History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 17

As the 1920s came to a close, the tension between the Bureau and the American Standards Association (ASA) continued, with both organizations claiming that the other was impeding their ability to effectively function. The ASA wasn’t the only source of animosity towards the Bureau. During the 1920s, newspapers including the Washington Post pointed to the Bureau as a prime example of wasteful government spending. From time to time, action was taken to limit Bureau authority (as in the case where the Bureau was informed that it was not to make optical glass for the Navy and would receive no further funding to do so), but the Bureau consistently proved the necessity of each project that came under fire (in the Navy example, when the Bureau proved that no other source was available to produce optical glass to meet Navy standards, the funding that was to be withheld was release and operations resumed).


Still another area of attack which developed during the 1920s-30s was the line of argument that the Bureau, while funded with taxpayer dollars, principally benefitted the government and that results of Bureau investigations should be made public so as to benefit the consumer directly. Of course, the reason that was not done was to protect manufacturers from commercial injustice, so the Bureau faced a double-edged sword on that point. Critics of the Bureau found plenty of other points to contend as well, including the system of using research associates employed by industry and not by the Bureau itself and argument that the Bureau directly competed with private research organizations.


In response to this series of criticisms, the Bureau itself petitioned the Department of Justice for a review of its organic act and subsequent congressional acts to determine if, in fact, the Bureau was conducting research beyond its limitations. The DoJ found no impropriety on the Bureau’s part. Later, Congress conducted a review of government interference in industry. Here, too, the Bureau was found to be least a fault among government agencies engaged in industry regulation. Actually, the report indicated that without government intervention during WWI, industry would not, on its own, have been able to meet the production demands of the time, but did conclude (without mentioning the Bureau of Standards by name) that perhaps funding limitations would be prudent.


Following the stock market crash of 1929 and the absorption into the government fold of many utilities and public works, the Bureau operated fairly normally. In fact, there was no formal acknowledgment of the Depression from the Bureau until a note of “reduced industrial activities” appeared in 1931, with an indication that the Bureau was taking measures to operate economically. Nevertheless, Dr. Burgess’ annual report of 1931 included the largest number of projects ever, 525. Funding for the Bureau had increased in 1931 also, allowing for salary increases, new laboratories and radio stations and land to expand Bureau facilities. Bureau administration continued to justify its large staff and fiscal requirements by vowing to focus its efforts on those projects that would help lift the country’s economy and relieve unemployment.


1932 told a dramatically different story. Funding was cut by 20%, but Dr. Burgess died before seeing the effects of the Depression on his agency. His successor, following much debate on the merits of promoting from within versus hiring an outsider, was Dr. Lyman Briggs, formerly assistant director for research and testing. Briggs was known for his calm demeanor and even temper, which he would need during the Depression and subsequent war years. A passionate baseball fan, one of Briggs last experiments in his life, conducted after he left directorship of the Bureau, was to scientifically test the degree to which a baseball could be made to curve in the 60 feet from pitcher to batter. Unfortunately, his years as Director were not as much fun as that experiment.


During the Depression years, his chief objective was to keep as much of his staff as possible and to convince Congress and the Roosevelt administration of the Bureau’s need to fund projects that could not directly be tied to alleviating the Depression. Despite proposals to eliminate the Bureau altogether, salary cut after salary cut, and the threat of dispersal when Roosevelt endeavored to reorganize government departments, the Bureau lived on through investigations by its own Visiting Committee, the Business Advisory and Planning Council and the President’s Science Advisory Board.


**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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