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Samuel W. Stratton: Beginning a Culture of Excellence

Samuel Stratton, first director of NBS, sitting at his desk

by Jim Schooley, SAA History Committee     

When Samuel Stratton came to Washington, there was no National Bureau of Standards, only an assortment of governmental agencies with minimal responsibility for standardization among them the Coast and Geodetic Survey (which included an Office of Weights and Measures), the Geological Survey, and the Army Signal Service. And despite the efforts of those agencies to maintain contact with the measurement standards of the rest of the world, it was dog-eat-dog for those Americans involved in measurements or in buying and selling goods of all kinds. It was the time of the barrel, the bushel, the pound, the gallon, the yard, the hand, the foot, the chain, the rod, the short ton and the long ton, among many, many other indefinite standards.

But the time was ripe for standardization. The telegraph was a half-century old, the electric lamp two decades into service. Automobiles, hand-made and hand-fitted, were on the roads. X-rays and radioactivity had been discovered, and JJ Thomson had made a good case for the existence of the electron. The National Academy of Sciences was well established as the arbiter of scientific progress. Perhaps most influential of all in preparing the way for a governmental standardization laboratory were the German Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, established already in 1887, and the English National Physical Laboratory, created in 1899.  

Lyman Gage, then Secretary of the Treasury and thus in charge of the Office of Weights and Measures, invited Samuel Stratton, 38-year-old professor of physics at the University of Chicago, to come to Washington to write a report on the need for a US standardizing bureau. In the late fall of 1899, Stratton accepted. Gage immediately appointed him to the post of Inspector of Standards.   Stratton was an energetic student of technical subjects from his youth. He was awarded the degree of BS in Mechanical Engineering by the University of Illinois in 1880. Four years later, he was hired by UI as an instructor in math and physics. In 1892, he joined the physics faculty of the University of Chicago, in part to work with AA Michelson. Stratton was due for a sabbatical year in 1899, and in response to Gage's invitation, happily set about to plan a governmental standards laboratory.  

Stratton was as gregarious as he was industrious, and, with colleagues at the Office of Weights and Measures, soon marshaled the might of leading scientists to assist and endorse his efforts. His plan envisioned a laboratory that would study and construct standards of measurement, compare them with those of all sectors of the US measuring public, and measure significant quantities such as physical constants and material properties that were not readily obtainable.  

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Secretary Gage liked Stratton's plan, and presented it to a Congress that did not take kindly to interfering in matters of business. However, the enthusiastic support of the most influential of America's technical establishment convinced the legislators to pass a bill creating a National Bureau of Standards. The bill became law on March 3, 1901. Within a week, President McKinley appointed Stratton to become the first director of NBS.  

Thus began the real test of Stratton's vision and energy. Stratton's empire consisted of himself, one chemist, one physicist, one engineer, five technical assistants, and four non-technical staff members. His plan called for a separate building away from the city disturbances, but for the moment the little group worked in space provided by the Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Stratton attacked his new job with gusto. He directed his staff to prepare studies of photometry, thermometry, electricity, pressure, and meteorology, and in April he set off to Europe to order instruments and visit the most prominent laboratories. Like the German PTR, Stratton envisioned for NBS work in pure science and in the technical areas where standards were available. With Secretary Gage, Stratton recommended well-known scientists to flesh out the congressionally mandated Visiting Committee. By summer of 1901, Stratton presented the Visiting Committee with potential sites for a new NBS laboratory, leading to the acquisition of 7+ acres on a hill south of Chevy Chase in Maryland.  

Samuel Stratton directed the work of NBS until 1922. He continually testified before Congress, graphically illustrating the value of NBS by emphasizing its accomplishments, for example, during World War I the Bureau was involved in some 50 projects related to the war effort. His energetic pursuit of effective standards created a laboratory staff of 850 by the time he retired, including such future leaders as Edward Rosa, George Burgess, Charles Waidner, Howard Dellinger, William Meggers, and Lyman Briggs. His many talents and prodigious energy created for NBS/NIST an atmosphere in which imagination in approach to the job produces world-class effectiveness in measurement.  

A thorough history of Samuel Stratton's contributions to the Bureaus culture of scientific excellence can be found in Measures for Progress, by Rexmond C. Cochrane, NBS Miscellaneous Publication 275, 1966. 

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.  

Created October 24, 2010, Updated November 8, 2018