By GEORGETTE GREEN, BEN HULL and JIM SCALA
The Library's unsurpassed collection of reports that documents the history of technology from World War II to the present is now more accessible than ever. Called the PB series—after the 1940s Publication Board—the collection was recently relocated from the Library's Photoduplication Service where portions were stored for more than 40 years, to an area that is closer to the Science, Technology, and Business Division (ST&B) in the Library's Adams Building. In 1998, the division had taken over custody of the collection from the Photoduplication Service.
Before the collection was moved, the 160,000 hardcopy reports were rehoused in acid-free containers; and the 30,000 reports that were identified as too brittle to handle are currently being preserved in microfiche format. As a result of these efforts, historians of technology and interested lay people will be much better able to use this important historical resource for generations to come.
The Library of Congress, with the largest, most accessible collection of the PB series, is the best single source of a critical portion of the reports: those dating from 1945 to 1964. Many of these reports were published for the first time only after they were declassified. Today, the PB series continues to be issued by the Department of Commerce and collected by other institutions as well as the Library.
Origins in War
President Truman created the Publication Board by executive orders issued in 1945; it was the precursor to today's National Technical Information Service (NTIS). The board was established to acquire and disseminate to business, academia and the general public the vast amounts of scientific and technical information created as a result of federal contract research during and after World War II. The reports issued by the Board, therefore, became known as the PB series.
Responsibility for distributing the reports was centered in the Photoduplication Service at the Library of Congress, which created a Publication Board Section in 1948 to handle such duties. The Photoduplication Service had been duplicating similar materials since its establishment in 1938 by a Rockefeller grant.
The series collection, comprising thousands of reports on paper and microfilm, originated with the government's desire to make technological research conducted by both sides in World War II—the victors as well as the vanquished—available to the American public.
The creation of the Publication Board was the first effort by the government to collect, organize and distribute a wide range of federally-sponsored research in diverse disciplines to interested groups in the private sector. In effect, this was the beginning of the use of the "technical report" as an instrument for the mass release of scientific and technological data.
In August 1945, the scope of the Publication Board was expanded to include the distribution of "enemy scientific and industrial information" for commercial, academic and public use. The Allies' collection of this kind of information revealed many important technologies developed by adversaries that were cutting-edge at the time and could be adapted and modified for peacetime applications in the United States. Even today, entrepreneurs are making use of decades-old processes described in the PB series that now may be economically viable, such as synthetic fuel production.
The Rise of Research Programs
In the spring of 1940, the United States was in imminent danger of being forced into a war for which the country was unprepared. The leading and most influential scientists of the time realized that the coming war would require a massive mobilization of scientific and technological research to support the war effort, particularly in the development of offensive and defensive weapons technology.
These same scientists had come to believe that the nation's interests would be best served if researchers familiar with the latest advances in science became more knowledgeable about the needs of the military. This marked the first time that scientists took the initiative and approached the government to offer their knowledge and expertise for the benefit of the nation. Thereafter, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and its advisory and contracting arm, the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), were created as part of the War Department to consult with scientists and military authorities to advise on what research efforts were needed and to administer the necessary contracts. Research reports of the OSRD and the NDRC are among the earliest reports in the Library's PB series.
NDRC was organized into subject-oriented divisions. Among the most significant of these in size and scope was Division 14, Radar, organized by A.L. Loomis. The remarkable Loomis, the subject of a popular recent biography, "Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II" by Jennet Conant (Simon & Schuster, 2002), was an investment banker who, after accumulating a great deal of wealth, indulged his passion for science by building one of the best-equipped physics laboratories in the world in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., and inviting world-famous scientists to use it.
In 1941, President Roosevelt asked Loomis to organize a research program within the NDRC for the development of microwave radar detection systems for military applications. Already concerned about the threat of Hitler's Germany in Europe and fearful of the consequences for his own country, Loomis quickly agreed. With his good friend Ernest O. Lawrence, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1939 for the invention of the cyclotron, he recruited a collection of scientists of astonishing accomplishment, including at least six eventual Nobel laureates, to work on the problems of radar development.
Division 14's work had important research consequences, including the development of many devices still in use today, such as microwave radar warning systems, the ground-control approach to the blind landing of aircraft, and the eventual development of the maser, nuclear magnetic resonance and MRI machines. Microwave spectroscopy equipment, the transistor, the memory systems of digital computers and even the ubiquitous microwave oven are based on the research undertaken by Division 14. These and other important discoveries of Division 14 are contained in hundreds of reports in the PB series.
Fears and Rumors of Enemy Technology
In the summer of 1944, the Allied forces had broken out of Normandy and were moving rapidly forward through France to the Low Countries and the borders of Germany itself. Allied leaders learned of the existence of advanced technology in Germany and Japan that might enable those countries to turn the tide of battle. The V-1 and the V-2 rockets were recognized as potential threats, but what else might be waiting on the Rhine for Allied troops?
Intelligence agents operating within Germany, German-occupied territories and Imperial Japan had been confirming persistent rumors from fleeing refugees about the manufacture of chemical and biological munitions, the development of jet and other high-speed aircraft, and kamikaze submarines. Other rumors included the existence of submarines capable of accommodating specially-designed fighter-bomber aircraft to penetrate American defenses and destroy such strategic targets as the Panama Canal.
The Allies also knew that the invasion of the Japanese home islands would be a long and bitter battle. Scientists looked for weapons in the German arsenal that could be adapted quickly for use against the Japanese. They were especially concerned about the Germans' growing expertise in the field of nuclear fission. It was common knowledge in the scientific community that the Nobelist Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn and other German physicists had been active throughout the war in experimental work on nuclear fission. Had they succeeded in discovering the critical mass necessary to achieve and control a chain reaction in order to create an atom bomb?
For all of these reasons, and because the United States and its allies thought that the gathering of the combatants' advanced scientific and wartime technologies would be of great value to post-war industries and a boon to society as a whole, they mounted an effort to gather as much of this information as they could find.
Collecting on the Front Line
American and British organizations most often teamed together in the effort to gather war research. Allied intelligence crews of scientists and industrial experts from academic, research, and industrial facilities fanned out behind the advancing front line, confiscating documents and equipment and interrogating personnel found in the research laboratories, industrial plants, and storage and transport facilities as they fell into Allied hands.
They encountered a staggering amount of diverse material, which they then translated, organized and made available to government and private industry.
For American teams going to a commercial site in newly-liberated territory, policy required that representatives from at least two separate and competing corporations accompany the investigation. Still, all documents, material, and reports of their findings were sent directly to the intelligence organizations and not to the employers of the experts on the scene. Virtually all of the reports, including thousands of pages of original captured material, as well as many documents reflecting the research activities and weapons information of U.S. armed forces, were eventually released in the PB series.
These documents, based on information gathered by the intelligence teams, provide a vast array of scientific and industrial data that were subsequently used in America and abroad as the basis for new methods and technologies. The documents collected ranged from studies of materials used in aircraft to aviation fuels; from acetylene, an intermediate in the production of synthetic rubber, to vinyls and industrial alcohols; from the hydrogenation of coal to mining and other fuel production; from plastics to synthetic fibers. They also included ventilation, sanitation and safety data gleaned from German experience in building underground facilities to withstand air attacks, among many other production topics.
At the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, Allied intelligence teams conducted a similar exploration and assessment of Japanese scientific and technological efforts. Many of these reports also appear in the PB collection.
Post-1964 PB Series
After the war, unclassified technical reports resulting from federal research contracts, primarily with government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, continued to be released under the PB series in hard-copy and roll-film formats through the Office of Technical Services (OTS). In 1964, OTS was abolished and its functions were absorbed by the Department of Commerce's new Clearinghouse for Federal Scientific and Technical Information (CFSTI). The PB series is now generally distributed in microfiche format only and includes research reports produced by many U.S. agencies. In 1970, CFSTI's name was changed to the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which distributes technical reports and the PB series to this day. The PB collection at the Library of Congress continues to grow as it acquires current PB reports on a selective basis.
Public access to the Library's PB collection is available by calling the Technical Reports and Standards Unit at (202) 707-5655, by submitting questions through the Science Reference Services Ask a Librarian Web form at www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-scitech.html, or by mail addressed to Technical Reports and Standards Unit, Science, Technology, and Business Division, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., Washington, DC 20540.
Georgette Green, Ben Hull and Jim Scala are staff members in the Automation, Collections Support, and Technical Reports Section of the Science, Technology, and Business Division.