Top-secret radar

Top-secret radar University scientists conducted top-secret military research from a “secret shack” atop Memorial Stadium in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Illinois Archives, RS 39/2/20)
Memorial Stadium housed more than football in the 1950s.

Call it a Memorial Stadium mystery. When Fighting Illini fans in the 1950s looked up toward the southwest corner of the stadium, they could see an odd wooden shack perched near the upper-level seats. Little did they know it had nothing to do with football.

Only a select group of UI scientists knew that the shack was being used to conduct top-secret radar research for the military.

“From that height, we had a view of Highway 45, and we tested radar by following cars on the highway,” recalled Illinois physicist Howard Knoebel, ’50 ENG, at a 1987 reunion of researchers from the UI Control Systems Laboratory.

Formed in 1951 near the start of the Korean War, CSL worked on a side-looking airborne radar later used in Germany to peer across the Iron Curtain. This 18-foot antenna was mounted along the side of an aircraft, which permitted the plane to fly parallel to the border and peer into enemy territory within a 40-mile range.

CSL radar research in the ’50s also produced a portable sentry radar that was small enough for U.S. soldiers to carry in Korea. It could locate and recognize soldiers or vehicles within a range of five miles under zero-visibility conditions.

Another breakthrough was the Cornfield System, a computer-controlled, radar-based surveillance system that the U.S. Navy incorporated into its tactical defense system. The moniker “Cornfield System” denoted the irony of developing a technology for naval defense in the middle of a sea of corn.

Today, CSL is known as the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and it no longer conducts classified research. But in the ’50s, CSL personnel were not allowed to talk about their work with outsiders, hence the secret.

As the CSL website points out, one coveted assignment was sitting in the secret shack during football games and making sure “no one tampered with the equipment inside. The bonus: free football tickets and a bird’s-eye view of the game.”

Sources: The Coordinated Science Laboratory: Some Historical Highlights, 1964; IlliniWeek, Oct. 8, 1987; and the CSL website.