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Mr. Merrill is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW and is a published author of several books on the history of undersea technology. He is a retired engineer with lengthy experience at the New London lab of the Naval Undersea Wa1fare Center. He currently lives in Wate1ford, CT.

” …it is impossible to distinguish sharply between science as needed for national defense and science as the basis of industrial progress. ” –George Ellery Hale


The 92-year history of the NRC chartered by President Wilson in July 1916 reveals an early association with Navy antisubmarine warfare during World War 1 (WW1) and a continuing and gradually expanding relationship with the Navy in the 20th Century and beyond. Initially, the Council was created to address immediate serious national preparedness problems related to the increased need for scientific and technical services presented by the ongoing World War. This need was due to the rapid growth of physical science and technology starting in the last half of the 19th Century and continuing.

In late September 1916, attention to Navy matters in a newly formed NRC Military Committee was assured with committee membership including Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Navy Operations (CNO), and four rear admirals in charge of areas such as ordnance, construction, and engineering.2 During the 1916-1918 phase of the Council, aiding the government in pursuit of the war was the primary focus.

It should not be interpreted that the coming together of civilian scientists and the military was a perfect arrangement. The arrangement provided progress but not without awkward instances of controversy. Vannevar Bush and James Conant, involved in military research in WWI, had a firsthand view of how an American war effort could be hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency and inadequate communication and partnership between scientific institutions and the govemment.3 Interaction between scientists, engineers, and government personnel also does not foster calm relationships even when pursuing common goals. During the 20th Century, these relationships improved but slowly. WWI joint efforts witnessed occasional difficult situations.

As the 20th Century ended, the NRC was involved in and responding to a broad number of national science and technology areas including matters of interest and need for the United States Navy. At present, NRC consists of approximately 1,000 committees and a membership of just under 10,000.

The Council’s scientific interests in the 21st Century are enormous and broad. The NRC became a reality due to the foresight, energy and skills of George Ellery Hale, an accomplished scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Shortly after the start of WW1 in August 1914, it became clear that certain imports essential to industry and the military would not be available. Some of the problems were in the domain of the physicist, chemist, meteorologist, and as well as in other areas of science. Wartime science and technological innovations including the successful German submarines provided questions and challenges. In some instances, answers were beyond the military’s knowledge.

Examples of shortages included optical glass for gun sights, range finders, and periscopes. Chemicals needed for high explosives and gas warfare also developed and sourced from Germany were not accessible. Addressing these problem areas was of immediate interest to the newly-formed Council. Attention in this paper is directed to the Council and the submarine detection problem.

The May 7,1915 sinking of the Cunard ocean liner LUSITANIA with extensive loss of life became a tipping point in the long-held neutrality of the nation. This event and other aspects of the war and how it was proceeding caused Hale to raise questions about a need to bring those engaged in science and engineering from industry, academia, government, and the military together in the likelihood of United States becoming involved in the ongoing World War. An important aspect of Hale’s thinking about the NAS was that the organization’s approach to science should include keeping pure and applied science together. The success of England’s Royal Society was attributed to a similar view.

Hale, with the NAS, successfully brought the idea of a council to the attention of President Wilson in 1916. This was ten months before the United States’ declaration of war with Germany. The ground swell that brought about the implementation of the Council was the result of the convergence of national and international events.

This commentary primarily includes the early history of NAS, the WW1 activities of the Council, the status of science and industry at the time of WWI, the scene when the Council was being established, the emergence and continuation of the Council at the end of WW1, and mention of the Naval Studies Board (NSB) created at the request of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1974. The NSB is an example of the NRC’s interaction with the Navy as the Council continued to grow as the operational arm of the NAS.

Brief History of the NAS

During the Civil War, Congress and the War and Navy Departments were inundated with ideas and devices in aid of the war. Private citizens wanted to contribute to the war effort by submitting inventions and proposals to the government. It was recognized that some organizational arrangement was needed to pass judgment on the technical submissions from around the country sent to Washington.

Alexander Bache, Head of the Coast Survey, Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution, and Rear-Admiral Charles Henry Davis, head of the recently established Bureau of Navigation Office (Navy’s first scientific bureau) considered establishing a permanent commission to deal with the value of the vast number of concepts being given to the government and having a predominance of Navy-related ideas that in some cases required scientific evaluation.

Further meetings and discussions by the above three principals and others resulted in a consensus reached in February 1863. A drafted bill for Congressional consideration, suggested by Admiral Davis, named fifty men of science chosen to be the incorporators of the National Academy of Sciences. Natural history was the most widely pursued scientific activity of the 19th Century. It is interesting that, among the Academy incorporators, physical sciences and technology were represented in a ratio of two to one those in natural history.

On March 3, 1863, the bill was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives and signed by President Lincoln later in the day. The charter established the Academy, a private organization as an official scientific advisory agency to the government. The first meeting of the NAS was held April 22 at New York University .

During its first year ( 1863-64), NAS in a reactive role responded to ten requests by the government. Three requests were about Navy matters and no requests related to those of Anny. Two Navy requests were concerned with protection of the bottoms of iron ships and magnetic deviations in iron ships and improving compass corrections. The third was to evaluate and assess the navigational work of former United States Navy Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, now a member of the Confederate Navy.

For the remainder of the century and into the early part of the next century, occasions for the government to need to call upon the Academy were slight. “At its founding, military and naval engineers prominent in the science or art of engineering had comprised almost a fifth of the incorporators…”

NAS membership was primarily honorific and in the late 1800s natural history was the predominant scientific activity. From 1863 to 1908, the Federal Government made 51 requests to the Academy. By 1912, engineer representation included a single representative and the membership in the Academy was less than 100. One of Hale’s biographers commented about the status of NAS in the early part of the 20th Century, “but since the Civil War, despite all the advances in all branches of science, it had been largely moribund.”

Science in United States circa 1915

Science research was carried on by a group of agencies working for the most part in independence of one another. Pure science was primarily the province of universities and small privately-endowed research institutes. Beginning at the turn of the century, private industries, General Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and others were sponsoring their own laboratories. In the rapidly-evolving physical science of the last half of the 19th Century and the early decades of the new century, the number of industrial research laboratories slowly increased and developed into important resources.

In the early part of the 1900s, backing for basic scientific research became an objective for very wealthy industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. The Carnegie Institution of Washington funded a total of five billion dollars in current dollars and became a research institution that supplemented the work of established universities by providing financial support to scientists to engage in basic research projects. According to D. J. Kelves in The Physicists, this initial funding of “$10,000,000 equaled Harvard’s entire endowment and it amounted to far more than the total endowment specifically for research in all American universities combined.”

Concerning Hale

Hale, MIT Class 1889, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1902. In 1915, he was serving as NAS foreign secretary and active in enlarging and reorganizing the Academy to give it a larger role in American science. He was well- known nationally and internationally from his contributions to astronomy and influence on the evolving field of astrophysics. With respect to the war, Hale was pro-preparedness, enthusiastic for the Allies, and critical of neutrality. It can be supposed that Hale had two intentions: to have NAS scientists contribute to military preparedness and to initiate a continuing government-to-science relationship in peacetime. Government patronage, however, was not one of Hale’s goals.

As NAS membership included the country’s scientific societies, Hale was anxious to move the Academy into a leadership role in national preparedness. A few days prior to the LUSITANIA disaster in May 19 l 5, Hale expressed his view to the NAS president and other Academy members of the need for action on scientific preparedness. Few members shared Hale’s concern.

On July 3, 1915, Hale wrote to the NAS president regarding the Academy’s strong obligation to offer NAS’s services to President Wilson in event of war with Mexico or Germany. With President Wilson’s neutral stance at that time regarding the war, no immediate steps were taken by the NAS.

Congress and LUSITANIA sinking

Congress responded to the German submarine U-20’s May 7 torpedoing and sinking of the LU SIT ANIA. As preparedness measures for defense, two technical groups were established on July 15 the Naval Consulting Board (NCB) and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) (that at a later time would become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).9 Membership of the NCB, headed by the Board’s president Thomas Edison, consisted primarily of senior inventors and representatives from eleven of the largest American engineering societies.

NCB membership, structure, and deliberations did not include the NAS nor the American Physical Society. Primarily, physicists. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Simon Lake, Elmer A. Sperry, and Alexander Graham Bell are representative of the NCB makeup. ” …save for two mathematicians, of representatives from America’s major engineering societies. The National Academy of Sciences, the government’s official scientific adviser, had been omitted.” Initial interest of the NCB included organizing to consider problems, not of science, but of manufacturing and standardization.

Formation of the NRC

Beginning in February 1916, the excessive loss of life in the long battle at Verdun (eventually 500,000), the earlier torpedo U-boat losses, of the British ocean liner ARABIC in I 915 followed by the French cross channel ship SUSSEX in March, plus President Wilson’s April 18 ultimatum to Germany regarding unrestricted submarine warfare moved Hale to press again to bring in the nation’s scientists and others to assist in military preparedness.

On the day following the ultimatum, Hale presented a resolution to the NAS annual meeting in Washington to offer the services of the Academy to President Wilson. The resolution was accepted. NAS services proffered were for the coordination of the non-governmental scientific and technical resources of the country with the military and naval agencies of the government for national security and preparedness. In retrospect, the NAS involvement was logical, but at the time it was unexpected and unique. Looking back at the 20th Century, it was prescient.

On April 26, Hale and Academy personnel met with the President. The resolution was presented and discussed. The President advised them to form a committee and proceed, but with the caveat that no public disclosure be made at this time.

By June, the new endeavor was called the National Research Council and on July 24, President Wilson approved the preliminary Council plan. The New York Times on September 21 reported the results of the first full Council meeting. A week later, the White House listed senior government civilian and military leaders appointed to the Council. “For the first time in the country’s history science, education, industry and the federal government joined hands in a plan for the promotion of research, as such, without stipulations or preoccupations as to immediate “practical returns.” This initial wartime interaction was with the government’s scientific bureaus and the Army and Navy technical departments. Primary Council effort with the Navy at that time was investigation related to antisubmarine warfare. By 1916 German submarines were larger and more seaworthy, adding to the need for ASW capability.

Hale’s view of these 1916 events later in 1933 was “When I first took the job I had no funds for the Council, no office rooms, no friends (except Stratton) in Government Departments- little, in fact, but the pleasant difficulty of overcoming the prejudices of the chiefs of military and naval bureaus against ‘the damned professors.’ It was a bully game, and I wish I could try it again.”

NRC World War I Navy Matters

By early February 1917, the above-mentioned Military Committee that included Anny representatives prepared a number of Army and Navy projects. Many were on submarine problems. The first official act of this Committee was to provide a plan to CNO for the development of a listening device for submarines. This plan provided the basis for a considerable amount of the WWI antisubmarine effort. Gradually, from this time until the post-Armistice after mid November 1918, under the aegis of the NRC, a wide variety of academic, industrial and military agencies and activities busily came to grips with researching ways to solve problems related to the effective German submarines. Antisubmarine problems continued throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century.

As early as February, Frank Rieber, secretary of the California War Inventions Committee and a member of the Submarine Defense Commission started some underwater experiments in the Bay at San Francisco. It was during his war work with sonic submarine detection and depth sounding that he became interested in using seismic technology in oil exploration to locate oil structures. Prior to the declaration of war, under Council sponsorship, Dr. M. I. Pupin of Columbia University (with Council members) began investigating the use of supersonic frequencies to detect submarines.

Throughout 1916-1918, chairman of the Council’s Physics efforts Dr. Robert A. Millikan, noted physicist and a future Nobel Laureate, had a variety of important ongoing assignments with the Council. Even with his extensive involvement and travel associated with organizing the Council, Millikan found time in March 1917 to do research work at the Western Electric Laboratories in Manhattan.


Two missions during 1917 helped to enlighten, focus, and encourage the efforts of the growing Council. In April, under the aegis of the NRC, ten American scientists traveled to Europe to acquire insight regarding the wartime technical efforts of England, France, and Italy. By mid- 1916, there was interchange between British and French scientists regarding scientific and technical work in each country. The goals of the US mission were to offer France and England assistance from U.S. laboratories and scientific workers and learn of the work already done in various fields bearing upon the war. During the American’s mission in Europe, the dire nature of the Allies’ military situation and the heavy dependence on U.S. efforts for survival were made abundantly clear and reported upon return. Joseph S. Ames wrote from Paris on May 18, “This country (France) can hold out for about four months more”. England with the heavy loss of shipping from the German submarines was in a situation similar to France.

Franco-British Mission

This return mission accredited to the NRC arrived in New York on May 29, 1917. Meetings and conferences with broad U.S. representation took place at a number of locations, including Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. Meetings took place at industrial and academic sites until July 9. Sir Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Laureate and highly respected scientist, actively engaged in research related to submarine detection for the preceding three years, led the delegation. Important French members of the mission included experienced researchers in the fields of optics, electrical engineering, wireless, and chemistry.

A particular meeting with the mission for three days in mid-June with representatives from the military, NCB, and NRC led Millikan in his autobiography to comment “Out of this conference grew a very large part of the experimental work on submarine detection and other new applications of science to warfare which was thereafter undertaken by the American groups.

Primary US Anti-Submarine Research Centers WW1
New London, CT
Fort Trumbull
New York, NY,
Western Electric Company Laboratories
New York, NY
Columbia University
Pasadena, CA.
San Pedro Committee
San Pedro, CA,
Submarine Committee
Nahant, MA
Western Electric, General Electric, Submarine Signal Co
Schenectady, NY,
General Electric Laboratories
Washington, DC
Bureau of Standards
Middletown, CT,
Wesleyan University
Key West, FL
Navy Yard

The American mission brought to the United States the extreme danger of the Allies at this point of the war. Rutherford’s mission brought and shared an awareness of the extensive research efforts already accomplished by the Allies of which the Americans were not aware. The Allies were about a year or eighteen months ahead of the U.S. efforts.

The tour by the Franco-British mission to various antisubmarine research activities included the NCB Nahant, MA, facility that was staffed by Western Electric (AT&T), General Electric, and the Submarine Signal Company of Boston. Critical comment by the Mission about the Nahant operation to the NRC resulted in the setting up of a new naval research center at New London, Connecticut. A later comment by Rutherford indicated, “We were also instrumental in the formation of a second experimental anti-submarine research station… at New London.” The basis for the criticism was directed at the limitations of the primary submarine detection technique being pursued at Nahant.

Not long after the mission returned to Europe, the NRC established the New London Fort Trumbull Navy Experimental Station. Twenty-three scientists under the auspices of NRC conducted submarine detection experiments at that location. Universities represented included Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, McGill, MIT, Rice, Swarthmore, Tufts, Wesleyan, Wisconsin, and Yale.

Many of this group of scientists who comprised the resident, visiting and technical managers of the research, at the NRC/Navy Fort Trumbull laboratory, would grow professionally during the next twenty years in stature and prominence at both the national and international level, some in academia and some in industry. Later in 1940, when the submarine threat again became more menacing, they provided the core of leadership that once more made the Fort Trumbull area a high technology site for pro- and antisubmarine research. Their overall WWII efforts resulted in a multiplicity of diverse, extensive, and countrywide laboratories and research activities.

It should be noted that Vannevar Bush worked on submarine detection during WW I in New London. In 1940 Bush’s role as head of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) placed him as President Roosevelt’s advisor and chief contact on all matters of military technology, including the atomic bomb.

Research areas at the above-mentioned primary research centers included sonic and ultra sonic hydrophones using quartz, Rochelle salt, and magnetostriction elements. Sea testing was provided at a number of the centers. Of the ten research facilities listed, seven were under NRC auspices.

Prior to October 1917, fiscal support for those engaged in the submarine detection research and equipment came in some instances from their academic institutions and others. During the NCR’s first eighteen months, the Carnegie Corporation and Rockefeller Foundation made $74,000 available. The Engineering Foundation of New York made their entire income for 1916 available to the Council. Ambrose Swasey, a Foundation member, made a separate gift of $5,000. In October 1917, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred $300,000 to the Navy Experimental Station at Fort Trumbull. By the end of the War, nearly $1 million funded the Station.

In early July 1917, Max Mason, a member of the NRC research team at New London invented a submarine detection device known as the M-V tube, a multiple unit acoustic device for detecting submarines from a ship underway. The idea for this type of detector was due to the French Navy, and Mason learned of the French device at a meeting at the National Research Council. “For listening to audible frequencies in ships under way the performance of this equipment has not been excelled even during World War 11.

To keep the Navy and the NRC current on Allies work on underwater sound and echo ranging developments, the NRC set up the Research Information Service in London, Paris, Rome and Washington, DC.

Other NRC WWI Technologies

The Council met with progress or success in technological areas such as gun battery sound ranging, physiology of battlefield shock, preventive medicine, organic chemicals, bomb-dropping techniques, aerial photography, aeronautic instrumentation, radio telephone, wireless communication between airplanes, infrared and ultraviolet signaling, antipersonnel gases, gas masks, optical glass, and ballistics tables for Anny projectiles.

NRC After the Armistice

Various Council members and the scientific community engaged in the war effort began to consider continuing the NRC and its governmental relationships on a permanent basis. On May 11, 1918 President Wilson signed an executive order providing the Council’s perpetuation in peacetime. In addition to permanence, the order established the NRC as an independent activity supported by private sources only. The primary role was to assist in the development of science as an effective tool for national benefit in the broadest of terms for the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st Along with supporting and encouraging science with a national perspective, specific efforts by the Council with the Navy gradually increased throughout the century.

Executive Order No. 2859 of May 11, 1918, Relating to the National Research Council

The National Research Council was organized in 1916 at the request of the President by the National Academy of Sciences, under its Congressional charter, as a measure of national preparedness. The work accomplished by the Council in organizing research and in securing co-operation of military and civilian agencies in the solution of military problems demonstrates its capacity for larger service. The National Academy of Sciences is therefore requested to perpetuate the National Research Council, the duties of which shall be as…. “

The Council’s initial charter included encouragement of mathematical, physical, and biological sciences and the application of the sciences in peace and war. Among its many roles as the principal operating agency of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in providing services, the Council demonstrated during most of the 20th Century constructive participation in the Navy’s slowly-evolving and growing interests and needs in science and technology.

The early May Executive Order heralded support for the now permanent NRC. The Carnegie Corporation made a grant to the Council of $100,000 for operating expense followed in March 1919, a $5 Million grant to NAS/NRC. The fund provided for a permanent endowment for the NRC with the remainder for the erection of a building for the NAS and the NRC. On April 9, 1919, the Rockefeller Foundation approved an appropriation of $50,000 for NRC’s first year’s operations and pledged $500,000 for National Research Fellowships for the first five years.

Interwar Years

The NRC, now permanent and charged to organize U.S. scientific research, had broad interests not directly related to military interests. Highlights of NRC’s involvements with either direct or indirect Navy interests follow.

Frank Lillie, a future chairman of the NRC in 1935 and in 1924 director of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, was strongly interested in the evolving field of oceanography. He stimulated interest by interfacing with interested activities, foundations, universities, and the NRC. Within the Navy and civilian scientists there was a growing awareness of oceanography and its potential political, economic, and scientific benefits.

Earlier, Harry C. Hayes, an experienced underwater sound scientist and depth finder inventor at the newly-opened Navy Research Laboratory in Anacostia, MD, made an effort to establish an oceanographic office within the Navy but failed due to lack of support. The interest stimulated by Hayes continued to grow. Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr. convened a widely-attended federal Interagency Conference on Oceanography (ICO) in July 1924. The task of the Conference, NRC members among the many attendees, considered the most advantageous application of naval and national resources for oceanographic exploration. Learning how to use the resources of the sea was the top objective of this first meeting. Geology and geophysics problems relevant to oceanography were given priority. In January 1960 the ICO became a permanent part of the Federal Council for Science and Technology.

The Navy provided the submarine USS S-48 for use by Princeton University to conduct a study of geological structure in the Bahama region. Sponsors included NRC, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, and the Royal Society of Great Britain. The six weeks of measurements took place from February 7 to March 17, 1932. The submarine provided a suitable platform for making gravity measurements with the equipment available at that time. Other interests included tectonics, oceanography, sedimentation, and marine microbiology.

During the interwar years and beyond, NRC met Navy maritime commitments with committees that proved to be lasting and effective: Submarine Detection, Undersea Warfare, Oceanography, Oceanography of the Pacific, Submarine Configuration and Oceanic Circulation, Submarine Topography and Structural History of the Caribbean and Gulf. Some committees were post World War 11. Selected examples of two committees follow.

Committee on Undersea Warfare (CUW)

As WWII ended, advances in submarine design and operating capability required improvements in submarine detection and location systems. To address these issues the CUW was established October 23, 1946, reporting directly to the executive board of the NRC. The Committee was provided with a broad pro- and antisubmarine mandate and direct access with the executive board of the NRC, ONR, and Navy bureaus.

In April 1950 Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Rear Admiral F. S. Low issued the Studies of Undersea Warfare report also known as the Low Report. The studies brought attention to the priorities for future research and development with awareness of the forthcoming nuclear submarine and long-range torpedoes.25 In May, the fifth CUW Undersea Symposium in Washington provided additional attention to defense issues and planning.

As a result, the CUW arranged for a wide-ranging study called Project Hartwell at MIT. Well-known scientists from industry, colleges, and universities and military representatives considered questions and problems related to protecting shipping against submarines and mines.26 The study was completed August 31, 1950. It was intended that most of the recommendations with adequate support could be in service in two years.

Committee on Oceanography

A CUW follow on summer study, Project Nobska was held in 1956 near Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Undersea warfare and technology were the focus. Oceanography was an important topic in the study. When the study finished, there was a consensus that an oceanographic committee would be nationally beneficial in moving ahead in resolving civilian and scientific oceanographic concerns. The importance of knowledge of the sea was a continuing and increasing factor for the Navy.

The Committee on Oceanography was established in 1956 and marked the beginning of a I 0-year period of increased interest in U.S. ocean exploration. Previously, industry, mariners, fishermen and the political community mostly ignored marine science. In the post Sputnik period, the Navy’s oceanographic needs and goals were made known in Ten Years in Oceanography. In February 1959 the Committee on Oceanography’s landmark report Oceanography 1960 – 1970 supported future basic research, applied research, and surveys. A comment made in 1972, “The key to the growth of oceanography in the United States lies in basic research- that is done for its own sake without the thought of practical application.” Oceanography would be supported in the years ahead.

Naval Studies Board (NSB)

The Board, under the auspices of NRC Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, was created in 1974 at the request of the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). It was chartered to be a source of independent, long-range, scientific and technical planning advice for Naval Forces.

During the Cold War from 1978 to 1990, twelve reports were issued and two symposiums held to advance the Navy’s understanding of the importance of space and its threat to the Navy. With the end of the Cold War, as new strategies appropriate to Navy and Marine Corps missions evolved, the NSB studied the implications of advancing technology and the new strategic and military operation needs to respond to regional conflicts in the world’s littoral zones.

The titles of some of the NSB documents issued in 2007 provide examples of the importance and the diversity of the work being done by this NRC activity.

  • Manpower and Personnel Needs for a Transformed Naval Force
  • The Role of Naval Forces in the Global War on Terror
  • Distributed Remote Sensing for Naval Undersea Warfare


The NRC is a vast activity. This paper only highlights in a cursory way some of the more than 90 years of interaction with the Navy that continues. An interesting question would be “Supposing there never was a National Research Council?”

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