History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 9

By the time the United States entered the war and realized how many troops and how much equipment would be needed, there was no time for intensive long-term experimentation, so Allied research was adapted to American production methods. Scientists in this country were consumed in the search for new materials, especially new metals for heavy weapons and armor, and replacements for materials made scarce by war use. Chemists were also engaged in production of agents of chemical warfare. Most of these concerns remained outside the scope of the Bureau (with a few exceptions) until 1917 when over $2 million was allotted to the Bureau from the National Security and Defense Fund to be used to constructing and equipping “war-emergency” laboratories. Work in these new labs included metallurgical research, gage work and military equipment research and development. The funds were used to construct additional facilities for the ever-expanding Bureau and also to hire world-class scientists whose salaries would have been unaffordable otherwise.


With the demand for troops, the Bureau also hired almost 100 women to fill the clerical and assistant positions vacated by the military drafts, though they continued to be excluded from the higher-level positions. One of the women hired at that time, Johanna Busse, would later rise to be chief of the thermometry section for 20 years. “The first woman with a doctoral degree in physics to work at the Bureau arrived in 1918, to assist in the preparation of a radio handbook for the Signal Corps. A second joined the colorimetry section a year later.”


Aside from the staffing issues, the Bureau adapted well to military research. Whereas before the war, much of the Bureau’s work was geared toward industry, it was relatively easy to transition to wartime research by viewing the military as simply another type of industry. Dr. Stratton, before Congress, could justify how most of the research the Bureau was already engaged in could be used in military applications and was thus able to secure continuing appropriations as well as funds for new projects. Each division of the Bureau was able to take on military research functions within their specialty with ease. As one report indicated, food and medicine were the only two facets of the war effort in which the Bureau was not involved.


The study of metals and their properties was the Bureau’s biggest project of the wartime effort as need arose for weaponry, tools, airplanes, etc. Whether for ease of production, scarcity of materials, or improved properties (such as lighter weight or thin construction), many new steel alloys were used during wartime and they were sent by their manufacturers to the Bureau for testing of their exact composition and qualities. In the process, the Bureau developed standard tests for these metals. They were also involved in the search for substitutes for metals that had become scarce as a result of the war, like platinum.


Aside from metals, a number of other materials were also in short supply at the time. The Bureau assisted in identifying acceptable or unacceptable substitutes for leather (primarily in shoes), and paper. Bureau research also supported the substitution of a cotton fabric for linen that was used to cover airplane wings, as linen was also scarce. Wool was also mostly imported at the time, so research was conducted to find substitutes for military uniforms and blankets.


One result of the scarcities and substitutions of materials was that industries were forced to standardize their products to a degree that had not been seen before. The government instituted the Conservation Division to oversee the efficiency of production of various items with the result that variety was reduced and standardization increased. For example, it was during this time that standard clothing sizes came to the fore. In the name of conserving fabric, men’s coats were shortened and outside pockets eliminated. With the scarcity of silk and wool, women’s fashion changed dramatically as well. “Newsprint for papers and magazines was cut as much as 20 percent. Colors of typewriter ribbons shrank from 150 to 5 and were sold in heavy paper instead of tinfoil and tin boxes. Buggy wheels were reduced from 232 sizes and varieties to 4, plows from 326 to 76 sizes and styles, and automobile tires from 287 types to 9.”


The Bureau was also highly involved in the development of aircraft for the war, including parts, metals for construction, instrumentation to be used in flight, fuels and lubricants. The Bureau also development a wind tunnel to further exploration into the physics of aviation.


**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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