Friday, November 4, 2022

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, July 1952: Sites, Science, Consequences


There is something romantically fascinating about the Independence I and II Cultures which flourished in the very far north of Greenland intermittently between 2400BC and 80BC, and it turns out that they're not completely out of line with the postblogging project, as Danish Arctic explorer/archaeologist Egil Knuth only discovered the main site of Deltaterasserne in 1948, and would not publish the excavations until 1954. The British North Greenland Expedition thus arrived in the prepublication phase, and these Paleo-Eskimo musk ox hunters surely occupied some of the expedition's attention as guests of Knuth's more established research site. The Independence peoples, perhaps as few as six families in the "II" phase, were just about the last humans to use north Greenland, whalers aside. Knuth and Simpson, and Peary before them, pretty much established the region as a site of scientific production. 

The Commander of the North Greenland Expedition, interestingly enough, was an active-duty Royal Navy officer who took a detour out of the navy at the age of 25 to study electrical engineering at London, returning in 1939 as "an electrical officer, serving as an anti-submarine specialist." Neither Wikipedia nor the fuller obituary in the Daily Telegraph offer any details on Simpson's postwar activities in the Navy apart from his enthusiasm for polar exploration. Today, North Greenland is all about the production of knowledge and persuasion about climate change. Simpson catches the eye for giving an early warning about the consequences of global warming in Newsweek, but I have a sneaking suspicion that his presence on the expedition, and especially its ice floe outstation, "North Ice," had something to do with acoustics and antisubmarine warfare. Today, however, Cold War geophysics have given way to climate research. 

I however, am going to make a bit of a distancing move and try to talk about two scientific sites in the news in the summer of 1952 as places of technological innovation. That means talking about LOBUND and the Forest Products Laboratory.  


James Arthur Reyniers' (1908--1967) sealed, germ-free LOBUND (Laboratories of Bacteriology, University of Notre Dame), is one of those interesting cases of lost, would-be "big science" from mid-century. Notre Dame was clearly into it in a big way, as the whole project, an attempt at a combined "clean room" laboratory and test animal production facility, clearly needed significant financial support. Reynier, meanwhile, is a forgotten scientific entrepeneur, selling both his laboratory as a research facility and allegedly germfree animals as test subjects. Robert G. W. Kirk's 2012 Technology and Culture article, "'Standardisation through Mechanisation': Germ-Free life and the Engineering of the Ideal Laboratory Animal," catches us up with a forgotten, would-be Big Scientist, or, as Reynier put it, "biological engineer." In Kirk's interpretation, Reynier and [his partner, Charles] Trexler . . . simply assumed that germ-free animals could, should, and would be integrated by others at the local level." Kirk's research is located within the tradition of studying animal science laboratories as producers of "standardised" lab animals, an important prerequisite for placing the animal sciences on a plane with the physical sciences in meeting the requirements of reproducibility that medicine is routinely and scandalously failing to meet over in the Medicine page, with this month's star being the Washington doctors who want to do brain surgery on infants because they figure that a (I assume, harmless) membrane observed in some postmortem is probably down there somewhere and needs rooting out.

To Kirk, the sales programme developed from the "instability" of a project that could only guarantee that the "mechanical isolators" were producing "germfree animals" by showing that the germfree animals actually were such, but also vice versa.  Having spent some time with the scientists of the era via their public personas on the Science pages rather than in the more controlled environs of a scientific paper, pardon me for being skeptical. Cherchez la cash, I say! (A throwaway line explains that Reynier intervened to ensure that mechanical replicators were built exclusively by his father's firm, although he could not prevent the University of Lund from getting into the business after the war.) 

Kirk notes a symbiosis with the larger university, which gained credibility from associating itself with LOBUND. That does not meant that the money for a building-sized "isolator" was going to come easily. The Army was willing to build a clean room at Fort Detrick, at least with abundant wartime money, but putting one up at Notre Dame was not on the cards. In spite of this, LOBUND was in the process of expanding onto a 1500 acre site when an NSF investigation revealed the frailties of Reynier's lab. Reynier resigned in 1957, Trexler took over and introduced cheaper, plastic isolators, then lowered the sights of the programme to the production of "pathogenically standardised animals," which are now the de facto standard, and LOBUND disappeared, on the one hand into the University of Notre Dame, and, on the other, into the invisibility of standardisation. "Clean rooms" are standardised across many sciences and industries, and James Reynier's role in it is forgotten. Especially after Notre Dame determined him to be an embarrassment to Catholic scholarship. Can't have that!

The simple explanation of Reynier's rise and fall is that he overreached. The same cannot be said of the

Forest Products Laboratory of the National Forest Service, which seems determined to vanish into the wainscoting, which is the Edwardian way of saying, "me, at a party." (It turns out that  wainscoting is a lumber product, by the way.) In spite of a history going back to 1907 and a remarkable building on the west end of the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus, Newsweek introduces it in terms of ongoing research into the strength of boards, the design of new kinds of packing crates, and experiments on wood adhesives. It is hard to imagine anything less exciting. Meanwhile

it can be argued that wood products can be more glamorous if you try. It is a common story in the western woods that Canadian spruce was used to make the Mosquito, or, more dramatically, the Spitfire, which seems to be a folk memory of the controversy over the reserving of American spruce stocks for specific aircraft  manufacturers that was used as one of Kaiser and Hughes' many excuses for not completing their Spruce Goose contract, an important angle to getting them out of trouble for their irregular business practices. But instead of looking backward, let's look forward:

Personally, particle board is where my father's professional life finally went off the rails. As a citizen of a province where forestry is a major industry, it is a way to make small wood pay. If we are going to put scrub forest into productive use and clear out the human-forest interface and prevent devastating losses to wildfires in years to come (it seems like it would be less trouble to just lie down and let the fires burn over us, in line with our general response to climate change), particle board is going to be more important. Historically, it was first produced in 1887, but took off during the war when the Germans extended the use of phenolic resin from plywood to the tiny bits of wood that are the byproduct of milling economical trees and the only product of milling smaller timber. A patent, dated 17 January 1951, was issued to Max Himmelheber of Baiersbronn in the Schwarzwald, so if he isn't the inventor, he gets credit for being the first person to claim to be. Wikipedia claims that the Forest Products Laboratory "developed particle board," whatever that means, but they certainly didn't tell Newsweek about it in 1952, and even researchers under the USDA banner cannot date North American production more exactly than "[i]n the early 1950s, TECO (Timber Engineering Company, Cottage Grove, Wisconsin) manufacturer particle board for the first time in the United states at its laboratory under the direction of Dr. Nicholas Poletika." 

As there are numerous products included under the general rubric of "particleboard," and it is very easy to fall short of the requirements for a "structural" rating, there is, and has been, plenty of room for the FPL to work in the field, but it clearly has little appetite to talk about it. Maybe if it had a better system for accessing its archives? Or maybe it is just hard to get excited about particle board. It's hard to believe, but it is possible. 

So I guess the moral of the story is that showmen get more press, but don't necessarily produce more useful technology? Or that a government laboratory is a better site for producing science than an entrepeneurial lab at an upwardly mobile and consciously Catholic university? 

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