Briggs, Lyman James

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(b. Assyria, Michigan, 7 May 1874; d. Washington, D.C., 25 March 1963)

physics, metrology.

Briggs’s forty-nine years of public service (thirtyeight with the National Bureau of Standards, including twelve as director) measured, both literally and symbolically, the rise of federal science in the United States. The son of Chauncey L, and Isabella (McKelvey) Briggs, he grew up on a midwestern family farm like so many other government scientists of his generation. Intellectually precocious, he completed high school by examination and entered Michigan State College at the age of fifteen. Although he complied with his parents’ wishes and majored in agricultural science, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1893, it was physics that intrigued and excited him. “From the moment I saw the great glass cases in the physical laboratory filled with marvelous apparatus,” he later recalled, “I knew I wanted to be a physicist.” In 1895, after finishing a master’s degree in physics at the University of Michigan, he went to Johns Hopkins to study for his doctorate with Henry Rowland. Briggs for a time investigated the recently discovered X-ray phenomena but wrote his dissertation on soil physics, earning his Ph.D. in 1901. In the meantime, in 1896 he had taken a job as a physicist with the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. On 23 December 1896 he married Katherine E. Cook, the daughter of one of his college professors; they had a son and a daughter.

Over the next twenty-one years Briggs established himself as a leading agricultural scientist and virtually founded the modern science of soil physics. Among other accomplishments, he developed the standard soil classification known as moisture equivalent (a measure of how much water a soil sample can hold against a force a thousand times greater than gravity) and wilting coefficient (a measure of how much water in a soil sample is available for plant growth). He published dozens of technical papers, including farsighted ecological studies of water in the West, and organized and headed the Department of Agriculture’s first biophysical research laboratory (1906).

Briggs’s career took an abrupt turn in 1917 when, as part of the national mobilization, he was transferred from the Department of Agriculture to the Bureau of Standards, where he was put to work designing a wind tunnel. Although he knew almost nothing about aeronautics, Briggs enjoyed the project and stayed on with the bureau after the war as chief of the mechanics and sound division (1920). He surrounded himself with an outstanding staff, including Hugh L. Dryden (a teenage prodigy who joined the bureau in 1919 and in 1920 earned a Johns Hopkins Ph.D.; he later became deputy administrator of NASA), and throughout the 1920’s made significant contributions to the field. With funds transferred from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Briggs and Dryden undertook pioneering studies of airfoil behavior at and above the sound barrier. Briggs also invented (with Paul R. Heyl) an earth induction compass for aircraft (1922). In recognition of his achievements. Briggs was named the bureau’s assistant director for research and testing in 1927, He was appointed acting director following the death of George Kimball Burgess in 1932. and President Roosevelt appointed him director the following year.

Just after the Senate confirmed Briggs’s appointment, however, the Bureau of the Budget sliced his operating funds from a 1931 peak of more than $4 million to less than $2 million. “It was a bitter experience for us,” Briggs recalled. “More than a third of our staff was dropped on a month’s notice.” Trying to keep the bureau moving forward during the Depression, Briggs emphasized programs with direct economic relevance, including research in building materials and low-cost housing. He even tried selling the administration on economic recovery through research, “Is there not an essential place in Government for basic research in physics and chemistry in order to provide the foundations for new industries?” he asked in a speech entitled “The Place of Government in Research” (1938). He testified on behalf of several bills giving the bureau broad responsibilities for “the further development of industry and commerce… through business research,” but none of them made it out of Congress. The bureau limped through the Depression, managing somehow to fulfill its essential mission and even occasionally to produce significant research, including the first preparation and separation of heavy water.

It took another war to redirect Briggs’s career. In the fall of 1939, following some alarming revelations from Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard about the military implications of nuclear fission. President Roosevelt appointed Briggs chairman of the supersecret Advisory Committee on Uranium, which included Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and representatives from the armed forces and the White House. Characteristically, Briggs proceeded deliberately and frugally, doling out small grants for Enrico Fermi’s studies of neutron absorption in graphite and for related investigations of uranium isotope separation. The fact that Briggs seemed far more intrigued by the long-range possibilities of nuclear power than by the short-term potential of nuclear bombs was upsetting to other committee members, who were more swept along by the urgency of the bomb issue. Briggs’s conservative approach, which reflected the limitations of his legal mandate as well as his general reluctance to rush ahead on a longshot project, exasperated aggressive young physicists like Ernest O. Lawrence, who urged National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) member James B. Conant to “light a fire under the Briggs committee, What if German scientists succeed in making a nuclear bomb before we even investigate possibilities?” As outside pressures mounted, Briggs did speed up certain studies, but apparently not fast enough; his committee was absorbed by the NDRC in June 1940. Briggs was replaced by Conant as chairman in June 1942, and shortly thereafter the committee’s responsibilities were turned over to the U.S. Army’s Manhattan Project under General Leslie R. Groves.

Even without the atomic bomb project, there were plenty of other important wartime projects for Briggs and the National Bureau of Standards. Besides contributing analytical research for the Manhattan Project, the bureau developed proximity fuses for the U.S. Army (as did Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory for the U.S. Navy) and guided missiles for the U.S. Navy and undertook radio propagation studies for the joint services. There were, in addition, many smaller projects in critical materials, optics, and other areas. By 1944 the bureau’s budget reached a record $13.5 million (twothirds of that consisted of funds transferred from the military), and staff rose to an all-time high of two thousand. Beyond the bureau’s direct contributions to the war effort, Briggs’s mobilization set the stage, scientifically and financially, for its rapid postwar expansion into electronics, computers, nuclear physics, and materials science.

Already past normal retirement age by the end of the war. Briggs stepped down in November 1945, and was succeeded as bureau director by physicist Edward U. Condon. Briggs kept an office and a laboratory at the bureau, however, and continued to do research virtually until his death. Returning to some previous interests, he conducted significant studies on the negative pressure of water in plants and attracted national attention with a scientific investigation of the curveball (he had played outfield in college). He was active in the National Geographic Society, even leading its solar eclipse expedition to Brazil in 1947, and wrote popular science articles for its magazine. He received a number of professional awards and honorary degrees, and in 1967 Michigan State named its liberal arts college for him.


I. Original Works. Briggs’s complete bibliography includes more than one hundred articles ranging across soil physics, aerodynamics, metrology, and popular science writing. Wallace R. Brode, “Lyman J. Briggs: Recognition of His Eightieth Birthday,” in Scientific Monthly. 78 (May 1954), 269–274, lists about half of them: many of the rest were published as technical bulletins for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or the National Bureau of Standards. Briggs also published NBS War Research: The National Bureau of Standards in World War II (Washington, D.C., 1949). Briggs’s papers from his years with the bureau are held by the National Archives in Washington. D.C

II. Secondary Literature. In addition to Brode’s article (see above), there are brief portraits and appreciations of Briggs by his two successors at the bureau: Edward U. Condon, “Lyman James Briggs. 1874–1963,” in American Philosophical Society Year Book (1963), 117–121; and Allen V. Astin. “Lyman James Briggs. 1874–1963,” in The Cosmos Club Bulletin. March 1974. 2–6. Rexmond C. Cochrane. Measures for Progress: A History of the National Bureau of Standards (Washington. D.C. 1966; repr. New York, 1976), gives a detailed account of Briggs’s long career with the bureau. Carroll W. Pursell. Jr., “A Preface to Government Support of Research and Development; Research Legislation and the National Bureau of Standards. 1935–41,” in Technology and Culture. 9 (1968), 145–164. skillfully places the bureau and its programs into the context of New Deal politics. Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York, 1986), offers a valuable, though somewhat unflattering, portrait of Briggs’s part in the atomic bomb project.

Stuart W. Leslie

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Briggs, Lyman James

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