History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 21

With much of the US in denial, a group of foreign-born scientists led by Niels Bohr foresaw the country’s eventual involvement in WWII. Bohr, for example, urged a moratorium on publication in the Allied countries of research related to nuclear fission. It was almost a year before the scientific community truly headed Bohr’s warnings. Dr. Briggs, from his position on the Advisory Committee on Uranium, began to prepare himself and his agency for the possibility of war. Briggs prepared for the Department of Commerce and list of services the Bureau was prepared to offer “in the event of war.” Among these: to test all materials to be purchased under the Strategic Materials Act, to increase its output of optical glass, to certify US materials sent abroad (especially instruments, gages, metals and cement), and more. Dr. Briggs also included with his memorandum a copy of “The War Work of the Bureau of Standards” which detailed the Bureau’s contributions during WWI.

The country as a whole was totally unprepared for a new war – the armed forces had outdated equipment (and that in short supply) while much of the nation was still facing the high unemployment and sluggish manufacturing of the Great Depression. The general mood of the country was against involvement in the war (as evidenced by the 1940 Democratic Party Platform) and thus mobilization to prepare for war was slow. In taking on projects related to wartime preparation, the Bureau was forced to begin classifying much of its research. As a result, the annual reports from the Bureau became restricted to only nonconfidential research. By 1942, so much of the material was classified that there was no point in printing the annual report at all. The sensitive nature of the work being done at the Bureau also led Dr. Briggs to close the laboratories to visitors, fence in the property and close Van Ness Street, which ran through the site. By the beginning of 1942, 90 percent of Bureau staff were dedicated to war research and Military Police patrolled the “prohibited zone” that was the Bureau grounds.

That the Bureau would be tasked with testing the strength and properties of material like metals used for weapons, airplanes and the like or with finding materials that could be substituted for those in short supply as a result of the war would seem obvious. There were also more obscure aspects of war to be considered, however. One interesting example is the Bureau’s participation in a “joint Army-Navy program to determine the characteristics of sky glow from artificial sources and the extent to which sky glow and shore lights might aid hostile ships offshore.” Among other priority Bureau projects during the early part of the war were research on petroleum conservation (because oil tankers were great targets for enemy submarines) and the production of synthetic rubber. Gas was rationed (to save the rubber in car tires more than to save gas), resulting in numerous citizen inventions intended to save gas being submitted to the Bureau for testing.

Thanks to the war, the Bureau’s staff would increase by more than 238 percent from 1939 to 1945, including over 200 members of the armed forces. Even more dramatic, funding increased from $3 million just prior to US entrance into the war to $13.5 million by 1944. To accommodate the huge demand for testing and the now huge staff, all of the Bureau’s conference and lecture rooms were converted to laboratories and 2nd and 3rd shifts were introduced to make maximum use of the space and equipment. The standard work week was also lengthened from 39 hours before the war to 44 hours.

The Bureau continued to be involved in the development of the atomic bomb by testing the purity of uranium and other elements. While many at the Bureau suspected that a weapon using uranium might be under development, the secrecy ran so deep and the security was so tight that even researchers working directly on the project sometimes failed to realize what the end-game might be, thinking instead that the uranium would be used for power plants to power planes or submarines.

**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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