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Roberts remembered for innovation to industry

by | Jun 15, 2020

William Roberts and wife Dottie pose at the dedication of the first air-inflated, double-polyethylene greenhouse on the Cook Campus. (Photo courtesy Rutgers University)

NEW MONMOUTH, N.J. — Sometimes innovation strikes at the most unlikely of times and in the most unlikely of places.
For Rutgers Cooperative Extension specialist in bioresource engineering Dr. William Roberts, it was Christmas Day 1964, when he used an aquarium air pump to separate two layers of plastic film in a model greenhouse he was building in his basement.
The model led to the revolutionary air-inflated, double-layer polyethylene greenhouse helping to cement Dr. Roberts, who died on May 21, as one of the key innovators of controlled environment agriculture.
In a 2014 Rutgers University article, Dr. Roberts recalled his breakthrough.
“Everyone needs at least one good idea in their career and mine came in 1964. On Christmas morning when I was supposed to be doing something else I was in the basement building a model greenhouse. We had been installing two layers of plastic film on greenhouse structures to reduce the energy consumption by 35 percent and it was a tedious and labor consuming job; plus it was not very effective.
“After I had built my model and installed two layers of film on it, I took a small air pump used in fish tanks and rigged it so that air could be blown between the two layers of film. And as I saw it blowing up, I said, ‘Thank you Lord, this is the way to overcome many problems and reduce the tedious work of double glazing’. The outer layer inflated outward and the inner layer was forced down over the rafter supports creating an air space and giving rigidity to the two layers so that in the normal wind situation the plastic would not flap and move in the wind like a sheet hanging on the clothes line. It all clicked in my head as the way to go.”
And it became the way to go for many growers who couldn’t previously afford the high construction and energy costs of traditional glass structures.
The early popularity of these designs and their rapid commercial acceptance were due primarily to their low cost relative to conventional greenhouses glazed with glass or fiberglass. The insulation properties of the inflated air space reduced heat requirements by over a third, further reducing costs to growers.
After it was tested on Rutgers Cook Campus and at Kube Pak in Allentown, N.J., the commercial application of the air-inflated, double-layer polyethylene, also referred to as “double plastic” greenhouses, spread like wildfire.
Companies developed steel and aluminum frame structures for multi-span and single-span greenhouses, which could effectively use the double plastic system.
Now, more than 60 percent of greenhouses worldwide use the double plastic system.
In 2004, the American Society for Agricultural and Biological Engineering, dedicated the structure of the first air-inflated, double-layer polyethylene greenhouse as an ASABE Historic Landmark. Prior to this dedication, only 42 such landmarks had been dedicated in the U.S. since 1926.
In 2007, Dr. Roberts received the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the NJAES “Lifetime Recognition of Distinguished Leadership” award.
The New Jersey Agricultural Society in 2010 honored Roberts with its Gold Medallion, which is widely viewed as the highest honor in New Jersey agriculture.
“As an extension specialist, Roberts devoted himself to innovative but practical research on greenhouse materials and designs needed to optimize heating and environment control,” then-president of the New Jersey Agricultural Society Brian Schilling, director of Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said in presenting the award at the 2010 awards gala. “His research was guided by the goal of developing cost-effective and energy efficient approaches for achieving optimal controlled environment agriculture.”
Once the success of the double plastic greenhouse was established, Dr. Roberts didn’t stop innovating, designing wooden greenhouse frames of several sizes to match available polyethylene film widths, as well as a pipe frame structure and pipe bender to assist in the hand-bending of the hoops. He developed the engineering plans and drawings for these easy-to-construct greenhouses.
It was just one example of Dr. Roberts’ dedication to the mission of Extension, said longtime colleague and Rutgers professor of agricultural engineering, Dr. David Mears.
“He was really committed to finding practical solutions and communicate them to the farmer,” Mears said. “That was always his focus.”
With Mears, now professor emeritus, and a slew of graduate students, Dr. Roberts worked on further advances in greenhouse technology. The development of the double plastic greenhouse set in motion other advances like solar heating systems for greenhouses, movable thermal insulation screens and in-floor, root zone heating systems.
“Bill really worked well with the graduate students,” Mears said. “Because of his Extension work with the growers, they were willing to be guinea pigs and take a chance with us.”
Dr. Roberts was born on his family’s farm on April 7, 1932, to the late Thomas S. and Helen (Conover) Roberts. He graduated from Leonardo High School in 1949 and earned his Bachelor and Masters degrees in Agricultural Engineering at Rutgers University.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 serving in the Far East Command in Japan as a First Lieutenant. He then began a 41-year career at Rutgers University, where he achieved Professor II status, served as a Department Chairman for 23 years, and worked as a Professional Engineer and Extension specialist in bioresource engineering. His dream to establish the Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture at Rutgers became a reality in 1988, and at the time of his retirement in 1999, he served as its director.
Throughout his life, Dr. Roberts was an active member of New Monmouth Baptist Church and also the great-great-grandson of its founding pastor. For over 65 years, he served as a youth leader, teacher, choir member, deacon, and elder.
Dr. Roberts is predeceased by his brother and sister-in-law, John and Elizabeth Roberts. Surviving are his wife of 66 years, Dorothy (Stevens) Roberts, his daughter and son-in-law, Deborah Roberts and James Marcantonio, his granddaughter, Jillian Roberts Marcantonio, and his dear brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Patricia Roberts.
A private service for the family was held at Fair View Cemetery, in New Monmouth, where Dr. Roberts served as a trustee for many years.
A public celebration of life will follow at a later date. Memorial donations may be sent in Dr. Robert’s memory to New Monmouth Baptist Church, 4 Cherry Tree Farm Road, Middletown, NJ 07748.
Checks may be made out to New Monmouth Baptist Church, memo line: Roberts Memorial Fund. 
He served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955 serving in the Far East Command in Japan as a First Lieutenant. He then began a 41-year career at Rutgers University, where he achieved Professor II status, served as a Department Chairman for 23 years, and worked as a Professional Engineer and Extension specialist in bioresource engineering. His dream to establish the Center for Controlled Environment Agriculture at Rutgers became a reality in 1988, and at the time of his retirement in 1999, he served as its director.
Throughout his life, Dr. Roberts was an active member of New Monmouth Baptist Church and also the great-great-grandson of its founding pastor. For over 65 years, he served as a youth leader, teacher, choir member, deacon, and elder.
Dr. Roberts is predeceased by his brother and sister-in-law, John and Elizabeth Roberts. Surviving are his wife of 66 years, Dorothy (Stevens) Roberts, his daughter and son-in-law, Deborah Roberts and James Marcantonio, his granddaughter, Jillian Roberts Marcantonio, and his dear brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Patricia Roberts.
A private service for the family was held at Fair View Cemetery, in New Monmouth, where Roberts served as a trustee for many years.
A public celebration of life will follow at a later date. Memorial donations may be sent in Dr. Robert’s memory to New Monmouth Baptist Church, 4 Cherry Tree Farm Road, Middletown, NJ 07748.
Checks may be made out to New Monmouth Baptist Church, memo line: Roberts Memorial Fund. 

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