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DID YOU KNOW, September 2023

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

September 4th - The Armor and Projectile Laboratory

On September 3, 1940, Dr. L.T.E. Thompson and Experimental Officer LCDR William S. Parsons proposed creating a new laboratory dedicated to the fundamental research of the metallurgical properties of armor and projectiles.

Dahlgren is known today as a center for research and development, but that wasn’t always the case. From its founding until just before World War II, much of the work concentrated on testing ordnance. Research and development was a marked departure from the status quo. One of the earliest ventures was the Armor and Projectile Laboratory. Today’s blog post outlines its history and achievements.

The laboratory was the brainchild of Dr. L.T.E. Thompson, previously of Clark University, who became Chief Physicist at Dahlgren in 1923. Conventionally, the Navy depended on steel manufacturers to ensure the quality of steel used in armor and projectiles. The quality of the armor had proved inconsistent, so Thompson and Experimental Officer William “Deak” Parsons believed the field required some metallurgical research. The research capability was limited then because there were no available facilities or personnel to conduct the required experimental tests. Additionally, “an armor piercing projectile, by definition, had to be a major caliber projectile,” and conducting research with large guns was too expensive.

Therefore, Thompson and Parsons wanted a laboratory where they could conduct all testing at a smaller scale and produce results that could be scaled up and applied to the larger guns. Thompson later recalled he was “able to justify a proposal for a research laboratory at reduced scale, the point being that if you could get most of the information with very small scale, say 1, 2, 3 inches, 4 inches diameter projectiles, you could get ahead much faster,” and the testing would be more cost effective. For reference, the 3-inch projectiles would be scaled down from 60-inch projectiles. They knew that because the experimentation would concern the properties of the metal itself, most of it could be conducted with smaller projectiles and armor and still remain valid when it was scaled up for usage.

Thompson submitted his proposal for the laboratory, but the entire concept of it was politically controversial within the Bureau of Ordnance (BUORD), which had the power to accept or block the proposal. The BUORD consulted steel experts on the need for such a laboratory, but the experts were employed by steel manufacturing companies and were disinclined to encourage research that could have results contrary to their company’s interest. The proposal stalled, but was eventually approved and granted a Congressional appropriation of $300,000 when Admiral Bowen of the Naval Research Laboratory threatened to take over the work.

In February 1941, Thompson brought in Leonard Loeb, a naval reservist and physicist with the University of California at Berkeley. Loeb’s first task was to oversee the construction of a building to house the laboratory. It initially consisted of a single building, which “was actually forward of the main battery line… So the place had to be built with no windows at all, completely closed up.” It had an armor-plated tunnel for firing guns up to 3 inches and laboratory space that a later history reported as containing capabilities for heat-treating metal; fabricating projectiles; gauging; mechanical testing; metallographic, chemical, and physical analyses; radiography; woodworking; bulge testing; fragment testing; and drafting.

Caption: A & P Lab Building (U.S. Navy Photo)

September 11th - Always Remember 9/11/2001

This was a day of turmoil that made us stop and think about what was important.

One Dahlgren employee recalls: “I was on the Base that day and it was chaos --- word came down that the Base was closing and we were to leave. Having everybody leave clogged the roads, and it took hours for everyone to leave. We would be told when we could come back…when we did, the Base was a very different Base…”

September 18th - Unmanned Radio-Controlled Flight in the 1920s

The first successful, unmanned, radio-controlled seaplane takeoff-to-landing flight occurred on September 15, 1924, at Dahlgren, Virginia.

Eleven years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated that powered flight was possible on the

beaches of North Carolina, the Army was pursuing remotely-piloted aerial transports. This experimentation was inspired by an event that took place in France in 1914. Aviation entrepreneur and inventor Lawrence B. Sperry, building on the auspicious gyro-compass developed by his father, Elmer Sperry, stunned spectators at the Airplane Safety Competition (Concours de la Securité en Aéroplane) when, during a low-altitude pass, he and his assistant climbed onto the wings of the aircraft to demonstrate the safe and stable operation of what became the modern-day autopilot. The Navy recognized the remote piloting efforts of the Army and, in 1920, requisitioned a modified Curtiss N-9H floatplane from the Army project. The N-9H aircraft, a model already in use by the U.S. Navy, was used in the latter part of testing by the Army because of its increased stability and load-carrying capabilities. Other N-9H aircraft was being housed at the Navy Proving Ground in Dahlgren in support of range observation. The Army Float plane was sent to Dahlgren.

After approval to proceed was given by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), radio engineer

Carlos B. (C. B.) Mirick, under the supervision of the Bureau of Ordnance, was sent to Dahlgren in 1922 to begin retrofitting the acquired Curtiss aircraft for pilotless, radio-controlled flight. In addition, Carl Norden, a former partner of Elmer and Lawrence Sperry and inventor of the flywheel catapult used in the Army's experiments with Sperry's aircraft, was called upon to assist the team that assembled at Dahlgren. The skies over the Potomac became filled with airplanes.

By November 1923, 33 radio-controlled flights of the N9 had been successfully flown from a ground-based command post with naval aviator Lieutenant John J. Ballentine, aviation officer at the Proving Ground, on-board as an observing safety pilot. The last flight, performed before senior officials of the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance, successfully executed 16 radio-controlled commands during 25 minutes of radio-controlled flight. Although the flight proved mostly successful, an attempt at a fully unmanned flight was postponed for nearly a year due to the approaching winter weather.

Testing continued in the spring and summer of 1924. By September 15, all was ready for the big test. The weather was perfect. Temperatures hovered in the mid-60s, and there was little chance of precipitation. Following two flawless radio-controlled manned flights, the craft was beached, allowing Lt. Ballentine to exit. With a bag of sand for weight distribution in his place, the single engine started, and the pilotless plane taxied onto the Potomac for its maiden unmanned flight.

After a successful departure, the plane was put through its paces for the duration of the 40-minute flight. Executing radio-transmitted commands, the plane was safely returned to Dahlgren and guided to a less-than-ceremonious landing in the river due to a hole in one of its pontoons. The plane and equipment were recovered successfully. For the first time in U.S. Navy history, a pilotless aircraft had been flown from take-off through full flight maneuvers and returned for landing solely by ground-based radio control. While this project was abandoned a year or so later for many reasons, its effect lit the kindling and forever linked the foundations of the elements of proof testing to vigorous experimentation of new technologies at Dahlgren.

Text from “Dahlgren: A Bubbling Cauldron of Technical Curiosity” by Alan J. Dean.

Image One: 1924. This N-9 was the first Navy plane to take off and land successfully by radio control. Lt. John J. Ballentine, USN, (later Admiral John J. Ballentine, USN, Ret.), directly under the propeller, was the gentleman doing the flying. Fifth from left is L. R. Daniel, and sixth from right is Charlie Middlebrook, who died in 1965 and who worked on the Norden Bombsight at Dahlgren. Names of all in the picture (L-R): Caldwell, Arnold, Bryant, Spear, Daniel, Pepper, Stone, Mirick, Ballentine, Luke, Middlebrook, Armstrong, Vile, Stansbury, Griffin, and Beasley. Photo courtesy of NSWC-Dahlgren Division.

Image Two: Dated Sept. 16, 1924. NP Radio-controlled Plane, single prop-open cockpit, amphibious landing biplane. A starboard bow view of an NP radio-controlled aircraft on the ramp at the NPG, Dahlgren. This is believed to be one of the five N-9 airplanes from Copaigue, Long Island, that were sent to Dahlgren and formed the original Naval Air Detail overseen by C. C. Middlebrook. This particular aircraft is supposedly the first flown under remote control without a pilot. Photo courtesy of NSWC-Dahlgren Division.

September 25th - The AEGIS Computer Center

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the AEGIS Computer Center was held on September 24, 1982, at Dahlgren.

In 1976, the Secretary of the Navy had designated Dahlgren as the lead laboratory for the proposed new AEGIS Surface Ship Combat System, which moved Dahlgren into the new field of systems engineering. The computer center unveiled in 1982 would develop AEGIS software and provide facilities and computer engineering services for vessels equipped with the system. AEGIS officially entered service in January of 1983, when the Navy commissioned the first guided-missile cruiser of its class, the USS Ticonderoga.

If you haven't already read this month's featured Now You Know article, you can read more about the history of the AEGIS program at Dahlgren by visiting

and following the accompanying links at the bottom of the page.

Caption: Programmers run a variety of tests on the AEGIS system at the Dahlgren lab.
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