History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 12

In 1921 and 1922, the Bureau went through some profound staffing changes, with 3 of its division chiefs dying in a span of 10 months. All 3 had been with the Bureau from the beginning, and its head, Dr. Stratton, had a bond with them that was not present with more recently acquired staff. Between losing his closest staff members and the fact that he was underpaid (he would have made at least 4 times more in the private sector), Stratton’s days at the Bureau were also numbered. The Bureau’s strongest champion, the man who had shaped it since its founding and seen it grow to more than 60 times its original size, left his position to assume the presidency at MIT beginning on January 1, 1923.


Secretary Hoover called attention in his press release on Stratton’s resignation to the fact the Government salaries were not competitive enough to keep qualified scientific men in Government positions. Hoover also named Stratton to the Bureau’s Visiting Committee, which meant that his influence was still felt there after his departure. Stratton also continued to be available for consulting with his successor Dr. Burgess, and during his tenure at MIT, he oversaw a reorganization that in many ways resembled the organization of the Bureau.


After rather lengthy debate, George Burgess, chief of the metallurgy division, was named successor to Stratton. Like his predecessor, Burgess would champion the link between the scientific study of the Bureau and industry, but unlike Stratton, Burgess was less involved in the day-to-day functions of the Bureau across the spectrum. He delegated authority, in contrast to Stratton’s autocratic nature, but he was accessible to any who sought his guidance. Under Burgess, the Bureau’s growth slowed as he was content to continue with work begun under Stratton, but let the dust settle for a while before taking on too many new tasks.


Some of the most important work conducted during the 1920’s was the Bureau’s continued work on establishing constants for different substances. The Bureau was especially concerned with temperature tables for different materials and greatly improved the data available for things like boiling and freezing points. They also collaborated on a new International Practical Temperature Scale. During this time the Bureau also investigated, in far greater detail than anyone ever had before, the specific characteristics of chemical elements, both alone and in combination with other elements by using spectroscopic test methods.


The Bureau’s involvement in the field of atomic physics began with a guest researcher from the University of Minnesota who introduced the concept of spectral analysis of metal vapor atoms. What began as an unfunded research hobby of two researchers in the optics division became the Bureau’s atomic physics section in 1922. The majority of the Bureau, however, continued to be consumed with industrial research.


Following the war, the country experienced a period of depression with the slowing down of industry. At the time, Herbert Hoover, who strongly supported the Bureau’s work and saw its value in restoring the economy, was Secretary of Commerce. The war had produced a housing shortage so when it became apparent that new home construction would be instrumental to job creation and industry revival, Hoover tasked the Bureau with researching the standardization of building materials and reviewing building codes. Hoover also established within the Bureau a division of simplified practice, whose purpose was to eliminate waste in industry by encouraging more conservative use of materials and more streamlined practices.


Bureau publications during the course of this housing stimulus included “Recommended minimum requirements for small dwelling construction,” “How to own your home,” and primers on plumbing, zoning, building codes and city planning. Bureau investigations also concluded that it wasn’t really necessary to have the customary winter slow-down in construction. The housing construction program lasted 8 years, from 1921-1929 and averaged 750,000 homes annually, which dramatically exceeded the need at the program’s inception. With a surplus of homes available, the Bureau’s building division saw staffing cuts from 36 to 2 by the time the Great Depression was in full force in 1933.


**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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