SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965


Part I : INITIATIONS : 1936-1945



The Nation's Aeronautical Research Agency


[1] SINCE the founding of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1915, this unique Government agency had fostered the development of aviation through scientific research. By 1936 the value of the Committee's work had become quite apparent. As a result of technical advances coming from NACA and other research organizations, the performance and reliability of the airplane had been greatly improved. Its role in domestic and international commerce was looming and its further development appeared to provide a means whereby a nation might exert influence abroad. The military value of the airplane had, of course, been sensed rather early and was probably the primary reason for such support of aeronautical research and development as the U.S. Government had given.

Despite the obvious potentialities of aviation, the Government's support of aeronautical research had been modest. Although the Wright Brothers had produced the first successful airplane, the United States had shamefully allowed itself to slip far behind the major European powers in the production of both airplanes 1 and aeronautical research facilities. The U.S. Government, by establishing NACA in 1915, took belated notice of the Nation's backward position in research but its appropriations for the new agency up to 1936 had been scarcely munificent. This was a period when the Nation was very peace minded; moreover, times were hard-in 1936 we were recovering from a long and painful depression and Congress was understandably imbued with a keen sense of frugality.

Despite its late start and lean fare, NACA had accomplished much. It had in 1917 established the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at Langley Field, Va., and had pioneered in the development of advanced research facilities. In the world community, it had brought the United....




Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Chairman of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from 1927 to 1939.

Dr. Joseph S. Ames, Chairman of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics from 1927 to 1939.


[3] ....States to a position of leadership in aeronautical research.2 This accomplishment resulted as much from wise management as from the technical competence of the NACA research staff which at Langley numbered, all told, about 400. The management arrangement was unique. The Committee (NACA) itself was a group of 15 (originally 12) eminently qualified men selected by the President. Of these the law required that two be selected from the War Department (Army Air Corps), two from the Navy Department, and one each from the Bureau of Standards, the Weather Bureau, and the Smithsonian Institution, the last of which had been very influential in aviation matters since the days of its early Secretary, Samuel Pierpont Langley. The remaining members of the Committee were to be persons "acquainted with the needs of aeronautical science, either civil or military, or skilled in aeronautical engineering or its allied sciences."

From the beginning the persons selected to serve on the Committee were men of great ability and high repute. Some had belonged to the National Academy of Sciences. The members served without pay and elected their own chairman. Thus the agency was relatively free from political influence and was allowed, within its budgetary limitations, to pursue a course of maximum effectiveness in advancing the aeronautical interests of the Nation.

In 1936 the Chairman of NACA was Dr. Joseph S. Ames, president of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Ames, a member of the Committee since its formation and Chairman since 1927, was a man of the highest integrity and ability, respected-indeed revered-by his colleagues and friends.

Inasmuch as the Committee met only at monthly intervals, it required a permanent headquarters staff. This staff was headed by Dr. George W. Lewis, Director of Aeronautical Research, and John F. Victory, Secretary to the Committee. It was to these able and dedicated individuals that a substantial share of the credit for the success of NACA was due. NACA was a tiny Government agency serving the vital interests of much larger and more powerful bodies such as the Army, the Navy, and the Department of Commerce. Its staff had to exercise the greatest care and discretion to maintain the agency's independence. Either the Army or the Navy could easily have swallowed up NACA; and Herbert Hoover, both as Secretary of Commerce in 1925 and as President in 1932, had actually recommended that it be absorbed by the Department of Commerce.3 The suggested move was strongly...



Dr. George W. Lewis, NACA Director of Aeronautical Research from 1924 to 1947.

Dr. George W. Lewis, NACA Director of Aeronautical Research from 1924 to 1947.


Dr. John F. Victory, first (1915) NACA employee and later Executive Secretary.

Dr. John F. Victory, first (1915) NACA employee and later Executive Secretary.


...and successfully opposed by the two services 4 who perhaps themselves were the greatest threat to NACA; but Lewis and Victory aimed to be of such value to each service that neither would allow the other to take over NACA. Dr. Lewis, in councils with his staff, declared that NACA must be so alert that it would anticipate the needs of the military even before the military became aware of those needs. Under such astute management, NACA maintained its independence while becoming an extraordinarily efficient and competent organization.


1 "When World War I erupted in 1914 it was reported that France had 1,400 airplanes, Germany 1,000, Russia 800, Great Britain 400 and the United States 23!"-Forty Years of Aeronautical Research, by Jerome C. Hunsaker (Smithsonian Report for 1955. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1956), p. 243.

2 Ibid.

3 Report by Charles D. Walcott, Chairman of NACA: "The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, Its Organization and Functions, and Reasons Why Its Present Independent Status Should Be Continued," Jan. 21, 1925. Also: House Doc. No. 493, 72d Cong., 2d sess., Dec. 9, 1932: "A Message from the President of the United States to Congress," a recommendation to group, coordinate, and consolidate executive and administrative agencies of the Government, including transfer of NACA to the Bureau of Standards in the Department of Commerce.

4 Letter, George H. Dorn, Secretary of War, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Apr. 19 1933, and letter, Claude A. Swanson, Secretary of the Navy, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Apr. 13. 1933.