Talk by Jim Schooley
Historian and retired National Bureau of Standards scientist
April 23, 2015
I came to NBS in 1960. Although my wife and I lived in Kensington, Maryland with our small children, I spent many hours at the Bureau.
I joined NBS to study with Ernest Ambler, who with Ralph Hudson, Ray Hayward, and Dale Hoppes had recently completed experiments that produced a Nobel Prize for two theoreticians from Columbia University. We worked in the “Low Temperature” building, which was next to the much larger “North” building of the Connecticut Avenue site. Nearly every day we ate lunch together, sitting around a large conference table, except for Wednesdays, when we treated ourselves to lunch in one of the restaurants along Connecticut Avenue.
The NBS campus seemed a lot like a college environment, open and friendly, until worries about security prompted the installation of a peripheral fence with an eastern gate and a western gate. One of the older staff members, Harold Stimson, typically walked home to Forest Hills from his lab in the West building through the western gate. One evening, though, he left work later than usual and discovered that the gate had been locked. More than a little annoyed, “Stimmie” climbed over the gate, undeterred that his coat got hung up and badly torn on the top of the gate. As the story goes, he had a brief conversation with security the next day.
The Connecticut Avenue Bureau site was chosen by Samuel Stratton, its first director, as the labs at the Office of Weights and Measures downtown became too cramped for Stratton’s growing staff. Rexmond Cochrane, in his history of the first fifty years of NBS, noted that the first purchase in 1901 of just over seven acres, cost $25,000. By the time that Stratton retired in 1922, four more adjacent tracts, totaling more than twenty-five acres had been acquired. At the start of World War Two, NBS occupied just over seventy acres, bought at an overall cost of about $1 million.
Stratton’s careful selection of scientists for the Bureau’s staff led to a constant string of contributions to science and to the nation’s welfare. In 1903, the brand-new NBS responded to a terrible fire that burned some fifty blocks of Baltimore by cataloging about 100 different types of fire-hose connectors across the US. A frightened Congress immediately moved to standardize this critical equipment, and the American public suddenly saw the value of a national standards agency.
During world War One, the Bureau undertook some fifty military projects including, for example, studies of the nature and longevity of automobile/truck batteries, which led to an interesting encounter decades later. NBS quickly became the de facto research lab for US industry—such items as determining the scientific techniques involved in getting enamel to stick to kitchen stoves, and the manufacture of paper for US currency. All this progress led to continual increases in the size and versatility of the NBS scientific and technical staff.
In 1931, Professor Harold Urey, a physicist at Columbia University, came to NBS in search of deuterium, the name chosen for a heavier isotope of hydrogen, which he thought must exist but which had so far eluded him. Urey wanted to try concentrating the obviously rare, heavy hydrogen from the estimated five-thousand-times-more-plentiful hydrogen of mass one. The NBS cryogenics group, under Ferdinand Brickwedde, were experts on liquefying and studying hydrogen. Brickwedde guessed that the heavier isotope, if there was one, probably boiled at a different temperature than the more-common lighter isotope. Brick was correct. He boiled large quantities of liquid hydrogen until the remaining liquid supposedly would have a much larger concentration of the heavier isotope. It did. Urey identified deuterium spectroscopically, and he received the 1934 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery.
During World War II, NBS once more carried a full load of military projects. Lyman Briggs, then the Director of NBS, was personally involved in the search for a uranium bomb. He was President Roosevelt’s chief science advisor, and he served as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Uranium although he did not join the scientific staff of the Manhattan Project. NBS physicist Allen Astin, later to become the Bureau’s fifth Director, led a project that produced a “proximity fuse”, designed to explode a missile when it sensed that it was near a target.
There were dozens of other projects—among them a wind tunnel, development of synthetic rubber, improved radio transmission, more effective aviation fuel. By the end of 1941, 90 percent of the NBS staff were working on war research.
Shortly after the end of World War Two, the Bureau’s expertise in studying the idiosyncrasies of automobile batteries became a key element in a very public dispute that markedly enhanced the NBS reputation for accuracy and objectivity, its main contribution to the Nation’s scientific and industrial welfare. A gentleman from California, who had a thriving business in selling an additive that he claimed gave new life to old batteries, besieged NBS to test his product. His objective was to receive from the NBS testing program confirmation of the effectiveness of his additive, called AD-X2. Now NBS had long established a policy of not testing individual commercial products, so as to avoid the appearance of showing favoritism. Many commercial products were tested, but only as anonymous representatives of similar items. So George Vinal, head of the NBS electrochemistry group, declined to test AD-X2.
The businessman, a Mr. Jess Ritchie, was most persistent in his efforts to obtain the NBS blessing on his product. Ritchie enlisted the assistance of Better Business Bureaus, both state and national, and he solicited the help of some two dozen US Congressmen, who politely suggested to the Bureau that Ritchie’s request seemed quite reasonable. The matter became very public when the Department of Commerce, newly headed by newly elected President Eisenhower’s appointees, called NBS Director Allen Astin downtown, and suggested that he resign his post on the grounds that his testing program “completely disregarded the importance of the play of the marketplace”. Although Astin realized that his bosses at Commerce had no idea that their policy would ruin the NBS reputation for integrity, he agreed to resign.
When word of Astin’s firing became public, most representatives of the US scientific community, and many industrial spokesmen, raised their voices against the potential loss of an NBS whose main goals were accuracy and objectivity. In days, Congress heard the voices, and soon the Commerce Department’s rash decision was reversed. In a very public way, a blue-ribbon panel convened by Congress stated their conviction that, for US industry to prosper, the Nation needed an NBS “that is the finest that can be created”.
Astin remained the NBS Director for another 15 years, during which he led NBS with great calm and wisdom, which I was privileged to witness first-hand.
Thank you for this chance to talk about my favorite government agency.