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Did You Know, September 4, 2023

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)

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