Dr. James R. Schlesinger, the first Secretary of Energy, unveils the signplate at the Energy Department's temporary headquarters on October 1, 1977.

“The Department of Energy opened its doors today,” declared the Department’s first press release on October 1, 1977. Dr. James R. Schlesinger, the first Secretary of Energy, marked the event by unveiling the signplate at the temporary headquarters located at 736 Jackson Place on the west side of Lafayette Park across from the White House.

"For all of us it will be a challenge to respond to what are the emerging needs of the American people and this country,” the Secretary observed at the opening ceremony. "It is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

The immediate challenge he spoke of was the ongoing energy crisis -- and the new U.S. Department of Energy would be at the forefront of implementing an ambitious agenda to help America meet its growing energy needs. With about 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $10.4 billion, the new Department brought together two programmatic traditions that had long coexisted within the Federal establishment: nuclear energy activites that included defense responsibilities for the design, construction, and testing of nuclear weapons dating from the Manhattan Project effort to build the atomic bomb, and a loosely knit amalgamation of energy-related programs scattered throughout the federal government. Melding this disparate group of organizations and programs into one agency presented almost as daunting a challenge as the energy crisis itself.

Secretary Schlesinger was under no illusion that the nation’s energy challenge would be easy to solve or of short duration.

“To resolve our energy problems,” he told the opening day crowd at Jackson Place, “the United States will have to go through a transition along with the other nations of the world.” This was an ongoing, global energy challenge -- nonetheless, not an insurmountable task but an opportunity to be seized. “Through the effective work of all the people of this Department,” the Secretary declared, “we expect to rise to that task.”

Over the last 35 years, the Department and its employees and contractors have repeatedly risen to the task of responding to the “emerging needs” of the nation. During the late 1970s, the Department emphasized energy development and deregulation. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research, development, and production took priority. With the end of the Cold war, the Department focused on environmental cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex, nonproliferation, and stewardship of the nuclear stockpile. In the 2000s, the Department’s priority has been ensuring the nation’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges through science and technology solutions.

President Obama and Secretary Chu, in turn, have taken up the ongoing energy challenge and seized the opportunity to move America forward. The Department has sought to transform the nation’s energy system, secure leadership in clean energy technologies, pursue world-class science and engineering as a cornerstone of economic prosperity, and enhance nuclear security through defense, nonproliferation and environmental efforts.

Thirty-five years later, our work remains vital and urgent, and we are ready for the challenges ahead.

Learn more about the Department’s history at /management/history.

Terry Fehner
Terry Fehner is the DOE Historian and the DOE Federal Preservation Officer.Terry Fehner is the DOE Historian and the DOE Federal Preservation Officer.
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