Abstract: Barriers to Entry, Technical Momentum, and the Creation of the Jicamarca Radio Observatory

William W. McMillan


The growth of radio astronomy in the mid-twentieth century demonstrates evolution of enterprises competing for limited resources, the quest for "market" niches, competitive advantage, and the lowering of barriers to entry. The rapid and relatively smooth development of the Jicamarca Radio Observatory is offered as a case study in technical momentum overcoming barriers to entry in a field that was a few years earlier the domain of only the most professionally and academically connected individuals and organizations. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and the Instituto Geofisico del Peru built at Jicamarca, Peru, a massive radio observatory to study the nature of the ionosphere near the Earth's equator. As an ambitious concern in a competitive environment, the NBS project would likely have had a different fate if undertaken nearer to 1950. Yet in the late 1950s, under the direction of a young NBS engineer named Kenneth L. Bowles, Jicamarca was constructed quickly, without a great deal of contention for resources. The momentum that enabled this relatively quick success derived from multiple sources, both social and technical: the maturity of technology, availability of surplus military equipment and facilities, society's Sputnik-sparked interest in science, a peaceful period during which ground-breaking experiments could be undertaken cooperatively in equatorial regions, growing importance of long-distance radio communication, availability of talented engineers, and the previous success of radio observatories that left open such niches as investigations of the ionosphere. The creation of Jicamarca serves as an exemplar of an enterprise benefiting from social and technical momentum in order to overcome barriers to entry to a developing field.