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Research Associates Inc.: Gaining Wisdom from Failure

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) has a long, impressive history of supporting innovative scientific research. After 100 years of funding ideas in science, the Foundation can list among its successes Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron; Robert Goddard’s development of rocketry; and Grote Reber’s discovery of radio astronomy. More recently, RCSA has funded the research that resulted in Thomas Cech’s discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA; Richard Smalley’s discovery of a new form of carbon, known as the buckminsterfullerene; and Ei-ichi Negishi’s development of palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. Of course, anyone who engages in high-risk scientific research knows that Success’ evil twin is often Failure. RCSA has also had its share of those. One such endeavor was Research Associates Inc., a project conceived by RCSA’s founder, Frederick Gardner Cottrell. In an obituary written by Vannevar Bush after Cottrell’s death in 1948, and published in National Academy Biographical Memoirs, Bush noted, “The purpose of [Research Associates] was to conduct scientific and social research and to eliminate as far as possible the time lag between the perfection of scientific ideas and their introduction into the national life. The period of Research Associates’ activity, from 1935 through 1938, was a most stimulating one.” Stimulating, expensive and exasperating, Research Associates was ultimately a failure.

Genesis of a New Endeavor

On a bright spring day in 1933, Frederick Gardner Cottrell, founder of Research Corporation and inventor of the electrostatic precipitator, and Chester Garfield Gilbert, curator of the Division of Mineral Technology at the Smithsonian Institution, met in a park in Washington, D.C., where, according to an entry in Cottrell’s diary, they …sat on bench and discussed Research Corporation plans and outlook. He [Gilbert] suggested organizing [a] new separate corporation of younger men… [Robert] Van de Graaff [inventor of the Van de Graaff generator which was used in early atom-smashing and high energy X-ray experiments], [Ernest O.] Lawrence [who invented the cyclotron], [Merle] Tuve, Brackett… with, if possible, others like Stuart Chase and some from business fields… to be primarily financed and backed by Research Corporation…. to take on the development of new things, leaving Research Corporation itself to run the precipitator business and perhaps later take over some of the new developments after they get well underway and established. Cottrell was a dynamo. In 1908, at age 31, he patented his invention of the electrostatic precipitator, one of the first devices designed to fight the air pollution that was a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. Four years later, he founded Research Corporation, the second foundation in the United States, to build and market precipitators and use the proceeds to fund the research of America’s young scientists. Since then, he had headed the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the Fixed Nitrogen Research Lab in the U.S. Department of Agriculture where he played a part in developing a catalyst which allowed production of synthetic ammonia, as well as a process for separating helium from natural gas. He had “discovered” and arranged funding from the Foundation for Robert Goddard’s early work in rocketry, Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron and Robert Van de Graaff’s development of the Van de Graaff generator. At the time of his meeting with Gilbert, Cottrell was 56 years old. In 1933, life expectancy for men was 61 years, but Cottrell was far from ready to retire. Instead, he was full of plans and curiosity, carrying on correspondences with scientists around the world, discussing their work and advising them. In a letter to his wife, Jessie, Cottrell once noted: “The man who can complacently say to himself, ‘Yes, I’ve won a firm foothold and earned a rest; I can now sit down comfortably and attend to other matters that touch me nearer’ will never be able to hold that ‘scientific spirit’ in its purest and highest form long enough to exercise much influence therewith.” Armed with Gilbert’s suggestion that Cottrell coordinate a new organization of young men to develop new ideas—and in his typical style—Cottrell set off running.

Power Lunch at the Cosmos Club

The result of Cottrell’s work was an organization called Research Associates, incorporated on January 1, 1935. It was announced in the April 8, 1935 issue of Time magazine, The lapse of time between a scientific discovery and its effect on everyday life is an old story which will never become wholly obsolete. To shorten that time-lag is the chief objective of an organization announced last week by a handful of high-minded Washington scientists, journalists and laymen. A Delaware-chartered corporation called Research Associates Inc., the group includes Frederick Gardner Cottrell of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry & Soils; Chester G. Gilbert of Manhattan’s Research Corp.; Physicist Frederick Sumner Brackett of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; President William McClellan of Potomac Electric Power Co.; Senior Surgeon Dr. Royd Ray Sayers and Engineer Carl E. Julihn of the U.S. Bureau of Mines; Editor Watson Davis of Science Service; Dr. William Charles White of the National Tuberculosis Association; Heber Blankenhorn, NLRB labor expert. Research Associates Inc. expects to develop inventions, discoveries and patents of its own members, and by applying these to the betterment of the public weal to encourage further help from outsiders. The charter states that no profit may accrue to any member. Research Associates was an outgrowth of a laboratory that had been set up by Research Corporation around 1929 in quarters furnished by the Smithsonian Institution. Funded with a $25,000 grant from Research Corporation, Research Associates Inc. began with 10 employees and offices on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C. The organization was an effort by Cottrell to create another Research Corporation which would, in time, become self supporting through returns for its consulting services and the invention and sale of products. In his diary on January 26, Cottrell recorded: Cos[mos] Club where 1:30 pm we held first luncheon and meeting of Res[earch] Associates Inc those present being Gardner Jackson, Heber Blankenhorn, Watson Davis, Dr W[illiam] C[harles] White, Carl E[dward] Juliher, AB McChesney, C[hester] G[arfield] Gilbert, F[rederick] S Brackett & F[rederick] G[ardner] C[ottrell]. All members but McChesney who acted as legal advisor. Wm McClellan & Sayers were out of town. … During lunch we discussed a few general technical [matters] of interest, chiefly Freeport sulphur developments, and then Gilbert talked first informally about the general ideals and possibilities he saw for the work & esp[ecially] of his experiences w[ith] negotiating with [Howard Andrews] Poillon and the Freeport people in N[ew] Y[ork] earlier in the week. Then we resolved ourselves into a meeting of the “committee” appointed at a former dinner meeting before filing the acts of incorporation and proceeded under the chairmanship of Carl E[dward] Juliher and with F[rederick] S Brackett as scribe to complete preliminaries incidental to them (with the approval of the 3 incorporators, C[hester] G[arfield] Gilbert, F[rederick] S Brackett & F[rederick] G[ardner] C[ottrell]) holding the first meeting of the “associates” with Gilbert presiding and essentially “running the show” on an agenda he had prepared getting authorization for signing lease of Am[erican] U[niversity] B[ui]ld[ing]s, opening bank acc[oun]t at Col Nat[ional] B[an]k making contracts with Freeport S[ulphur] Co[mpany], Briggs Classifier Co[mpany] etc. & finally selecting permanent officers of the Assoc[iation]: pres[ident] F[rederick] G[ardner] C[ottrell], V[ice] P[resident] Gilbert; Treasurer Jelehu, Sec[re]t[ar]y Brackett, Council McChesney and adjourned about 7 pm. The Cosmos Club, where Cottrell and his colleagues met, is a private social club in Washington, D.C. Members are affiliated with science, literature and the arts. Still in existence, the club has meeting rooms, a restaurant, library and a few bedrooms for guests. According to the club’s website, “among its members, over the years, have been three Presidents, two Vice Presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 32 Nobel Prize winners, 56 Pulitzer Prize winners and 45 recipients of the Presidential medal of Freedom.”

The Associates

Who were the people attending Research Associates’ first meeting?
  • Gardner Jackson was the son of a wealthy railroad magnate. While working as a reporter for the Boston Globe during the Sacco-Vanzetti trial in the early 1920s, he became convinced of the two men’s innocence. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian-Americans and known anarchists, were charged with committing murder, the accusations based largely on cultural profiling, insufficient evidence and Red Scare mentality. The trial was a media frenzy, culminating in the execution of the two men. Jackson left the Globe to become secretary for the Sacco-Vanzetti defense committee, managing publicity and serving as a mediator between radicals and supporters from the liberal social elite. Shortly before Sacco’s execution, he thanked Jackson, saying: “We are one heart, but unfortunately we represent two different class[es] .... But, whenever the heart of one of the upper class joins with the exploited workers for the struggle of the right in the human feeling is the feel of a spontaneous attraction and brotherly love to one another.” After the trial, Jackson returned to the Globe for a few years before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1933 to work in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration where he helped struggling farmers as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Jackson was an outspoken, uncompromising individual, concerned with civil rights, the organization of labor, and later with the Anti-Communist movement.
  • Heber Blankenhorn was a reporter and editor at the New York Evening Sun newspaper where he became interested in labor conditions and unions. After serving as a strategist of wartime propaganda for the U.S. military during World War I, he became co-director of the Bureau of Industrial Research in 1919. He published two books dealing with labor unions in the steel industry and was a foreign correspondent for Labor magazine. With background in both labor journalism and publicity management, he joined the public relations staff of the National Recovery Act and later worked on the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. During World War II, he would serve in the U.S. Army on a team evaluating the effects of psychological warfare.
  • Watson Davis was born in Washington, D.C., in 1896 and graduated from George Washington University in 1918. He was an engineer-physicist for the U.S. Bureau of Standards and science editor of the Washington Herald. In 1921, when Science Service was established to inform the public about scientific and technological advances, Davis became its managing editor. He later edited the Science News Letter. Davis was a prominent figure in the movement to make information about science available to—and understandable by—the public.
  • William Charles White was a medical doctor, an educator and a researcher. His area of interest was tuberculosis. In 1920 he became the first president of the National Tuberculosis Association’s Committee on Medical Research, a position he retained until his death in 1947. He was at one time president of the Cosmos Club, and was involved with the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Institute of Health. Like Cottrell, White was noted for his mentorship of young researchers.
  • Carl Edward Julihn was a mining engineer, educated at Columbia University and the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1919, writing a thesis titled “The Occurrence and Dissociation of Martensite and Austenite in Hypereutectoid Steel.” He worked with Benjamin Lawrence, a consulting engineer, who was one of Research Corporation’s original Board of Directors, serving from 1912 until 1921. In 1917, Julihn began a study of nickel and cobalt in the U.S. for the U.S. Bureau of Mines where he, no doubt, knew Cottrell.
  • A.B. McChesney was obviously an attorney. No other information about him is available.
  • Chester Garfield Gilbert was born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1876 and graduated from MIT in 1898. In 1939, he received a degree from the University of Minnesota. He was a consulting mining engineer and was, for a time, a curator of the Division of Mineral Technology at the Smithsonian Institution, charged with acquiring exhibits. He was an inventor and the administrator of Research Associates.
  • Frederick Sumner Brackett was born in Claremont, California, in 1896, graduated from Pomona College and in 1922 received a doctorate in physics at John Hopkins University. At Hopkins, Brackett discovered the hydrogen Brackett series, a group of lines in the infrared spectrum of atomic hydrogen. He taught physics at the University of California, Berkeley, then moved to Washington, D.C., in 1927 where he was senior physicist at the Fixed Nitrogen Research lab, U.S. Department of Agriculture. [Note: Cottrell was head of the lab from 1922 until 1927]. In 1934, Brackett became secretary and director of the Research Associates lab.
  • and Frederick Gardner Cottrell, the guiding force behind the project.

Better Times

1935 was a time of renewal in the United States. The results of the Great Depression were beginning to ease; the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Social Security had been established. Babe Ruth hit the final home run of his career; Parker Brothers released the board game Monopoly; the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam was under construction. Science was also in recovery. The Hayden Planetarium was opened in New York; the Richter magnitude scale for quantifying earthquakes was developed at Caltech; and nylon, the first completely synthetic fabric, was invented. With Cottrell, Gilbert and Brackett at the helm, that sense of revitalization was no doubt a driving force of Research Associates, Inc. There was some contention about the forming of Research Associates. Howard Poillon, then president of Research Corporation, questioned the advisability of investing in business enterprises with the proceeds going back to the inventors, rather than to the advancement of science. At one point Poillon considered resigning. Members of the Board of Directors were also reluctant to support such an endeavor. Over the years, Cottrell had grown voluble and often became petulant when he didn’t get his way. All concerned worried that Research Associates would not succeed, becoming, rather, an embarrassment for the Foundation. Nonetheless, Research Corporation eventually provided start-up funds in support of Cottrell’s idea. The new organization began with several major projects that had been under development by Research Corporation prior to Research Associates’ inception: Brackett Headlights, designed to widen the horizontal angle of the beam and distribute the pattern of light; Dermagell, a skin-cleansing compound; Herbert Greger’s Fuel Cell, a forerunner of today’s molten carbonate fuel cells; Heat Wave Roasting of Fullers Earth; and Royster Stoves and Deodorizers, a high-temperature device designed to eliminate the odors of gaseous fumes. The latter project was, by far, the most ambitious. Percy Hoke Royster was a brilliant and difficult protégé of Cottrell’s. Royster had conducted research on the production of phosphate fertilizer materials by smelting phosphate rock in a blast furnace at the Fixed Nitrogen Lab when Cottrell headed that facility. Later, Royster worked on projects for the Tennessee Valley Authority under the auspices of Research Corporation. Royster’s stove was basically a blast furnace, designed to operate at extremely high temperatures to effectively and economically destroy organic odors carried by streams of gases. One license was made available to the City of Pasadena, at a nominal fee, for testing in the city’s sewage disposal plant. Although the stove performed satisfactorily for close to 10 years, subsequent sales were not forthcoming.

Trouble in Paradise

By 1936, Research Associates was beginning to encounter problems. Royster’s stove project, designed to use two men’s time for two to three months, had instead absorbed all the time of the majority of the organization’s personnel for the past year. In July 1936 staff became aware of the Trippe Speedlight, which had all the features of the Brackett Headlights and the additional advantage of far-simpler, less-expensive assembly. Freeport Sulphur Company did not renew a retainer it had held with Research Associates. In a letter to Poillon, dated March 3, 1936, Gilbert reported a $23,000 shortage for the coming year. Gilbert said, “I believe it possible to develop $20,000 to $25,000 worth of business for the year, and would undertake to do so with a good deal of confidence if I could feel that the result would serve to get us anywhere; but all things considered I cannot see where it would.” He continued, “I am, therefore, forced to the conclusion that Research Associates, as constituted and with its present outlook, affords little prospect of getting established on a self-supporting basis.” The following month, Poillon noted, “Research Associates can stand behind anything and for all such a position indicates. In its present condition to me the fact that it stands behind something is rather like being supported by a ghost.” There was talk of a reorganization that would remove Gilbert and Brackett from the payroll, establishing outside consultancies for staff, and generally downsizing the operation. By September 1936, Research Associates had exhausted the yearly funds made available at the Spring meeting of the Research Corporation Board of Directors. At that time, Research Corporation advanced Research Associates an additional $15,000 for the balance of the calendar year. Among the problems facing Research Corporation was an obvious disconnect between invention and use. Enormous amounts of time were spent developing concepts and patenting them, but little attention was paid to developing applications for the use of those inventions. The result was an abundance of what is known as “paper patents,” patents for inventions never put into manufacture or commercial use. The result, of course, was an inability to earn the funds necessary to support the organization. In terms of patent protection (a huge concern of Research Corporation’s patent attorneys), paper patents are afforded less protection under the law than patents granted for devices that are actually used in industry. For many reasons, the organization eventually floundered. In a letter dated September 18, 1951, J.W. Barker, then-president of Research Corporation, discussed “the main problem at Research Associates, Inc.: the complete inability of this brilliant heterogeneous group of prima donnas to stick sufficiently long on any line of investigation to determine either that it would or would not work. It seemed as if the moment any particular experiment was started everyone, including Cottrell particularly, lost all interest in that experiment. Sparks began flying about some other experiment and dropping the older one without any specific determinations, off they would go after the new spark.” In a July 3, 1936, letter to Gilbert from Poillon, the Research Corporation president warned, “Within the week, two of our Directors, who are most influential and interested in this Corporation, have discussed with me the irrational and to them futile efforts [of Research Associates to become self-supporting] being made in Washington, and have definitely stated that the end was near.” In January 1937 a committee of the Research Corporation Board of Directors, comprised of Joseph W. Barker [Barker was then-dean of the School of Engineering at Columbia University. In 1946, he would become president of Research Corporation.], Isaiah Bowman, Elon Hooker, Charles Stone and Karl Compton, met in Washington to review the organization of Research Associates. Their report noted, “We were more favorably impressed than most of us expected to be. Yet we found the group to be engaged upon a greater multiplicity of projects than would allow concentration on bringing any one to a commercial possibility. We felt that there was such an intense stimulation of new ideas, new concepts, new dreams being continually pumped into the group that their attention was diverted from any concrete sustained work of bringing projects of chief promise into commercial shape necessary to continuation of the whole enterprise.” Their recommendation was that Joseph Barker would assume responsibility for all expenditures and types of work undertaken and that grants would be made available of “$20,000 before July 1, 1937, $10,000 for the following six months, and absolutely nothing thereafter.” Barker began working to determine priorities for Research Associates. After meeting with Cottrell in February 1937, an emphasis was placed on developing a lining for the Royster stoves that would withstand temperatures up to 2000 degrees Centigrade. Once this was accomplished, another conference would be held to determine whether to pursue additional development of the stove. In “The Social Responsibility of Engineers,” published by the Western Society of Engineers in 1937, Cottrell noted that “…the new corporation, though an interesting and lusty youngster, is still distinctly not out of its swaddling clothes, and, even in this modern age, the old adage that ‘children should be seen but not heard’ is still reasonably applicable. Junior, I trust, may, with this brief mention, be allowed to retire again to the nursery until there are more definite accomplishments to report.” By June 1938, Junior was, indeed, retired. The Research Associates labs had been cleaned out and the organization was dissolved. Vannevar Bush, in his 1948 obituary for Cottrell, noted, “After the organization was dissolved in 1938, some of its functions were returned to the Research Corporation, and Dr. Cottrell devoted himself to numerous scientific projects mainly by means of liaison work among universities, science groups, and foundations. One of his main purposes between 1938 and the time of his death was the promotion of additional research organizations and the furtherance of closer co-operation between those already in existence. Here his long acquaintance with problems of administration of research and invention, through the Research Corporation itself and the university research foundations with which he had been long associated, was of profound value. The informal and unofficial visits to universities which he made during this period in the effort to keep abreast of research developments in virtually all fields, to become acquainted with the investigators concerned and to give such aid as he could, were stimulating to all.” Cottrell once wrote, “The things we look ahead to as ends often disappoint us when accomplished. The end should be far enough ahead of possibilities never to be reached. This chasing the will o’ the wisp and purposely placing your faith to a phantom takes nerve and courage and backbone. We will make our contribution to the world’s good; we will keep this ideal steadily before us as the end.” Without question, during Research Associates’ tenure, Cottrell greatly enjoyed the chase.

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