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NBS Moves West

by Jim Schooley, SAA History Committee  

During World War II, the National Bureau of Standards, with its large staff of scientists and engineers, contributed heavily to U.S. military objectives. Dozens of war-related projects, ranging from military hardware to properties of materials and mathematics, were scattered throughout the Bureau. Many of these projects were focused in the field of radio, which at NBS came to include microwaves as well as the ever-expanding communications spectrum. Two of the best-known of the NBS military hardware developments were a guided missile called the "bat", which emitted shortwave radiation and "homed" on the signal that was reflected from the target, and a proximity fuze for bombs and artillery shells that operated in a similar fashion. NBS projects in radio communication, in radio direction finding, and in ionospheric influences on radio transmission were of such importance to the military that nearly one-third of the NBS wartime budget was devoted to support of an Inter-Service Radio Propagation Laboratory (IRPL), created in 1942 by order of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

After the war, the Congress and the Department of Commerce agreed that the NBS staff should return to non-military science and to the standards work that was its specialty. For much of the Bureau staff, the transition to civilian science and standards was relatively easy, but for others, particularly for those scientists and engineers engaged in the development of military hardware, the transition was not always easy, and sometimes it was impossible.

Examples of this transition were the programs on proximity fuzes and missile guidance. The rapid onset of the "Cold War" and the war in Korea convinced the government that these projects, which were running out of space in the Connecticut Avenue laboratories, should be continued. The proximity fuze work, housed in new facilities built by the Army Engineers across the street from the Bureau grounds in 1946, included 3 divisions of NBS staff. In 1953, the entire group, by then numbering 1,600 people, was transferred to the Department of the Army.

Accomplishing the transition of the missile guidance program personnel to civilian pursuits was similarly difficult. The 100 or so Bureau staff members working on the program, like their counterparts in the proximity fuze program, were asked to continue their wartime projects. In fact, by 1950 they needed more personnel and more space in a hurry as the Korean War became a reality. However, President Truman, alert to the possibility of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, would not allow further construction so close to Washington. In order to keep the guidance program intact, NBS director Edward Condon agreed to move all the personnel and equipment to Corona, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where the U.S. Navy made available some vacant hospital facilities. In 1953, the missile-guidance group, by then numbering 400 people, was formally transferred to the Navy with the title Naval Ordnance Laboratories/Corona.

Yet another move to the West was made in 1946, when the Bureau's Applied Mathematics Division joined with the University of California at Los Angeles to initiate a computer development program. Titled the Institute for Numerical Analysis, the group soon built a companion to the Bureau's revolutionary Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (commonly referred to as SEAC). The new computer, of course dubbed the Standards Western Automatic Computer (and always called SWAC), incorporated numerous changes in design. It found immediate use in civilian work as well as performing computations for the military. Inasmuch as the Institute was supported almost entirely by Navy and Air Force funding, it was no surprise that it, too, was formally transferred from NBS in 1953-54.

Divestiture of the war-related programs noted above left big holes in the NBS staff. The groups that were transferred to other agencies amounted to one-third of the total Bureau staff and took away about half of the Bureau's financial support. Talk about helping the war effort!

But, you may ask, what became of the Inter-Service Radio Propagation Laboratory, which held such importance for both military and civilian activities? Well, that happens to be a very interesting part of the story too.

On May 1, 1946, as part of the effort to convert Bureau research to civilian interests, the Inter-Service RPL was renamed the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL). However, we must note that representatives of all the armed forces testified before Congress the very next year that the newly-renamed CRPL was "...a continuation and expansion of the IRPL...". It is also true that in 1947, the CRPL had a staff of 414 people, making it the largest unit in the Bureau, and it received 30% of the total funding appropriated by the Congress for NBS support. But, like the other war-time programs, the CRPL was suffering on Connecticut Avenue, too, though for somewhat different reasons.

Members of Congress noted as early as 1947 that the Connecticut Avenue site was no longer adequate to house the many NBS laboratories. The laboratory buildings were outdated and run down, and by that time the site was surrounded by a cacophony of electronic, mechanical and acoustical noise. The radio research programs run by the CRPL especially were severely limited by the Connecticut Avenue environment. There was continuing interference from local broadcast radio and radio communications. Furthermore, the long sight lines needed for microwave research were not to be found on what was by that time a big-city campus.

To relieve CRPL's severe environmental problems, NBS Director Condon requested that Congress authorize the purchase of property with "radio quiet", with long sight lines, and with access to a university that had a good electrical engineering program. During 1949 Congress granted this request, and a search was begun for a suitable location. Of some 28 sites considered, three were especially suitable; Boulder, Colorado, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Palo Alto, California. The deal was sealed when the citizens of Boulder offered 200 acres of land for the site, and in September of 1950, Congress passed the requisite law authorizing the move.

But a curious thing happened as the CRPL was organizing itself to design, build, and occupy new "digs" in Boulder. Coincidentally, early in 1950 President Truman had announced that the United States intended to build a "Super" bomb. It seems that, even during the early work on the "atomic" bomb while World War II was raging, scientists at the Los Alamos site had realized that enormously powerful bombs could be made in two ways, both involving nuclear reactions. The bomb used to end World War II employed neutron-induced fission of uranium-235; during each fission event, part of the uranium nuclear mass was converted into an enormous amount of energy. Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, however, discussed the idea of making an even more powerful bomb by inducing the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei into one helium nucleus. They conjectured that, by using a very dense source of hydrogen and a fission bomb as an "ignitor", they could produce a bomb with perhaps 1000 times the energy of the fission bomb.

President Truman was motivated to recommend accelerated research on the "Super" by the fact that, by 1949, Soviet scientists had built a uranium-fission bomb. So it was time for the U.S. to get moving on a still more powerful weapon.

But how did NBS figure into this plan? Several factors came together in the minds of the Atomic Energy Commission weapons people as they considered how to respond to their new mandate. First, dense sources of hydrogen probably included liquid hydrogen, which in turn necessitated a strong cryogenics capability. Second, NBS had a reputation for excellent work on both military and civilian programs, and it had a strong cryogenics laboratory. Third, NBS had just received permission to build new laboratories on a site near Boulder, a fine, out-of-the-way place, but not too far from Los Alamos. Bingo!

The Atomic Energy Commission immediately asked Congress to authorize the construction of a cryogenics laboratory at Boulder to be staffed by Bureau personnel. Congress acted quickly to authorize the plan.

Placed on notice that a hydrogen liquefaction plant of unprecedented capacity was needed as soon as possible, the NBS cryogenics group (high in competence if not in numbers) began to design a monster hydrogen liquefaction plant. The initial group included Ferdinand Brickwedde, (chief of the NBS Heat and Power division and a veteran of years of research on hydrogen), Russell Scott (chief of the Cryogenic Physics Section), William E. Gifford, and Victor Johnson (a cryogenics engineer recruited from the Naval Research Laboratory).         

Within a year, the group had designed and built a plant with 10 times the capacity of any other existing unit. Brickwedde also had enlarged the group to include Bascom Birmingham (experienced in handling liquefaction equipment), Dudley Chelton, Richard Kropschot, Robert Powell, Robert Jacobs, and Peter Van Arend.

While the cryogenics group was working in the Washington laboratory, construction was under way in Boulder. By March of 1952, the hydrogen liquefaction plant was in place on the new site and was producing liquid hydrogen at the unheard of rate of 320 liters per hour. The work of the liquefaction group was instrumental in the development of the "Super" bomb, and the new cryogenics staff soon augmented that work with a rich variety of other programs.

When Dwight Eisenhower, newly elected as America's President, dedicated the new facilities at the Boulder site during September of 1954, he was accompanied by Allen Astin, confirmed as director of NBS in 1952 and already past his trying experience in the battery-additive episode. The dedication officials found both the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory (CRPL) and the Cryogenic Engineering Division to be well-established, each with a full agenda of creative work.

Time has proven the value of creating a second major campus for NBS. Although the CRPL was transferred to the Environmental Science Services Administration in 1965, the laboratory continued to occupy the Boulder site. The Cryogenic Engineering Division programs continue to this day, although like all NBS groups, the division itself has undergone numerous transformations. And many other NBS/NIST groups have sprung up on the Boulder site as well, providing their own outstanding returns on Congress' investment in "NBS/West".

As current NIST employees are well aware, the main NBS campus after 60 years operations there was moved from Connecticut Avenue in DC to Gaithersburg, Maryland in 1965/1966. It had not been an easy task.

For further information on the events mentioned in this note, the reader is invited to consult the following sources: Measures for Progress, by Rexmond C. Cochrane, NBS Miscellaneous Publication 275, 1966. Achievements in Radio; 70 Years of Radio Science at NBS, by Wilbert F. Snyder and Charles L. Bragaw, NBS Special Publication 555, 1986. A Unique Institution, by Elio Passaglia, NIST Special Publication 925, 1999.         

The NBS/NIST Culture of Excellence series is produced under the auspices of the Standards Alumni Association. The SAA, with offices in the basement of the Administration Building, supports NIST management in a variety of ways, but principally by assistance with historical projects such as oral histories of staff members, biographical files, the portrait gallery of outstanding employees, and the museum. Membership in SAA is open to all present and former employees of NIST. For information, call x2486.

September 2006

Created October 24, 2010, Updated November 8, 2018