History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 11

Despite all of the war-related research conducted at the Bureau, security was relatively lax. There was always a guard on duty, but most projects were not classified and security clearances were not required for the staff. In fact, the atmosphere was so relaxed that one day President Wilson, his wife and Secretary Redfield made an unscheduled Sunday visit to the Bureau to see the all-metal airplane being tested and although the building where it was kept was locked, they found an open window and all three climbed through to have a look. Another anecdote illustrates the ability of the Bureau to have fun: “An avid reader of detective and mystery novels, the President one morning sent a messenger to the Bureau with an envelope bearing his seal. He had read the night before that such a letter could be opened and resealed without any sign of tampering. Could the Bureau do it too? A day later the President had his sealed letter back, apparently intact. Inside was a note and the lead disks from which the fraudulent seal replacing his seal had been made overnight.”


With the somewhat abrupt end to the war, the Secretary of Commerce expected the Bureau to cease some activities and reduce staff that had been added for wartime research, but the Bureau reply was that the expected no reduction in work or staff and anticipated an increase in requests from the military, who were now aware of the need for more modern weaponry and technology and aware that the midst of a war was not the time to be addressing such concerns. As Congress greatly reduced appropriated funds for military research to the Bureau, the continuation of some projects had to be funded instead by the Army, Navy, etc. or the Agency to be served by the research. A precedent was thus set for transferring research funds within the budgets of other departments to the Bureau who would be carrying out the research. In later years, it would prove easier to obtain funding in this manner than asking Congress for direct appropriations.


After the war, Congress did award a large increase to the Bureau’s budge for industrial research, as the war had proven the connection between science and industry that was sure to prevail into the future. Americans were also made aware that the most important developments in physics and chemistry were coming from Europe at the time and they needed more research funding in order to remain competitive. Just as the switch from prewar investigations to military concerns had happened rather seamlessly, each department having wartime applications, the postwar argument was that practically all of their military work had industrial value and should thus continue. There was also a postwar interest in continuing the research to produce domestically the materials, instruments and other items previously imported from Europe that fed into the ongoing work of the Bureau.


Without wartime funding, the Bureau once again faced a staffing problem caused by the fact that private industry saw the need for trained investigators and could offer better salaries than the Bureau could, and as a result lost over 78% of its appointed staff members within 7 months of the armistice. For most positions, the Bureau paid less than a living wage to its employees. Recent college graduates might receive a decent entrance salary at the Bureau, but with industry competing for them too, it was not enough to offset the exodus.


The answer at the time to the staffing problem was to convince industry to send researchers on their payroll to the Bureau to conduct the research necessary. These “research associates” would then make their work available to the public, rather than doing secret experiments for the company that employed them. Having begun in 1919, this method yielded 61 research associates paid by 36 organizations by 1925.


In the postwar atmosphere of the country, the Government was accused of being too big and too inefficient. Answering this charge, the Bureau undertook studies on the cost and efficiency of the Federal Government itself. The resulting studies argued that, given the climate, more Government was actually in the public’s best interest to combat problems such as profiteering and inflation. According to the reports, the public needed to be better educated regarding Government spending. Almost 70% of federal income was used for paying interest on the national debt (incurred mostly through past wars) and only 3.2% was used to actually run the Government. The inefficiencies identified in the Bureau report, were the result of insufficient spending on salaries, meaning that Government posts did not attract or retain qualified personnel.



**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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