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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 435-459

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National Science in the Nation's Heartland: The Ames Laboratory and Iowa State University, 1942-1965

Joanne Abel Goldman


During World War II, a group of scientists at Iowa State University developed techniques that proved critical to the construction of the atomic bomb. 1 After the war, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) awarded Iowa State a contract to manage a national laboratory on its campus. In several respects the Ames Laboratory typifies the national laboratories created after the war. Its Manhattan Project foundation, its university management, and its hierarchical organization suggest that the Ames Laboratory was crafted from the same model that created the national laboratories at Berkeley, California, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Argonne, Illinois. 2 But the Ames Laboratory is distinguished [End Page 435] by its particularly close ties with its contractor, Iowa State. In Ames, the boundaries of the government laboratory blur with those of the university. The two share buildings, equipment, and staff, both faculty and graduate students, on one campus. This close relationship has had important consequences. Federal funds for the laboratory strengthened and, to some degree, directed the growth of the university's physical science programs.

The intimacy between the Ames Laboratory and Iowa State demanded accommodation from both institutions. New administrative bodies had to be created and existing policies and protocol reconciled, particularly with regard to physical and intellectual property. Iowa State's land-grant status eased this transition; a pragmatic component (agriculture and the mechanical arts) defined the university's agenda from its inception. After World War II the influx of federal resources for science and engineering, and the university's assumption of a federal mandate, strengthened this pragmatism but neither redefined nor redirected the institution's identity.

The relationship between Iowa State and the Ames Laboratory, their growth and mutual accommodation, is the subject of this study. Central to this story is Frank Spedding, professor of chemistry and first director of the laboratory. Spedding brokered and subsequently nurtured the relationship between the AEC and Iowa State University. His dual roles as professor and administrator define him as a scientific manager, a position new to academia and one that carried unprecedented autonomy and authority. [End Page 436]

This article is divided into three sections. The first examines the founding of the laboratory during World War II, when a group of Iowa State scientists engaged in a program of materials research and production for the Manhattan Project. The next two sections separately treat concurrent aspects of the history of the laboratory and university. During the twenty years after the Ames Laboratory was so designated both the laboratory and the university grew, and their relationship became more complex. New management mechanisms were created, ostensibly to mediate the interaction between the two institutions, that ended up blurring the boundaries between them. This story is the focus of the second section. The third section examines some of the attempts to rationalize the association between the two institutions. During the 1950s and the 1960s, both saw notable growth in personnel, space, and equipment. The university, the federal government, and Spedding himself all sought to claim distinct spheres of influence and to control the relationships among those spheres. The struggle that ensued offers new insights into the subtle and not so subtle consequences--including the growth of particular university programs, the extensive autonomy and authority that Spedding amassed, and the reconciliation of university policies with federal priorities--of the postwar national science effort within a university setting. 3

Wartime Research

As World War II raged in Europe, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic showed, theoretically, that a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction had enormous potential for military application. With Roosevelt's support, the United States government coordinated an atomic research program of unprecedented magnitude. Breaking from traditional academic protocol, scientists on campuses throughout the country accepted research objectives and procedures defined by Washington. 4 In place of individual or small-group projects, large interdisciplinary teams of scientists carried out solicited programs of...


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