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The U.S. Department of Energy has changed a lot in the last four decades, and we have the resources to prove it.
Timeline -- In this episode, Historians Eric Boyle and Terry Fehner talk about documenting the history of the Department. One of the ways they do that is using this timeline. Scroll back to before the Department of Energy was the Department of Energy.
Past Secretaries of Energy -- Learn a little more about the men and women who led the department over the years.
History of the U.S. Department of Energy -- Here you'll find more resources about how the Energy Department became what it is today, as well as information on the Manhattan Project and museums and exhibits across the country.
As always, if you have any questions or comments about this episode, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANK GOLDNER: If you want to live to long age, you have your breakfast. First advice to the younger folk: eat breakfast before you come to work here. You’ll need all the energy you can get.
GOLDNER: OK, that’s the end, we can go home. You’ve got the speech.
MATT DOZIER: That's Frank.
GOLDNER: My name’s Frank Goldner.
DOZIER: He’s the Energy Department's longest-serving employee after more than five decades on the job.
GOLDNER: This is my 54th year since I joined the Department of Energy and its predecessors in 1964.
ALLISON LANTERO: Frank’s career in nuclear energy started way back before the Department even existed -- back when it was the Atomic Energy Commision.
GOLDNER: I joined right out of graduate school, I was at the University of Washington, and the Atomic Energy Commission had a desk -- they had an open house. To make a long story short, they offered me about three times the salary I was making as a teacher’s assistant, so I signed up, and that started my journey.
DOZIER: He had no idea how far that journey would take him -- first from Washington state to Washington, DC, and then to Europe on the first of several overseas assignments.
GOLDNER: Which came as a surprise… In the early 70s, they asked the computer for German and nuclear engineering, and my card popped out.
LANTERO: In fact, he had just returned from a posting in Brussels when the Energy Department was officially formed in 1977. It was a different place back then, in a lot of ways.
GOLDNER: And I think I remember in the earliest days, when the temperature got very hot, like in the mid 90s, one could get “heat leave,” you know, before the advent of big air conditioning.
DOZIER: Frank’s been here longer than anyone, which he’s reminded of often.
GOLDNER: Sometimes the most-asked question I get is how could you tolerate this place for all those years? And I usually say, well, it can be done. You just have to be careful, ask questions, be honest, and keep learning. That’s the bottom line, if anything, I would tell people is just keep learning.
LANTERO: Today on Direct Current, we’re taking Frank's advice. Join us as we celebrate the Department of Energy’s 40th birthday by learning about its past, and looking ahead to the next 40 years. Stick around.
(DIRECT CURRENT THEME)
(MUSIC PLAYS, SOUNDBITE OF SWIRLING WINDS)
LANTERO: January 20th, 1977. Snow is falling in Miami. Cincinnati hits a record low of negative 25 degrees Fahrenheit. New England's natural gas supply is so short that businesses close and cut work hours, while children enjoy extended winter vacations, blissfully unaware.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
LANTERO: Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter takes his oath of office.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. (APPLAUSE, FANFARE)
LANTERO: During this period of instability, America's energy system, nuclear security and science programs are overseen by a maze of smaller agencies, field offices and research centers. But President Carter has other ideas.
(BASS GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS)
LANTERO: On the campaign trail, Carter promises a new cabinet agency that would bring together all federal energy activities. And as Americans wait in longer and longer lines for gasoline and fall deeper and deeper into the oil crisis, the country is ready for a change.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
VARIOUS NEWS ANCHORS: This is NBC Nightly News... The oil-producing countries of the Arab world... This particularly station is down 50,000 gallons... By next summer, the summer will be far more serious... Will probably result in rationing of gasoline and fuel oil in this country.
LANTERO: Carter recruits a former CIA director and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission James Schlesinger to lead the reorganization of the tangled maze of agencies. Within the first 90 days of the administration, Schlesinger formulates Carter's National Energy Plan to submit to Congress with a somber note from President Carter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRES. CARTER: Good evening. Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you. Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the president and Congress to govern this nation. This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war -- except that we will be uniting our efforts to build, and not to destroy. Thank you very much.
(XYLOPHONE MUSIC PLAYS)
LANTERO: In just four months, Congress approves the plan, and on October 1st, 1977...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRES. CARTER: Working with Congress, we've now formed a new Department of Energy headed by Secretary James Schlesinger. We have the ability to administer the new energy legislation.
LANTERO: Today, the Energy Department is the country's top sponsor of research on promising new technologies, having won more research and development awards than any private-sector organization and twice as many as all the other federal agencies combined.
(MUSIC FADES OUT)
DOZIER: If you're a regular listener to Direct Current, that last segment might sound familiar -- it was in our very first episode. But to put it in a little more context for the Department's 40th birthday, we wanted to talk to the experts.
LANTERO: So we packed up our microphones, hopped on a biofuel bus and headed to a former nuclear bunker in Germantown, Maryland, to talk to the people who could best explain how the Energy Department became what it is today: our in-house historians.
ERIC BOYLE: I'm Eric Boyle, I'm the chief historian here at DOE, I'm also essentially the DOE archivist for the records that we have, and I am also the federal preservation officer.
TERRY FEHNER: I'm Terry Fehner and I'm a historian. I've been here since April 1986. Former chief historian, and I'm currently working in part-time status.
DOZIER: Eric, Terry, thank you so much for joining us here.
BOYLE: Our pleasure.
LANTERO: Yeah, I'm really excited to do this interview. I'm a bit of a history nerd. So, first of all, do all government agencies have historians?
BOYLE: Not all of them do, and it's something that is pretty variable in terms of if they do have a historian, what that historian actually does. DOE at one point had one of the larger offices of history and in a lot of ways I think pioneered the field of federal historians and did a lot of work to try to campaign for the creation of historian positions at a lot of other agencies dating back to at least the 1950s I think.
FEHNER: The program came into existence in I think it was '57, when they brought a historian in essentially to write the official history of the Manhattan Project.
DOZIER: So, tell us a little bit about what a government historian does. What does your job entail?
BOYLE: Well again, the thing that complicates answering that question a little bit is that what I do as a historian here at DOE is not necessarily what historians do at other agencies, and part of that is a result of the trajectory of the office itself. Part of that's a result of the fact that I'm currently an office of one.
FEHNER: One and a half.
BOYLE: One and a half (laughs). My duties are really divided in three main areas. First and foremost, I'm the historian, and so I answer historical questions, I do some historical research myself. I am the main point of contact if a question arises related to DOE history internally, so I get a lot of emails from people in different offices across DOE asking me if I know about the history of their office.
We also are responsible then for writing the official history of DOE as well. And then the other big part of my work, like I mentioned previously, is I'm the DOE archivist so I spend a lot of time actually working with the records, managing and organizing those records and keeping them accessible, using the records to answer historical questions.
The third part of what I do is in the field of preservation, and so as the federal preservation officer I'm the main DOE point of contact for questions and issues related to preservation on DOE sites across the complex.
FEHNER: I will add this. Most historians in the federal government do not work with historic preservation. This office, the history office, became involved with cultural resources and historic preservation way back in the early 1990s when we went around the complex and saw that with the end of the Cold War, everything was coming down or slated to come down. But no thought was being given to what should be preserved, what was so important from a historical point of view that you'd want to save it. And that's how we became interested in it and the federal preservation officer was transferred to the history office.
DOZIER: What are some of the ways your job has changed over the years?
FEHNER: Back in '86 when I came it was a totally different office because there was no internet. We had one computer, I think, for the whole office, and offices were staffed a lot differently back then. You had secretaries and clerk-typists and that sort of thing, and they would do a lot of the typing on typewriters. And none of this stuff was digital, we didn't have a presence online, and we relied on what we could keep.
BOYLE: And I think the other huge way that things have changed, not just internally for us as an office but in terms of our interaction with the rest of the outside world, is email has changed things dramatically as well.
FEHNER: You're absolutely right, and I'm thinking back to the late '80s, and there were so many letters sent out. So many memos sent out. Which, you don't do that anymore.
BOYLE: Yeah. I mean, if somebody wants to contact me, anyone can do it, and it's a mouse click away. For example, last month somebody was trying to piece together what happened with the history of one of their family members who had a relationship with people who were involved with the Manhattan Project, and he wanted to know if we had this letter that had been sent and signed by over 100 scientists in the Cornell physics department. It turns out we were able to locate this document, and we were able to scan it and PDF it and immediately make it available to him in a way that you couldn't do before that technology was available.
FEHNER: And I think a follow-up on that is that not everything is on the internet, either. And people do come in here, they do research with us, if they're uncleared researchers they only get access to unclassified material, obviously, but we also have cleared researchers that come in and do research on classified work.
LANTERO: So we’ve talked about how your job has changed since you came on -- how has the department changed since 1986? That's to you, Terry. (laughter)
FEHNER: Oh! I've been here a while longer, haven't I? (laughter) You know, it was formed in 1977 and the reason it was formed is because of the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, and how do you handle energy, and the desire to bring it all into one departmental office.
And that was done with DOE, and certainly the '70s were a time where the department's mission was focused on the energy issue, but this changed quite a bit going into the early '80s partly because the energy crisis disappeared. There were no more long lines at gas stations and that sort of thing, but the other aspect was that there was a sort of a return to the Cold War after a certain amount of detente during the '70s and relations really soured with the Soviet Union again. There was a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons, and the production of new nuclear weapons.
And that continued throughout most of the '80s, and it was such a strain on DOE's nuclear weapons complex that by the end of the '80s, the nuclear weapons complex was starting to come apart. Some of these facilities were old, and there was a lot of contamination, and there were safety issues. But fortunately, the end of the '80s witnessed the end of the Cold War.
At the same time you had to clean up what was the old legacy stuff, and that's when the department really turned towards the environmental aspect of what it does, cleaning up the weapons complex, and the Office of Environmental Management was born back then, and also climate change starts to come in here, and the department becomes heavily involved in that, in research. And DOE was at the forefront of that.
You go into the '90s, and there's a different direction that the department's taking. You still have weapons, but it's more like taking weapons apart and making sure that the ones you've got work. Then you come to the new century and 9/11 happens, and DOE becomes involved in homeland security issues as well. So the department has to adapt. And I think it's done quite well, for the most part.
DOZIER: Do you, as a historian, as you're watching events unfold in the present day, do you ever have moments -- or in the past -- where you're like, "Well this is going to be a major shift in the department's direction," or does it kind of happen more gradually and you notice it more in retrospect?
FEHNER: Well I was here through the whole thing with the end of the Cold War, and it was a dizzying thing because stuff was happening so rapidly. Yeah, you kinda realize that things are changing here, and we were moving on to a new era.
BOYLE: And I think that's one of the ways in which being a federal historian is in some ways different than being an academic historian. As an academic historian, you're trained to resist the temptation to look forward or make predictions or talk about the future. It's considered a sin in a lot of circles, whereas being a federal historian who is also responsible for thinking about the future of your agency's records, or developing timelines for what happened last year, you have to be forward-thinking a little bit. You have to think about what might be important to people 10 or 20 or 30 years down the line.
FEHNER: Well, my problem is I think everything's important.
BOYLE: Yeah, the danger is you have to avoid the temptation to just keep everything. (laughter)
FEHNER: I don't want to throw anything away. You never know, you can't predict the future. Every little thing's important.
BOYLE: Exactly. (laughter)
LANTERO: So, speaking of the future, based on your knowledge of the past 40 years of the department, what can we expect in the next four decades?
BOYLE: Much of the work that DOE is currently doing -- it's hard to see that it's going to go away or disappear, certainly in the short term, like environmental cleanup. Environmental cleanup has been a major priority for a couple decades now, but a lot of work still has to be done. But also I think the emphasis on the importance of scientific research and the development of energy-related technologies, that's something that's likely to continue.
FEHNER: Well, and things like climate change, things like the whole nuclear weapons issue, the energy issue, we're still going to need energy sources, we're going to need more energy. That won't go away, either. So these are issues that are here to stay at least for the foreseeable future, and DOE's going to play a central role.
DOZIER: It's an exciting time to be a historian.
BOYLE: It is. (laughter)
FEHNER: Well it's an exciting time to be a historian, and I do think -- and I've said this a lot previously -- that this is one of the best departments to be at, because it's got such a diversified portfolio in what it does. We deal with the defense side, we deal with the civilian side, we're I think the premier science agency in the government, and we have the National Labs, which are the crown jewels of the American scientific establishment. This is a very interesting department to work in, and we have the biggest portfolio of all because we cover all the way back to the Manhattan Project. So it's a good time to be a historian at DOE.
DOZIER: That’s it for our birthday episode. You can learn more about the past 40 years at the Department on our website, energy.gov/podcast, where you’ll also find plenty of other great stories about energy.
LANTERO: And if you have questions about this episode or want to wish us a happy birthday you can email us at email@example.com or tweet @ENERGY. If you’re enjoying Direct Current, help us spread the word! Tell your friends about the show, and leave us a rating or review on iTunes. We really appreciate the feedback.
DOZIER: We’d like to give a big thank-you to Frank Goldner, Eric Boyle and Terry Fehner.
LANTERO: Also, thanks to Kayla Hensley, Bob Haus and the Energy Public Affairs Team.
LANTERO: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Simon Edelman and me, Allison Lantero. Art and design by Cort Kreer. With Support from Paul Lester, Ernie Ambrose, and Atiq Warraich.
DOZIER: We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
LANTERO: Until next time, thanks for listening!