Ames, Joseph Sweetman

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Ames, Joseph Sweetman

(b. Manchester, Vermont, 3 July 1864; d. Baltimore, Maryland, 24 June 1943)


Ames’s father, George L. Ames, a physician, died in 1869; in 1874 his mother, Elizabeth Bacon Ames, married Dr. James Dobbin, rector of the Shattuck School in Fairbault, Minnesota, where Ames was a student. At home, Ames, who was raised an Episcopalian, acquired a lasting taste for classical education, books, and good society. At Johns Hopkins University, where he went after the Shattuck School, he developed an enthusiasm for physics. After graduating in 1886, he spent two years in Helmholtz’ laboratory in Berlin. He returned to Johns Hopkins to take his Ph.D. in 1890 under henry A. Rowland, the inventor of the curved spectral grating, and then joined the Johns Hopkins faculty. He was director of the physical laboratory from 1901 to 1926, provost of the university from 1926 to 1929, and president from 1929 to 1935. In 1899 he married Mary B. Harrison, a widow from Maryland.

Ames’s research was limited in quantity and largely confined to the field of spectroscopy. Working closely with Rowland in the 1890’s he struggled with the problem of finding relationships among the lines of particular spectra. Johann Balmer had already advanced his formula for the hydrogen lines; Ames, measuring with great exactitude the spectra of more complex atoms, tried empirically to find relationships among the wave numbers (the reciprocals of the wave lengths in vacuo). He concluded that the answer could come only from theoretical considerations. But by 1913, when Bohr’s theory was published, Ames had given up research and had turned to administration.

Ames, a man of courtly manner and executive talent, was an able administrator. He kept the physics department at Johns Hopkins alive despite persistent budgetary problems by cooperating with the National Bureau of Standards. He encouraged the faculty to offer courses there and graduate students to do their research at the Bureau’s well–equipped laboratories.

In World War I Ames, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was drawn into the affairs of government research. He served on the Academy’s National Research Council and on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The NACA, created by Congress in 1915 to promote the scientific study of flight, was deeply enmeshed in policy matters. Ames got into trouble for writing publicly that the government’s ambitious aircraft program was far behind schedule; Secretary of Commerce William C. Redfield considered the statement a treasonous act. But Ames, as it turned out, was right. His judgment won increasing respect, and he became chairman of the NACA’s Executive Committee in 1919, the year that he was elected president of the American Physical Society.

Ames held the chairmanship of the Executive Committee until 1936 and served as chairman of the entire NACA from 1927 to 1939. During his administration the agency’s technical publications won the respect of aeronautical experts all over the world. In 1935 the Smithsonian Institution awarded Ames the Langley Gold Medal for his leadership of the NACA. In 1939 the Committee decided to name its new Moffet Field, California, research facility the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory.


Aside from a scattering of Ames’s papers in the Archives of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, the principal body of his extant correspondence is in the records of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the National Archives, Washington, D.C. In the Annual Reports of the NACA during his administration, Ames discussed the work of the Committee and provided a running commentary on the development of aeronautics.

Henry Crew, “Joseph Sweetman Ames,” in National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, 23 (1945), 181–201, is a shallow, sentimental essay but contains a complete bibliography of Ames’s scientific work.

Daniel J. Kevles