocketry and weather surveillance as well as theoretical acoustics, telemetry systems, and life sciences. But the Labs’ first project was developing the world’s first vector cardiograph in cooperation with Beaumont Army Medical Center and the Heart Association.
According to Dr. Clarence Cooper, a long-time member of the research team , “it was a hell of a big operation” trying to establish a global network with stations in Brazil, Antarctica, Canada, Alaska and the Azores. The scope of the work necessitated the hiring of both faculty and students in order to carry out the assignments and experiments conducted. The pay for students began at $1.25 per hour, more for graduate students who had training in specific areas that were in demand at Schellenger. Faculty, who taught and worked at Schellenger, were paid two salaries until the college discovered the situation; afterwards, the faculty members were offered a bonus to their teaching salary rather than a double paycheck.
In 1959, the college’s first computer was delivered to Schellenger Labs. According to Dr. Allen Dean, another Schellenger scientist, it was a vacuum tube monster that stood 3 ft. square at the base and 5 ft. tall. Dr. Dean, one of the programmers of the machine, described the process of programming the computer as “text-writing” on to paper that was fed into the device which subsequently responded with more paper tape being fed out. The programmer then had to check the computer’s response and run that back into the computer to complete the process. The computer, although large, had only 10K of memory and the vacuum tubes on the machines required a weekly change in order to maintain proper working order.
Although the work at Schellenger Labs was important, there were mishaps. While testing a smoke generator that was intended to gauge wind direction, Dr. Dean and a chemist named Wally Scruggs placed explosive powder into a 9-inch diameter capsule which had four holes on the top to release smoke. Having spoken to the manufacturer of the powder, the two were assured that there would be no problems with the experiment. However, the holes on the top of the canister were clogged, preventing the release of the smoke from the capsule. The resulting explosion broke all of the windows in the Chemistry Building (what is now Psychology), causing the college business manager to come running. After jumping hedges and avoiding obstacles on his way to the site, he discovered Dr. Dean behind a tree with a piece of flat glass from one of the windows resting on his head. No one was hurt in the accident–only the building.
The laboratory continued as one of the university’s premiere projects until, according to Dr. Dean, there was a misunderstanding between the director of the project, Thomas Barnes, and the university president. The misunderstanding arose from a difference of opinion concerning the degree of visibility of Schellenger as compared to that of the school. However, in an interview given by Dr. Barnes in 1981, Barnes claimed that he had grown tired of the administrative aspect of his recent promotions and missed the thrill of research and development. Dr. Barnes subsequently relocated the “sensitive” areas of research off campus, taking with him many of the faculty that worked on the classified projects. The unclassified research remained on campus and was integrated into the School of Engineering. The projects, which were of little interest to the Engineering Department, were reportedly neglected and “died a natural death” during the early 1980s.
Although the 80s saw the end of the Schellenger Research Laboratories as a whole, and very few of the men and women who worked on the project remain at UTEP, the Lab has left an indelible mark upon the present and future of the campus. There are multiple funds and scholarships available today that are intended to honor either the project itself, or men who worked on it. The Thomas G. Barnes Physics Fund, the Michael Izquierdo Teaching Excellence Award, and the Schellenger Professorship in Electrical Research are all available to students and faculty due directly to Schellenger, or through the remembrance of the excellent work and dedication of the faculty and students that staffed the labs.
Sources: Interview with Dr. Clarence Cooper, June 24, 2013; Interview with Dr. Allen Dean, June 26, 2013; Meteorological Rocket Network History, Willis Webb; Schellenger Research Laboratories on the Campus of the University of Texas at El Paso; The Prospector; UTEP Library Special Collections, MS001, UTEP Collections Photographs, Box 7.
Matthew Liden is a student in the history master's program at UTEP.