History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 10

After the war was over, the Bureau realized that despite all of the testing it undertook for various Government departments, no real demand for standardization of products existed for the Government as a whole. For example, the Army and Navy would ask for the same item but with very different specifications. These specifications were developed independently by the requesting department with no regard as to the practicality or feasibility of production. Although in many cases, the standardization requested by departments was impractical or impossible, the nation’s readiness to accept standards and standardized products primed it for the age of mass production.


Prior to the war, there was little interest in this country in the manufacture of quality optical glass. Glass used in scientific instruments, like telescopes or microscopes, was imported, mostly from Germany. Research premises and tools were ordered in 1914 to determine a production process for American-made optical glass. Progress was slow owing to a lack of precision glass grinders, but the need was great as the war required troops to have binoculars, periscopes and gun sights. With optical glass, as with many wartime projects, the experiments were hastily prepared and most of the developments came too late for practical application before the war was over.


Developments also continued in radio, with the war showing Americans that Europe had far more advanced radio technology. Visiting scientists from France left the Bureau with various radio instruments they used in 1917. The most important technology to be found in these instruments was the electron tube, also called the vacuum tube amplifier, which had been invented in America but not put into practical use due to issues regarding patent law. The French, meanwhile, were using it in all of their radios, wire telephony and radio telephones. When the legal issues were finally resolved in 1917, work began immediately to resolve this country’s radio problems, including training technicians, establishing a transatlantic radio system, development of radios for use on the battlefield, equipment to communicate with submerged submarines and more.


Research began in earnest to explore the possible uses of the electron tube, resulting in reliable long-distance wire telephony and speech communication between ground stations and airplanes. The vacuum tube could be used to locate transmitting stations, which was useful for identifying enemy positions during the war and for locating stations in violation of transmitting laws. It was also used to guide planes and ships through fog. Furthermore, as an amplifier, it allowed for smaller antennas and extended radio range.


Following a conference of university representatives at the end of 1917 regarding radio communications, the Bureau issued Circular 74, “Radio instruments and measurements” which was issued to radio instructors in the armed forces and universities as a reference book. For more than 20 years, it was the authoritative text for radio engineers. Following the publication of Circular 74, the Signal Corps requested a beginner’s textbook on radio for enlisted men. “The Principles Underlying Radio Communication” appeared 3 months later and was the result of collaboration between the Bureau and 6 college faculty members and came to be widely used as a standard textbook by both the military and the academic world.


The war also introduced the country to the concept of interchangeable parts manufactured by different companies in different parts of the country. Largely a result of the production of weaponry and ammunition, the production of interchangeable parts required a phenomenal degree of precision in measurements and manufacturing which was achieved by the use of an unprecedented number of gages. The Bureau saw unprecedented demand for gage production, development and calibration. The domestic production of precision gage blocks (only available by import from Sweden prior to 1918) was essential to the manufacture of interchangeable parts. With funding from the Ordnance Department, the Bureau produced 50 sets of 81 blocks ranging from 0.05 inch to 4 inches. Also of utmost importance was the work of the National Screw Thread Commission, which sought to standardize, and thus render interchangeable, all machine-made threaded products.


The Bureau was introduced to countless inventions during the course of the war, including the rocket. Rocket technology was nothing new, but incorporation of new technologies made the rocket promising as a weapon. The Bureau developed test rockets with ranges 7 miles and 120 miles. Various other weapons were developed around rocket technology, but the wartime shortage of research scientists meant that none of these ideas were realized during World War I. The Bureau was also introduced to the automatic rifle, another invention that wouldn’t find its footing until World War II.

**The information presented here is drawn from “Measures For Progress: A History of The National Bureau of Standards” (Rexmond C. Cochrane)

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