History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 20

So, the last installment of the series left off with the establishment of the Mathematical Tables Project, which, by 1943, had produced 27 book-length tables as well as many shorter ones. The thirties also gave rise to an undertaking to identify and quantify the physical constants of pure substances, especially of industrially important organic compounds. Importing a method devised by a scientist at the Polytechnic Institute of Warsaw, Bureau chemists researched a number of substances by determining their vapor pressure, boiling point and more.


Thus, as mentioned in a previous installment, although the Great Depression brought with it reductions in staff and funding, as well as other hardships, the reduced bureaucracy of the time allowed the Bureau staff who remained to focus their energies on some much-needed fundamental research that would serve as the building blocks for years to come.


In September 1933, two Bureau researchers, Burt Carroll and Donald Hubbard, were awarded medals by the Société Française de Photographie et de Cinématographie in recognition of their contributions to the world of photo-sensitive emulsions. The Bureau’s involvement in this field began in 1921 with the need for emulsions sensitive to infrared spectra for which commercially available film was unsuited. With German equipment installed in the basement of the Bureau’s chemistry building, Carroll and Hubbard set to work on creating a better film. For 7 years, their efforts were largely futile with sometimes over 400 batches of emulsion made in a single year. By 1933, however, the two were publishing their 17th report on the mechanism of photographic hypersensitivity. They were finally creating emulsions superior to commercial ones and in publishing their methods, they would threaten trade secrets of those commercial producers. Therefore, when budget cuts were made, the emulsion project was among the first to go as one of seven projects which the Visiting Committee specifically targeted (the others were heavy hydrogen research, dental cements and alloys, certain industrial concerns, internal combustion engines, production methods for levulose and the design of a telephoto astronomical objective).


In 1933, Congress made its biggest reduction in Bureau appropriations with a cut of 54 percent which affected over 100 projects. Particularly hard hit were the projects involving automotive engines (over 40 different projects), because of their unpopularity with the auto industry when, for example, one manufacturer’s engine was deemed by the Bureau to be superior to the others. Also due to budget concerns, the Bureau surrendered work on standardization and specifications to the American Standards Association. Amid backlash from the industrial community at the change, it was agreed that the Bureau would continue to cooperate with the ASA.


Around the same time, the Bureau and Dr. Briggs were embroiled in lawsuits regarding the issuance of patents to Bureau researchers. The practice under Dr. Stratton had been that patentable material would be patented in the name of the Government and would be for public use. This method was challenged in 1922 by two researchers of the radio section who developed a method by which radios could be operated by current rather than the traditional batteries. This innovation fell outside the area of their assigned field of research and as such, they filed three patents in their own names relating to the technology. In response, a formal policy regarding patents was devised and it explicitly stated that patents for inventions and discoveries of Bureau employees would be registered to the Government. The District Court of Delaware later decided in favor of Lowell and Dunmore because the invention was not part of their assigned work. An appeal to the US Circuit Court upheld the District Court’s decision as did a further appeal to the Supreme Court which was decided in 1933 in favor of the inventors.


While the funding cuts were bitterly made, Dr. Briggs did acknowledge that some programs had become entrenched, not because they were useful or truly merited ongoing research, but because all possible angles of research had not yet been completely exhausted. The reductions in staff and resources forced various projects, such as radio research, down to their absolute most important aspects.


**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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