On March 3, 2015, we will commemorate the birth of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) that took place in 1915. This organization was very much a product of its time and place and circumstance. For the first twelve years after the successful flights of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in December 1903 government investment in the technology was virtually nonexistent. The result was national stagnation in this arena.
European governments, as well as industrial firms, tended to be more supportive of what might be called “applied research.” The Europeans recognized, as the Americans did not with their emphasis on individual initiative, that harnessing the revolutionary attributes of aviation would require government investment. During the first decade of the century government supported laboratories in Europe yielded major benefits for the practical application of aeronautics in both war and peace.
Viewing the progress in aviation being made across the Atlantic several Americans lobbied President William Howard Taft and other senior government officials in 1911 for the “establishment of a national aeronautical laboratory.” They intended to supplant the hobbyist barnstormers and daredevils with serious efforts to advance and use this new technology. They might have been successful had it not been for a leak to the media about the effort. On April 10, 1911, the Washington Star reported details about a plan to establish a national laboratory under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. This plan failed.
The next year Albert F. Zahm, a professor of mechanics at Catholic University in Washington and an aviation researcher in his own right, revived the idea of a national laboratory. He advocated for the “symmetrical, rapid, and continuous” aeronautical progress seen in Europe made possible by sustained efforts in national laboratories instead of the “halting, haphazard, and fortuitous” advances witnessed in the U.S.
Others weighed in. Capt. W. Irving Chambers, the Secretary of the Navy’s special adviser on aviation, added his endorsement to Zahm’s proposal in his “Report on Aviation” published as Appendix I to the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy for 1912. He cited the European example of aeronautical progress: “The work of established aerodynamic laboratories has transported aeronautics generally into the domain of engineering, in consequence of which aviation has reached a stage of development wherein the methods of scientific engineers have replaced the crude efforts of the pioneer inventors.” Chambers also suggested that the British model of an advisory committee would be a reasonable way forward in achieving this objective.
The most remarkable aspects of this proposal was that Chambers clearly grasped the potential of aviation for both military and commercial purposes and that it was incumbent on the federal government to advance this potential. He saw ways to mitigate the bureaucratic narrowness present in some federal agencies and to chart a path forward for organization. He avoided pitfalls that had destroyed earlier initiatives, and couched his proposal in the language of scientific/theoretical aerodynamics rather than the broader development of technologies. Although unsuccessful in 1912, Chambers’s ideas remained the heart and soul of the 1915 decision to establish the NACA.
Chambers also recommended the creation of presidential commission to study for the president the “the necessity or desirability for the establishment of a national aerodynamical laboratory.” Taft did not act on this proposal until he was a lame duck as president on December 19, 1912, appointing a nineteen person National Aerodynamical Laboratory Commission chaired by Robert S. Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institute of Washington. At its first meeting on January 23 it considered a resolution for “the establishment of a national aeronautical laboratory in the District of Columbia for the scientific study of the problems of aeronautics with a view to their practical solution.”
The commission thereafter worked to draft legislation that would establish an advisory committee based on Chambers’s earlier plan, although after interagency disagreements they dropped the idea of making it a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. Infighting over the placement of the organization and its mandate for research—theoretical aerodynamics versus practical research and development—derailed the proposal.
Unfortunately, no consensus on the creation of an aeronautical laboratory emerged in the United States until conflict in Europe beginning in August 1914 changed the nature of the debate. Certainly much of the ferment in favor of moving forward with government-supported aeronautical research was fueled by observations of what was taking place in Europe as its various nations invested heavily in aeronautical technology and built flying machines of great complexity and significant capability, capability far outstripping anything that the U.S. could hope to accomplish. As a result, the small, fast, maneuverable, and heavily armed fighter emerged as a major component of the World War I battlefield.
Aware of this European activity the Smithsonian’s leaders obtained funds to dispatch Albert Zahm and Jerome C. Hunsaker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Europe to see firsthand what was taking place. Their report emphasized the galling disparity between European progress and American inertia. It noted that when World War I began in 1914, about 1,400 military aircraft existed, of which only 23 belonged to the United States.
Because of this situation, the U.S. Congress finally decided to take action. Pushed by the Smithsonian’s Charles Walcott, the proposed legislation emphasized the committee aspects of the effort and provided a mere $5,000 for the first year of operations. Sentiment for some sort of center of aeronautical research had been building for several years, of course, but it was only the experience of war on the Continent that led to specific action.
Now, something drastic could be accomplished as broader perspectives subsumed the more traditional bureaucratic in‑fighting and questions about the appropriateness of government investment in technological R&D. Something had to be done the and it came through the passage of enabling legislation for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) on March 3, 1915, as a rider to the Naval Appropriations Act. This new federal agency had its first meeting in the office of the secretary of war on April 23, 1915, with representatives from universities, the military, and several other federal agencies.