History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 2

Between the law’s passage and its enactment, Dr. Samuel Wesley Stratton, the author of the letter that persuaded congress, was named Director of the agency and set to work locating premises for the offices, commissioning the buildings that would house the Bureau, seeking out qualified personnel, ordering the equipment that would be needed to perform the tasks necessary of the Bureau, and visiting laboratories abroad upon which the Bureau would be modeled. He had majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois and later became an instructor and professor in the fields of math, physics and electrical engineering. He was also awarded six honorary doctorates from various institutions including Cambridge and Yale. Dr. Stratton would head the Bureau for 21 years and personally oversee its development into one of the best agencies of its kind in the world.


For much of its early years, the Bureau’s energies were almost wholly engaged in developing its staff and organization and establishing new and much needed standards for science and industry. The equipment necessary for testing was ordered in Paris and Berlin and Stratton visited the International Bureau of Weights and Measures as well as the leading laboratories across Europe. Other members of the Bureau made similar visits during the early years.  Dr. Edward Rosa was hired from Wesleyan University to plan and direct the electrical research which had been so fundamental to the need for the Bureau. Stratton and Rosa believed it to be of the upmost importance and accordingly the Bureau provided Rosa with the best equipment available. Rosa published more than 75 papers during his time at the Bureau and demanded the same work ethic of his subordinates.


It was decided that the Bureau would be split into scientific and technical divisions. They also established a “Secretary’s Visiting Committee” on which served leaders in science and industry to annually report to the Bureau on matters of interest to its scope of influence. Invitations were sent to the chief electrical engineer at GE, the president of MIT and a professor of physics at Cornell, in addition to several others.


In 1903, the National Bureau of Standards was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Commerce and rechristened the “Bureau of Standards”, dropping the “National” from its name. With this administrative change, the Bureau’s scope increased far beyond what it likely would have been in the Treasury to include active participation in the business sector.


After about 3 years, the Bureau had obtained sufficient instrumentation and staff to begin its real work. In the year prior to the establishment of the National Bureau of Standards, the Office of Standard Weights and Measures reported that it had compared 65 thermometers and 69 surveyors’ tapes, had graduated and verified 772 sugar flasks, replied to 75 requests for information, and with routine weights, measures, and balance tests, had answered a total of 1,037 “calls” on it – all this while still having to send instruments abroad to Germany or England for verification of their accuracy. Within the first 3-4 years, In addition to all the work on standards, instrumentation, and planning of research in that period, the number of tests made for universities, industry, and Government agencies had increased eight times over that possible in the former Office and would more than double again within another year. One of the early projects of the engineering instruments section was to test gas meters, water meters, pressure gages and other instruments used by public utilities. This was one of the first large scale projects undertaken by the Bureau for the common good. Another early undertaking was testing on building materials.

Other early work of the Bureau included establishment of a standard of inductance, which impacted new developments in the communications industry.


In a little more than 3 years, Stratton had assembled the men and materials for an organization that, “judged by the magnitude and importance of the output of testing and investigation,” said Rosa, “ranked second only to the great German Reichsanstalt among the government laboratories of the world doing this kind of work.”


**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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