History Column

A Brief History of the U.S. Federal Government and Innovation (Part II: 1917-1945)

By Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D.


In Part I, published last month, we showed how the United States government supported and encouraged innovation in a variety of ways, from the drafting of the Constitution in the late eighteenth century through the early years of the twentieth century. This support and encouragement continued through the first part of the twentieth century, catalyzed in particular by the needs of two World Wars.

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. Although the United States was a neutral nation until 1917, the war in Europe had a substantial impact on the United States, particularly for shipping and communications.

Wireless (i.e., radio) telegraphy, first demonstrated by the Italian-British inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901 had become by the 1910s an important communications medium, especially for ships at sea. It was the first technology that allowed ships to communicate at distances greater than line of sight. Its rapid widespread, but uneven, adoption led Congress to enact the Wireless Ship Act in 1910, which required that all ships steaming in and out of U.S. ports, carrying 50 passengers between ports greater than 200 miles, have radio equipment and skilled wireless telegraphy operators. Since this required more ships to install equipment, it increased the quantity of radio transmissions, creating more interference and transmission difficulties, in part because of the nature of the spark transmitters then in use.

On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic, likely the grandest ocean liner built to date, struck an iceberg and sunk on its maiden voyage. Because the Titanic had wireless equipment and operators, it was able to put out a distress call, which was received by operators along the eastern seaboard, as well as the operator on one nearby ship, the RMS Carpathia, four hours away, which was able to rescue 705 of the Titanic’s more than 2,000 passengers and crew. In part, the loss of life was due to the Titanic having insufficient lifeboats, but partial blame can also be attributed to the fact that the signal was never received by some other nearby ships, either because their operators had gone off duty, or because, being freighters, they had no radio facilities. The sinking of the Titanic is, of course, one of the most infamous naval disasters in history, the subject of, among other things, an Oscar-winning 1997 film.

But more to the point of our story, the Titanic disaster led to the passage of the Radio Act of 1912, which in addition to requiring that all radio operators be licensed by the government and that all ships have wireless operators on duty at all times, gave the Navy exclusive control of a large portion of the radio spectrum, and required it to build a string of land stations to communicate with both naval and commercial vessels. These installations were among the first to use superior continuous wave transmitters. The Navy became interested in promoting innovations in wireless. Thus, in 1915, the Navy agreed to put the antenna at its Arlington, Virginia, station to use with AT&T’s experimental vacuum-tube radio amplifier to accomplish the first transoceanic transmission of the human voice (rather than Morse Code). This success led to the Navy working with AT&T to develop ship-to-shore voice radio communications, which bore fruit in the 1920s.

Once the U.S. entered the War in 1917, the Navy took over all radio facilities in the United States for the duration, and funded a variety of advances in continuous wave technology, including design and construction of a 200-kilowatt continuous wave transmitter devised by Ernst Alexanderson. Overall, under Navy custody, radio equipment became more standardized, powerful and efficient. The Navy’s needs for better communications led to many incremental improvements in then-new vacuum tube technology, producing more sensitive, rugged and reliable devices for use as radio wave detectors and generators. Both the Navy and the Army supported research into air-to-ground radio communications. When AT&T produced a successful system in 1918, it came too late in the war to be widely deployed.


The Navy supported innovations in several other areas in the 1910s, including the improvement of gyroscopes and gyrocompasses by Elmer Sperry at his Sperry Gyroscope company.

Naval Research Comes Onboard

In 1915, at renowned inventor Thomas Edison’s urging, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels established an Edison-led Naval Consulting Board to harness technological innovation for naval preparedness. The Board, composed largely of leading industrial researchers, had two charges: 1) to evaluate inventions from the public, and 2) to sponsor appropriate research. The former came to almost nothing; while 110,000 suggestions came in from across the country, the board only found 110 worthy of development, out of which but one was put into production. The latter led to funding several research projects, most prominently a laboratory in Nahant, Massachusetts, devoted to development of a sound detection device for submarine detection. Willis Whitney, chief of the General Electric Company laboratory, led this facility, and staffed it with prominent researchers from GE (including future Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir), AT&T and other companies. This lab developed a detector known as the “C tube.

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the birth and growth of U.S. federal laboratories. However, the early labs tended to be small in scope and to concentrate on being clearinghouses of research conducted in the private sector. Therefore, despite the individual inventions above, the most enduring achievement of the Naval Consulting Board was its recommendation that the Navy should have a significant in-house research capability. Congress appropriated funds for a standalone organization in 1916, but construction did not begin until 1920. The Naval Research Laboratory finally opened in 1923.

The Naval Consulting Board deliberately excluded members of the National Academy of Science; Edison preferred practical men to academics. The Academy responded by setting up its own research unit in 1916, the National Research Council. Like the Consulting Board, the NRC established a facility to attack the problem of submarine detection. The NRC facility, in New London, Connecticut, devised a superior detector. The United States had dispatched 110 wooden sub-chasers equipped with the NRC equipment to the English Channel and the Adriatic by July 1918. On 11 May 1918, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order transforming the NRC into a permanent research arm of the Academy, with a charter to stimulate research and development in science, promote cooperative undertakings, and to disseminate scientific knowledge. After the war, NRC sponsored projects became less closely aligned with government needs, and throughout the following two decades relied chiefly on foundation funds to sponsor the work authorized under its government charter. Among the projects it sponsored was Ernest O. Lawrence’s pioneering development of the cyclotron.

Research Takes Flight

The airplane was another new technological area in the early 20th century that had significant implications for both civil and military affairs. Largely with military issues in mind, Congress established NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in 1915, as a rider to that year’s Naval appropriation bill. NACA, a committee of unpaid volunteers from both government and the private sector, had a charter “to supervise and direct the scientific study of the problem of flight, with a view to their practical solution.” In its first few years, it mainly acted as a coordinator, arranging for research in government or university laboratories. In 1920, NACA opened its own research and testing facility, the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. Within five years, Langley had a staff of 100, an active research program, and what were widely considered the best wind tunnels in the world. Among Langley’s projects in the late 1920s was the investigation of the drag caused by fixed landing gear. This led to the rapid rise of retractable landing gear. NACA worked on projects for both military and civilian aircraft, with increasing activity as the nation rearmed in the late 1930s, investigating among other things, airfoil shapes for wings and propellers. NACA opened additional labs in Sunnyvale, California, in 1940 and Cleveland, Ohio, in 1941. NACA continued its work into the post-war years, and was incorporated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) at the agency’s establishment in 1958.

Nonmilitary Research

The military was not the only area in which federal research increased during the early 20th century. Congress established the Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior in acts passed in 1910 and 1913. Part of the Bureau’s charter was to establish mining experiment stations, built on the model of state agricultural experiment stations discussed last month, to conduct research in this area. The first station opened in Pittsburgh in 1913. By 1921, there were 13 regional stations, most associated with universities, and each focusing on a different research area. For example, the station in Berkeley California focused on metallurgy, while the station in Reno focused on rare and precious metals. Among the many technological innovations to come out of the Bureau of Mines over the years were improvements in mine safety and safety equipment, improved production processes for titanium and zirconium, and lower-cost methods to isolate radium for cancer treatment. Congress closed the Bureau in 1995, and transferred its functions to other agencies.


In 1930, Congress changed the name of the Public Health Service’s Hygienic Laboratory (discussed in the previous month’s essay) to the National Institute of Health (NIH), while expanding its mission to include fellowships in biological sciences and medicine. In 1937, Congress created the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to award grants and fellowships to non-federal scientists for research on cancer. NCI soon constructed its own research building on the NIH’s Bethesda campus, and in 1944, officially became a part of the NIH. The NCI’s grant program also expanded to include all of NIH.

Vannevar Bush and the Lead-up to War

By 1938, engineer (and AIEE member) Dr. Vannevar Bush was Vice President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he had arrived at after being a professor of power engineering there. Bush was also the inventor of the differential analyzer, an advanced analog computing machine. Convinced that war was coming, he accepted a position in 1939 as head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a major philanthropic funder of scientific research, so that he would be in a position to influence events in Washington. By early 1940, he had become convinced that the coming war would be “a highly technological struggle” that would require not just the armed forces, but the active involvement of civilian researchers to develop and produce the technological advances that victory would require. In 1939, Bush became first co-chair and then chair of NACA. On 12 June 1940, Bush convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) as a new agency, along the lines of NACA and the National Academy, but devoted to more broadly coordinating and sponsoring civilian research on technologies of potential use to the military. Two days later, Roosevelt announced the NDRC’s creation, with Bush as the agency’s first chair. Bush formed a distinguished committee that included academics, such as Harvard President James Conant and MIT President Karl Compton; industrial researchers, such as Bell Labs President Frank Jewett; and senior government officials, including the Commissioner of Patents and senior officers from the Army and the Navy. The NDRC would coordinate research on the mechanism and devices of warfare, and finance that research through grants to existing civilian institutions. Bush asked the military for guidance on what projects were needed, and began awarding contracts to leading civilian institutions, chiefly top universities like MIT, Cal Tech and John Hopkins, top industrial research labs like AT&T’s Bell Labs, RCA and GE, and a few top non-profit independent institutions like the Battelle Institute and the Rand Corporation.

In May 1941, Roosevelt established the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), with the NDRC as its main operating unit and a Committee on Medical Research as a second unit. Bush became head of the OSRD. The OSRD, which reported directly to Roosevelt, was set up to receive congressional appropriations, and given additional authority for development — it could fund the manufacture of small batches of arms or other equipment based on the research it funded. By the end of the war in 1945, the NDRC/OSRD had channeled more than $450 million (around 5 billion in 2011 dollars) in hundreds of contracts to dozens of institutions on a wide range of innovative projects. This pattern of government funding of civilian sector research continued and spread after the war. The NDRC was reconstituted as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.

NDRC-funded researchproduced innovations in many areas, from proximity fuses to anti-submarine measures to innovative vehicles and pioneering work in operations research. But the largest and best-known project (after wartime secrecy was lifted, of course) was the application of the new British discoveries in radar to the problem of aircraft detection.

Large-Scale Projects

In September 1940, British chemist Henry Tizard led a mission to the United States to secure American cooperation in development and production of a number of British innovations of potential military value, most notably in radar — the use of radio waves to detect and track enemy aircraft. He brought with him a key British innovation — the cavity magnetron, a microwave generating device that was both smaller and more powerful than anything previously known, and thus ideal for radar use. In Bush and the NDRC, he found a receptive audience, as the NDRC had already set up a subcommittee on microwaves. This subcommittee selected MIT as the location for the development of microwave radar technology. Nuclear Physicist Lee Du Bridge of the University of Rochester was chosen to direct the new lab, with Isadore Rabi of Columbia as his associate director. The name Radiation Laboratory was chosen to be deliberately misleading, to imply that the lab was working on Nuclear Physics. An impressive number of physicists, engineers and other technical professionals came from around the country to work at the Rad Lab. At its peak, the Rad Lab had 3,500 employees and a budget of $4 million per month.

Over the course of the war, the Rad Lab produced more than a hundred valuable microwave radar products of vital importance for the war effort. Two of the most critical contributions were microwave early-warning (MEW) radars, which effectively nullified the V-1 bomb threat to London, and air-to-surface vessel (ASV) radars, which turned the tide on the U-boat threat to Allied shipping. Industrial production of Rad Lab innovations totaled over $1.5 billion. The Rad Lab closed on 31 December 1945, and its staff dispersed, many returning to their pre-war institutions. The Rad Lab became a model for large-scale government support of university-affiliated government-supported research laboratories. The technologies developed by the Rad Lab led to many civilian applications in the post war years, including radar for weather forecasting and air traffic control.

In 1991, in conjunction with a reunion organized by the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society on the occasion of the Rad Lab’s 50th anniversary, The IEEE History Center undertook a major oral history project to interview a cross-section of Rad Lab staff. Forty one interviews were recorded over the course of reunion. These interviews are available on the IEEE Global History Network.

In 1939, President Roosevelt received a letter signed by Albert Einstein warning that it might be possible to use uranium chain reactions to construct a new type of extremely powerful bomb. Roosevelt set up a committee to investigate, which in 1940 recommended that this could be feasible, and that in addition, German work suggested that nuclear fission was possible. The committee recommended that the NDRC pursue the question with an eye towards producing a nuclear weapon. The NDRC S-1 Uranium Committee sponsored research at several universities, which in turn concluded that there were several possible routes to separating the fissionable uranium isotope 238 needed for nuclear fission from isotope 235, and that a nuclear pile might be sustained that could produce the newly discovered element plutonium for use in a bomb. In May 1942, Bush concluded that it was time to move from research to the design and operation of production facilities, and that that would best be done under the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps assumed control of initially most, and eventually the entire project, which it named the Manhattan Engineering District. Led by Brigadier General Leslie Groves, it became better known as the Manhattan Project. From this point, the largest part of the atomic bomb effort was development and construction, with scientists playing an important role. The Corps undertook the construction of an entirely new city — Oak Ridge, Tennessee — to house both the facilities for three different uranium enrichment processes, and ultimately 40,000 workers; a second facility, in Hanford Washington, for the nuclear pile (or reactor) to produce Plutonium; and a third facility, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, led by Physicist Robert Oppeheimer, to house the scientists and engineers who would design and produce the bombs to be made from the resulting material. Overall, the project employed 130,000 people at a cost of more than $2 billion (more than $22 billion in 2011 dollars.) The Manhattan Project, as is well known, succeeded. Uranium 238, produced by a combination of multiple processes at Oak Ridge, was used to make a bomb, designed at Oak Ridge, and dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 August 1945. Plutonium, produced at Hanford, was used to make two bombs, one tested in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945, and the second dropped on Nagasaki Japan on 9 August (three days after the first nuclear bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima). Japan surrendered on 14 August, ending World War II.

In 1947, the civilian Atomic Energy Commission succeeded the military Manhattan Engineering District.

One major task faced by the U. S. Army Department of Ordnance was the calculation of ballistic tables. In order to shoot a gun at a moving target, such as an enemy aircraft, one had to aim at where the target would be, rather than where it was. This was accomplished through the calculation and publication of ballistic tables for use by gun operators. The calculations were laboriously made, one at a time, by large numbers of generally female computers working at mechanical calculators, sometime with the help of one more advanced device, the differential analyzer. One of the sites contracted to do this work during the war was the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Two staff members there, Presper Eckert and John Mauchly produced a proposal for a much more advanced device, and Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) that held the promise, if successful, of doing calculations orders of magnitude faster, and with greater operational flexibility. The Ballistics Research Laboratory signed the first of several contracts on 5 July 1943 to underwrite ENIAC’s development. Development work began in secret on the massive machine. The many component units were installed at the Moore School one at a time as they were completed. After the installation of thirty separate units, final assembly began in October 1945, although the war was by then over. On 14 February 1946, the Army and the University of Pennsylvania announced ENIAC to the public. On the following day, the university officially turned ENIAC over to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds of the Ordnance Department. The Ordnance Department moved it to Aberdeen in 1947, and operated it until 1955. ENIAC was an enormous, and in retrospect crude and awkward machine. It contained more than 18,000 vacuum tubes, measured eight feet high, three feet wide and almost 100 feet long, filled a 30-by-50 foot room, and weighed thirty tons. ENIAC was also the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, and thus strongly influenced the development of the modern, stored-program, general-purpose computer.

During World War I and World War II, the United States government sponsored more innovations than can be mentioned in a short essay. Perhaps most significantly, this turbulent period in our nation’s history was marked by the government’s investment in innovation in venues beyond government laboratories. The federal government built upon the means and techniques employed in World War II in a further expansion of its established role of support and encouragement for innovation in the Cold-War environment of the post-World War II years, a period that will be discussed in the final part of this series next month.

Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D.

Sheldon Hochheiser, Ph.D., is archivist and institutional historian at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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