Recent News

Research Corp., MIT aided WWII microwave projects

From 1941 to January 1946, Research Corporation established and ran Research Construction Company, a model shop for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory. “Every citizen was a soldier. The mobilization of American industry during World War II was an achievement without precedent in magnitude, complexity and duration. This achievement is in part attributed to the federal government's intensive program to marshal the contributions of people of all ages and from all walks of life. Most all Americans were willing to give up many luxuries and devote much of their spare time to the war effort to achieve victory.” The many war efforts undertaken by American citizens included victory gardens; food, gas and materials rationing; scrap drives; and women joining the workforce. Research Corporation was also involved in the effort. In 1939, the Foundation offered the government the use of the Cottrell electrostatic precipitation process, and Cottrell’s patents for nitric acid and sulfuric acid concentrators, at no charge. In 1941, Research Construction Company Inc. was established by Research Corporation as a model shop for MIT’s Radiation Laboratory. The “Rad Lab” developed most of the microwave radars used by the United States during the war, and also developed LORAN, the first worldwide radio navigation system (LORAN was the most widely used long-range navigation system until the advent of GPS, which was developed from it.). Research Construction was formed to produce prototypes of machinery that had been developed at the Rad Lab. In a then-secret memorandum, dated January 29, 1942, plans for the Research Corporation model shop noted, “In many cases the models constructed would go to the armed services for tests, but in other cases, some of them at least, might go back to the Laboratory for more extensive tests and developments.” If the machinery was found to be useful, its production was then assigned to a larger facility for manufacture. Radar was a fairly new phenomenon at the beginning of the war. It had been developed by Robert Watson-Watt, a Scottish engineer working in England’s Meteorological Office. Radar was initially intended to study atmospheric phenomena, using radio signals generated by lightning strikes to map out the position of thunderstorms, and was patented for that purpose in 1935. England’s military soon started exploring possibilities for using airborne microwave radar to fight the war. The initial idea was to develop a radio “death ray” that would melt metal or incapacitate an aircraft pilot. Watson-Watt concluded that it was not possible. He suggested, however, that radar might be used to detect energy reflected from aircraft, revealing the approach of German bombers. The British government asked the United States’ National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) for assistance with developing this capability. The NRDC had been formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to “to coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare.” Vannevar Bush was named chairman. Bush was a renaissance man involved in engineering, invention, education and science administration. He earned a Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in electrical engineering and taught there from 1919 until 1939. In 1932 Bush became Vice President of MIT, as well as the first dean of the institution’s new School of Engineering. While at MIT, Bush also started the business now known as Raytheon Corporation (the company, originally named American Appliance Company, concentrated on refrigeration technology at first, but soon shifted to electronics), and began work on a differential analyzer, an analog computer with some digital components that could solve differential equations with as many as 18 independent variables. Bush left MIT in 1939 to become president of the Carnegie Institution, steering the concentration of the organization to hard science. During the time Bush was at MIT, Karl Compton was the president of the institution. Compton received a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton in 1912. As a member of the scientific community during World War I, Compton became aware of the impact of the sciences on defense. He taught physics at Reed College, then at Princeton University, where he also chaired the Physics Department. He became president of MIT in 1930. When the NRDC was formed, Compton was named chief of the Division dealing with radar and radiation. Bush and Compton were kindred spirits. Although Bush left MIT in 1939, he and Compton remained in close contact, a relationship that continued when Bush was named head of the NRDC. Both Bush and Compton were friends of Research Corporation and members of its board of directors (Bush from 1939 until 1946; Compton from 1933 until 1953). Bush basically coordinated the scientific community for defense efforts during and after World War II. The NRDC under Bush was a fairly clandestine organization, overseeing the development of uses for radar and the atomic bomb. In 1941, the NRDC was expanded and its name became the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Bush remained director and played a critical role in the development of the atomic bomb. As World War II approached, the links between MIT, the federal government and the military grew stronger. MIT was the center of a growing network of creative people and new and expanding research laboratories. Compton and Bush turned MIT into a hot spot of invention. It was there, in October 1940, they established the Radiation Laboratory, an independent entity which would be staffed by civilian and academic scientists from many disciplines. Isidore Rabi, Wheeler Loomis and Lee DuBridge were named directors. Fourteen months before the U.S. entered the war, the Radiation Laboratory began investigating microwave electronics. Throughout the conflict, large-scale research at the Radiation Laboratory was devoted to the rapid development of microwave radar, once described in a Bell Labs memo as “a powerful electronic ‘eye’ that used high-frequency radio echoes to determine the presence and location of unseen objects in space.” Projects included physical electronics, microwave physics, electromagnetic properties of matter, and microwave communication principles. The Radiation Laboratory designed almost half of the radar deployed in World War II, created over 100 different radar systems, and constructed $1.5 billion worth of radar. It brought together a wealth of America’s best scientists and engineers from academia and industry. Many of those scientists already were acquainted. Rabi once remarked, “We all came from the same bar.” At the height of its activities, the Radiation Laboratory employed nearly 4,000 people working on several continents. Many people believe that radar won the war and that the atomic bomb ended it. The Research Construction Company Model Shop was set up in a 20,000-square-foot building at 230 Albany Street in Cambridge, right down the street from the Radiation Laboratory. The Model Shop began by making parts of systems for the Radiation Laboratory, but was soon concentrating on radar set projects. During the course of the war, Research Construction produced for the government, on a "no-profit and no-loss" basis, $12 million worth of experimental radar parts and apparatus. In 1942 Vannevar Bush wrote to Howard Poillon, then-president of Research Corporation, “…new devices developed through the close collaboration between the services [Research Construction Company] and NRDC, have recently been used in combat with the enemy and have not been found wanting.” He concluded by saying, “I Look for more success in the future, and I hope you may have the intimate and keen satisfaction of sharing in it directly.” The war ended in 1945.On January 18, 1946, Research Construction Company contracts were terminated, employees were released and another chapter of the Foundation’s history drew to a close. In a July 1945 Atlantic Monthly magazine article titled “As We May Think,” Bush wrote, “This has not been a scientist’s war; it has been a war in which we all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership.”

Return to list