U.S. Geological Survey

The 1920's

World War I had a pronounced effect on American science; it convinced industry of the value of research, accustomed scientists to work together on the solution of problems, and acquainted scientists in both the public and private sectors with disciplines other than their own. Once the war was over, however, Congress stressed economy, and Federal science suffered for lack of support. So great was the demand for economy that only 1 percent of the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1919, was earmarked for education and scientific research and development. Industrial research, on the other hand, flourished and created a second industrial revolution based on chemistry. Many scientists left the Government at this time to accept more remunerative positions in industry or in the academic world.

The apparent insufficiency of energy resources was one of the postwar problems calling for immediate attention. Oil shortages in 1919 and 1920 gave credibility to predictions of the exhaustion of domestic supplies within a decade. At the same time, so many Survey scientists were leaving for positions in the oil industry that in some sections there were too few scientists left to train newcomers, and the Survey had to face the long slow process of rebuilding its geologic staff. Many who left the Survey at this time later became chief geologists of leading oil companies, and thus, during the 1930's, a significant proportion of oil company chief geologists were men who had begun their training under David White.

The postwar shortages convinced Congress that it was necessary to open up the public mineral lands to development. In February 1920, the Mineral Leasing Act was passed. Under the terms of that act, mineral lands were to be leased by competitive bidding, and royalties and other income were to be divided between the Federal Government and the States. The Survey's responsibility for classification of mineral lands was again changed; its major task became the determination of the known geological structure of producing oil or gas fields within which oil and gas leases would be issued. Congress then for the first time appropriated funds for the classification of public lands, which in turn were allotted to the field branches.

Figure 29. San Juan Canyon, southeastern Utah, explored by geologists, topographers, and hydrographers in connection with proposed power and storage projects, 1921.

Waterpower as an alternative source of energy was given new status by passage of the Federal Water Power Act in June 1920, establishing the Federal Power Commission to issue licenses for development of waterpower on Federal lands. Under the Water Power Act, the Survey took responsibility for the necessary streamflow records and for examination of proposed projects on the public lands outside the National Forests. In 1921, Congress authorized a superpower survey to investigate if economy in fuel, labor, and material could be gained by a comprehensive system for generation and distribution of electric power in the region between Boston and Washington. The study was made under the direction of the Geological Survey by independent engineers who proposed a power grid that anticipated the present northeast power network.

Another postwar problem that demanded action was the lack of maps, which had become evident even before war was declared when the Army had found itself without maps upon which to base its defense of the border areas. Industrial development, land reclamation, power generation projects, and highway construction were also creating a demand for topographic data. Nearly 60 percent of the country was still totally unmapped, and much that had been mapped was in need of resurvey. Professional organizations urged the President and Congress to make provision for completing the topographic map of the United States in the shortest possible time compatible with requisite accuracy. The Survey proposed a plan whereby the mapping could be effectively and economically completed by 1932, but no funds were made available to inaugurate the plan. Meanwhile, several West Indian republics sought the assistance of the Geological Survey in both topographic and geologic mapping, and Survey scientists and engineers were given leave to supervise their mapping programs. Topographic Branch engineers used the tri-lens aerial camera and related equipment that they had developed in 1916-17 for a systematic aerial survey of parts of Santo Domingo and Haiti. In 1921, a Section of Photographic Mapping was established in the Topographic Branch.

Despite the loss of scientists to industry, the Survey under Chief Geologists David White and Walter C. Mendenhall, who succeeded him in 1922, devoted a major effort to energy minerals. Research was begun on the source materials of petroleum, the physical properties of reservoir rocks, microfaunas as aids to the identification and correlations of beds, and salt-dome caprocks. Survey physicists and chemists joined the effort by developing improved recovery techniques and by laboratory and field tests of geophysical methods of exploration. In addition, geologic mapping for classification purposes and mapping of potential oil areas was continued, especially in Wyoming, where there was some oil company interest, and in Montana, where only the Survey had done any detailed work. In 1923, the Survey extended its intensive study of possible oil-bearing areas to Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 on the Arctic Coast of Alaska. The Survey's long-range stratigraphic correlation studies also became a contribution valued by industry in its exploration for petroleum.

Figure 30. Stratigraphic studies in the 1920's supported public-land classification, the search for new oil fields, and the development of a new stratigraphic code.

By the mid-1920's, new discoveries in the midcontinent region, the Gulf Coast, and California resulted in an oil surplus, and overproduction and competition leading to reckless waste became a major public concern. This postwar expansion of the oil industry from famine to glut was in part the result of the striking developments in the geological sciences in the industry, as well as Government surveys and the academic world. Two new professional societies, the Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, of which Chief Geologist David White was a founder, and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, attested to the coming of age of new branches of the geological sciences.

Chief Geologist Mendenhall, who became known for his frequently repeated aphorism "There can be no applied science unless there is science to apply,"30 strengthened the research aspects of the geologic program during this period even though the size of the staff continued to decrease. By 1925, when the rate of exodus of staff had been slowed or even reversed in some sections, nearly all the geologic work was reoriented toward research.

The Survey, through the Director, also became involved in energy policy. After the great coal strike in 1922, a Coal Commission was established to study the problems of the industry and to aid Congress on legislation that would ensure the Nation of an adequate supply of coal. Director Smith was a member of the Commission, and the Geological Survey's resource data provided the basis for much of the Commission's report. In 1924, Smith unsuccessfully urged resumption of coal research in much the same terms as Walcott had used in 1898. Director Smith also served as Chairman of a three-man commission appointed by President Calvin Coolidge in March 1924, after the Teapot Dome scandal, to study the efficient management of the naval petroleum reserves, and as Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Cabinet-level Federal Oil Conservation Board established in December 1924 to reappraise Federal oil policies.

The Survey once more became involved in regulatory functions in 1925, when the Bureau of Mines, which had had responsibility for supervising mineral lease operations on the public lands since passage of the Mineral Leasing Act in 1920, was transferred to the Department of Commerce, and the Department of the Interior delegated that responsibility to the Geological Survey. The Land Classification Branch was renamed the Conservation Branch and its responsibilities were described as classification of lands according to their highest use; the protection of the public interest in undeveloped mineral, waterpower, and agricultural resources; and the promotion of economical and efficient development of mineral deposits on public and Indian lands. The regulatory functions, which were quite different from any previous Geological Survey responsibilities, required a large force of mining and petroleum engineers who increased the Geological Survey staff to more than 1,000 employees, of whom only 126 were geologists.

The topographic-mapping and water-resources programs by this time were heavily dependent on cooperative and transferred funds. In February 1925, Congress passed the Temple bill which called for completion of a topographic map of the United States within 20 years and authorized both an appropriation of $950,000 for the first year and cooperative arrangements with States and other civic subdivisions to expedite the mapping. Congress, however, did not increase the appropriation to the authorized level but instead made it evident that it expected the States to bear most of the cost. In 1927, Congress appropriated additional funds for topographic mapping with the proviso that they be available only to match cooperative funds from States or municipalities. Under these circumstances, the topographic-mapping program was controlled by the cooperators and could not be a truly national program.

A similar situation existed in the Water Resources Branch, where directly appropriated funds were less than 30 percent of the total. Congress, in 1928, increased the funds for water-resources investigations, again with the proviso that the additional funds be available only to match cooperative funds. The bulk of the work was stream gaging, much of it in connection with flood-control investigations of the Corps of Engineers or international problems for the Department of State. Waterpower investigations were often made in conjunction with engineers of the Topographic Branch. Demands for quantitative information on the availability and most efficient methods of utilizing ground water became increasingly urgent; in some parts of the country, the demand for ground water for municipal supplies or irrigation had become so great that there was danger of overdevelopment. In much the same manner that the mining-geology investigations of the Survey's first quarter century led to the development of general principles and the emergence of economic geology, in the latter part of the second quarter-century ground-water investigations progressed to a quantitative stage, and a major report on the occurrence of ground water in the United States with a discussion of the principles of hydrology was published. As a new stage in the professionalization of the science was reached, Survey scientists took an active role in the organization of the Section of Hydrology of the American Geophysical Union.

For its 50th year, the Survey had an appropriation of $2 million and available total funds of $3.4 million. It had 998 permanent employees and was conducting mapping and investigations in 45 States, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. Nearly 44 percent of the continental United States exclusive of Alaska had been topographically mapped. Streamflow was being measured at 2,238 gaging stations; income from mineral leases, licenses, and prospecting permits on the public lands under Survey supervision was $4.1 million. As part of the 50th anniversary celebration, Survey alumnus President Herbert Hoover and Mrs. Hoover received members of the Survey at the White House on March 21, 1929, the 50th anniversary of the appointment of Clarence King as the first Director.


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U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior
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Last updated 04.10.00