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Office of Scientific Research and Development Collections

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This post was authored by William Choi & Cassidy Creighton, 2019 Junior Fellows, and Tomoko Y. Steen, Science Reference and Research Specialist, in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

When the United States entered the Second World War on December 8, 1941, the country faced severe military and logistical challenges. Over the next three years, American forces needed to fight in a variety of severe conditions, such as the ice and hard stone of the mountains of Italy and the the malaria-infected mosquitoes of the Pacific. They needed to breathe in submarines three hundred feet below the ocean surface and in bombers tens of thousands of feet above. American soldiers had to survive shrapnel, firebombing, and tropical disease. Furthermore, the American forces would need to surmount all these challenges and still triumph over the enemy. To achieve these tasks, the United States government created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to engage the brightest scientific minds and the great machinery of  industry in the pursuit of victory.

Portrait photograph of Dr. Vannevar Bush, half-length portrait, seated at desk, between 1940 and 1944; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dr. Vannevar Bush, former vice president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, convinced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) of the need for a wartime scientific organization known as the National Defense Research Committee (Scientists Against Time, 1946: 14-15). The committee’s job was to establish scientific research on new military technologies and development of new “instrumentalities or materials of war” (Organizing Scientific Research for War, 1980: 16).

Upon its inception, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) was headed by Vannevar Bush. The commission did not operate at its full capacity immediately, as funding was limited, and overall, the NDRC was not as efficient as the committee had hoped. To resolve the situation, FDR enacted Executive Order 8807 on June 28, 1941, which was the specific order to develop the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).

The OSRD was a more systematic way to divide the NDRC further so that research could be more specific. Overall, there were nineteen divisions in the OSRD:

Division 1: Ballistic Research
Division 2: Effects of Impact and Explosions
Division 3: Rocket Ordnance
Division 5: New Missiles
Division 6: Subsurface Warfare
Division 7: Fire Control
Division 8: Explosives
Division 9: Chemistry
Division 10: Absorbents and Aerosols
Division 11: Chemical Engineering
Division 12: Transportation
Division 13: Electrical Communication
Division 14: Radar
Division 15: Radio Coordination
Division 16: Optics and Camouflage
Division 17: Physics
Division 18: War Metallurgy
Division 19: Miscellaneous

There was also a separate Committee on Medical Research (CMR). It was divided into six divisions:

Division 1: Medicine
Division 2: Surgery
Division 3: Aviation Medicine
Division 4: Physiology
Division 5: Chemistry
Division 6: Malaria
Photo by Morris Rosenfeld, 1943. OSRD Collection, Science, Technology & Business Division.

Each division had its own separate leadership committees that would report to NDRC and OSRD oversight. Developing new technology was no small task, so the NDRC and OSRD branched out to other organizations that could aid them in their endeavors. The three that stand out the most are The National Academy of Sciences, The National Research Council, and the United States military. Due to the nature of their work, the NDRC and OSRD had to work closely with the military establishment. At the creation of the NDRC, four of its members were representatives of the Army and Navy (Scientists Against Time, 1946: 14). For the most part, this relationship proved immensely fruitful. The fruits of the OSRD’s research spanned the needs of the armed forces. When the Navy needed to counter the threat of German U-Boats, the NDRC and OSRD worked to develop airborne radar sets to allow spotter planes to detect the vessels from above (Combat Scientists, 1947: 27). When soldiers needed to  land on the beaches of Sicily, the NDRC created the famous DUKW amphibious vehicle to land troops and equipment directly on the beaches (Combat Scientists, 1947: 76). When Germany began using the V-1 missile in 1944 to bomb Britain from a distance, the OSRD unveiled new developments such as radar and the proximity fuse to allow Allied forces to effectively neutralize the threat (Scientists Against Time, 1946: 44). Ranging from mundane items like food rations for soldiers, to ointments for skin ailments, to high-tech weaponry, the OSRD worked diligently to produce the best equipment for the military.

After the war, the OSRD disbanded, and legislation was passed in 1947 to create the National Military Establishment. The WWII OSRD collection was acquired by the Library of Congress starting in 1949 and is currently housed in the Technical Reports & Standards Collection (TRS) in the Science, Technology, and Business Division. To date, forty percent of the reports held at TRS has been microfilmed and scanned into pdf files with OCR. Many of the division reports in hard copy will be available for public viewing on-site at the library with an appointment. The Manuscript division at the library also houses the papers of prominent members of the NDRC and OSRD: Vannevar Bush, I.I. (Isidor Isaac) Rabi, and Edward Lindley Bowles.

Comments (2)

  1. In the mid 1960’s, I sat next to Vannevar Bush on an Eastern Airlines Flight. He was reading material clearly marked, “FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.” I turned to him and said, “if you are going to read that kind of material, you should be in First Class. He replied, “if you were a lady, you would not have looked.”

  2. I have a copy of the Microfilm List WW2 of Division 16: Optics & Camouflage. There are one or two reports that I would like to hunt down and request copies. Any idea to whom I might send that request? Thanks….

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