U.S. Geological Survey

World War I

World War I reoriented conventional views on mineral resources. When the war began in August 1914, it was assumed that the conflict would last but a short time. The United States was believed to lack a known supply commensurate with its needs of only five minerals of first rank--tin, nickel, platinum, nitrates, and potash. On the other hand, the reserves of mineral fuels and iron were regarded as so enormous that no problems would arise. The Geological Survey, however, immediately increased its geologic mapping to aid the discovery of new oil fields or extension of known fields, but of the five scarce minerals actively sought only potash. The war at first disrupted normal trade relations, but before long, Europe was in urgent need of American agricultural products and then in still more urgent need of American steel, copper, and explosives. Within 2 years, some minerals became difficult to obtain, and the Survey reoriented its work to aid the search for both metals and fuels.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Geological Survey was almost wholly on a war basis. Earlier in the year, a Division of Military Surveys had been formed, and plans for topographic work were adjusted to conform with a program drawn up by the Army's General Staff. The majority of the technical personnel of the Topographic Branch were commissioned in the Army's Corps of Engineers, as were many scientists from the other branches, including the Chief of the Alaskan Division, who became the Chief Geologist of the American Expeditionary Force.

Figure 27. Geologist searching for nitrates in World War I, 1917.

The strategic-minerals concept was born at this time when it became clear that domestic supplies of a dozen minerals were inadequate in quantity or quality or both, another half dozen adequate for peace but insufficient for war, and petroleum production barely sufficient to meet the Nation's normal demand and much too small for the abnormal demands of war. In August 1917, Congress passed the Lever Act empowering the President to make regulations and issue orders to stimulate and conserve the production and control the distribution of fuels necessary to the war effort. A similar bill for the control of other mineral commodities was passed shortly before the war ended but never put into effect.

Figure 28. Automobiles were used in field work by the time of World War I, 1917.

During the war years, the Survey sought intensively for deposits of war minerals at home and, in time, extended the search to Central and South America and the West Indies. The results were highly successful; adequate supplies of all essential materials were found before the war's end. The Geological Survey also became the main source of information on mineral production, both domestic and foreign, and its data were used to solve a variety of industrial and transportation problems. Personnel from the Survey's Division of Mineral Resources worked in close cooperation with statisticians of the Fuel Administration established after passage of the Lever Act. Geological Survey engineers also undertook a nationwide survey to determine where waterpower could be substituted for steam-generated power or where coal could be saved by interconnecting electric plants or systems.


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Last updated 04.10.00