Sep 19

Founding the Naval Research Laboratory

Sunday, September 19, 2010 12:01 AM


Thomas Edison did more than invent the light bulb, phonograph, and motion picture camera. He and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels were “fathers” of the Naval Research Laboratory and helped forge a fruitful collaboration between the Navy and academia.

In an interview published in the New York Times in May, 1915, Edison argued that to prepare for World War I the United States should enlist the help of “industry and science.” In particular, he advocated the creation of a government research laboratory, in which might be created “great guns, the minutiae of new explosives, all the technique of military and naval progression, without any vast expense.”

Daniels read the interview and acted immediately to enlist America’s greatest inventor to help form within the Navy a “department of invention and development,” to tap “the natural inventive genius of Americans.” Edison agreed and on 19 September the Naval Consulting Board, as the new organization was called, was born. Edison, his assistant, and 22 representatives of major national engineering societies comprised the board which was charged to advise the Navy on scientific matters and harness the powers of civilian scientists to solve the Navy’s technical problems.

Although the board remained active throughout the war, it never lived up to its promise of becoming an effective liaison between the Navy and civilian scientists and engineers with one exception: a plan to build a research laboratory and thus transform the way in which the Navy conducted its scientific research. With Edison’s backing, Daniels in 1916 was able to convince Congress to appropriate $1.5 million for the laboratory.

Delayed by disagreements about where it should be located and whether its director should be a naval officer or a civilian, it was not until 1923 that the Naval Research Laboratory complex was completed at the southernmost tip of the District of Columbia and the staff of 24 men began work under the direction of Rear Adm. William Strother Smith. Initially focusing on “sound” research, primarily the detection of submarines and improvement of radios, it slowly expanded its areas of activity so that by World War II the NRL began to assume the broad ranging capabilities that characterize it today.

Ironically, neither Daniels, whose tenure as Secretary ended in 1921, nor Edison, who resigned from the Board in a huff that same year, were involved in the opening of the NRL. Nonetheless, it was truly their creation and would not have existed without them.