History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 8

We left off with the Bureau’s early introduction into radio research, but research into radioactivity also started around the same time. Initial research on radioactivity, which began years later in the laboratories of the United States than in Europe, was conducted under the Bureau’s electrical division. A Congress had been held in Brussels regarding radiology and an international standard had been accepted for radium, before the first sampling (20.28 milligrams) of radium arrived at the Bureau.



A researcher named Dorsey, who had come to the Bureau from Johns Hopkins, had followed the international research on radiation prior to the Bureau’s own research and was particularly interested in its possible medical application. Dorsey became the Bureau’s radiation specialist, but because the effects of handling the radioactive materials he worked with were not yet understood, Dorsey suffered permanent damage to his hands and left the Bureau in 1920. He published a book on radioactivity for use by medical professionals before returning to the Bureau in 1928 to continue his research in physics and act as a consultant to the radium and X-ray section of the optics division.


At this point in the Bureau’s development, after a little more than a decade, the Bureau had grown from 13 employees to 280 working on over 200 projects for the government, public utilities and private industry, while appropriations had grown from $32,000 to some $500,000 annually and new physical locations and new divisions (engineering research, metallurgy, etc.) had been added. In fact, the Bureau’s scope of work was at that point far broader than imagined at the time of its creation, prompting questions from other Government research agencies as to whether the Bureau was still operating within the bounds of its original act. Congress, however, continued to approve of the Bureau’s work and continued to make special appropriations for research into specific projects.


In response to the criticism from other agencies, Dr. Stratton expressed a wish to revise the wording of the Bureau’s organic act to avoid misinterpretation as to the scope of the Bureau’s domain, but recognized that doing so would cost the Bureau some flexibility. His solution was to create additional seats on the Visiting Committee to the Bureau so that technological and industrial interests would be represented in addition to the scientific representation that already existed. The actual result was an amendment in 1913 to the act that designated the Bureau to test industrial and commercial materials for the government of the District of Columbia.


Also in 1913, William Redfield was appointed Secretary of Commerce and was to become a strong supporter of the Bureau. Redfield visited the Bureau weekly for insight into work that would concern his department. He also made recommendations for consolidating research departments of other agencies into the Bureau when he saw that it would increase efficiency.



It was also under his direction that the format of the Bureau’s annual report changed to include a list of current needs and that far more copies of the report were distributed. A revision was also made to the published scope of the Bureau as found in the report so that it read that the Bureau was responsible for standards of measurement, standard values of constants, standards of quality, standards of mechanical performance and standards of practice. Recognizing that these functions pertained largely to the Government, it was also understood that the needs of the Government and the general public were quite similar. That is to say that if testing were performed and a standard set to determine the best quality product for Government purchase, the same standard would also apply to private purchase of the same item.


At this point, the attentions of the Government and the country turned toward World War I then raging in Europe. The first official wartime research performed by the Bureau related to aeronautic design, and was requested by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Following this initial endeavor, other requests were made by the War and Navy Departments to conduct research that they were unequipped to perform themselves. Even so, it was a largely unrecognized fact that this war would be one of technology, material and production and that science and technology would play a critical role.


**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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