George Otis Smith


George Otis Smith, the Geologist-in-charge of the Section of Petrography of the Geologic Branch, succeeded Walcott as Director in May 1907 and continued as Director until December 1930. Smith had joined the Survey after receiving his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1896, and he was barely 36 years old when he was appointed Director. His Survey career had not been particularly distinguished, but he had come to the attention of the new Secretary of the Interior, James R. Garfield, in 1906 when Smith had served as chairman of one of the subcommittees of a Presidential commission that sought to put the operation of Government agencies on a modern businesslike basis. Smith was particularly interested in a business policy for the public domain. He also believed that the work of the Survey should be primarily although not exclusively practical.

A combination of circumstances ensured that the work of the Survey for many years did indeed become primarily practical. For the first 20 years of Smith's directorate, appropriations were essentially static while funds from outside sources steadily increased, especially for the topographic mapping and water-resources programs, which were largely practical in nature. The classification program was extended as the Roosevelt conservation program developed but Congress steadfastly refused to appropriate additional funds for the new form of classification. It was necessary to divert personnel from research programs to the classification program, and an exodus of geologists from the Survey for more challenging positions in industry, which began in the first year of Smith's directorate, resulted in residual impoverishment. Within a few years, the profession began to look down on the Survey as a "department of practical geology."29

The extension of the classification program began at the behest of geologists working in the California oil fields who urged the Director to act to safeguard oil development on the public lands. At the time, title to oil-bearing lands could be obtained only under the Mining Act of 1872, which required that a discovery be made before the land could be acquired, discoveries required drilling, which cannot be done in secret, and potential oil lands were being obtained fraudulently under other laws to take advantage of the oil companies' work. On Smith's recommendation, the Secretary of the Interior in August 1907 withdrew some potential oil-bearing lands in California from agricultural entry, pending classification. In December 1908, newly discovered western phosphate lands were withdrawn from entry, and the Land Classification Board was established in the Geologic Branch to administer the new responsibilities for classification. Within a few months of the Board's formation, the Survey was assigned responsibility for classification of lands under the Enlarged Homestead Act, and a program of hydrographic classification was added to that of mineral-land classification.

The classification program was only part of the Survey's involvement in the rapidly developing Roosevelt conservation program. An Inland Waterways Commission, appointed in March 1907 to prepare a comprehensive plan for use of inland waters, in the fall of 1907 suggested a Conference of Governors at the White House to dramatize the need for conservation. From the Governors Conference in May 1908 came the National Conservation Commission that in the record time of 5 months, with the aid of Government scientific agencies including the Geological Survey, prepared an inventory of natural resources, containing not only estimates but predictions of times of exhaustion of various mineral resources.

Conservation, however, became a controversial issue, politically and scientifically. Originally, conservation had referred primarily to the prevention of waste or destruction of resources and was thus considered a scientific or technological problem. In Europe, however, where natural resources had long been used with the utmost care, it was natural for the government to exert some control, and there conservation was part of political economy. The conservation inaugurated under Roosevelt differed from European conservation in being almost completely restricted to the public domain and, by the withdrawal from entry of millions of acres of public land, locking up the resources rather than regulating their use. Politically, it arrayed East against West and progressive against conservative; paradoxically, the progressives rather than the conservatives favored conservation. Scientists were also divided; while some stressed the need for research, others urged government control.

Under William Howard Taft, who succeeded Roosevelt as President in March 1909, the conservation movement provided the setting for a battle between progressives and conservatives. Taft was as committed to conservation as Roosevelt but, being a strict constructionist of the law, believed it to be his role to give the Roosevelt program the force of law. His Secretary of the Interior, Richard A. Ballinger, was of like mind. In 1910, Congress undertook an investigation, ostensibly of the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior with regard to certain land claims in Alaska but in reality of loose construction of the law as typified by Gifford Pinchot, the Chief Forester and Roosevelt confidant, and of strict construction as typified by the Secretary of the Interior. The Director of the Survey strongly supported the Secretary, cheerfully accepted greatly increased responsibilities for classification of the public lands, including evaluations of waterpower sites, and sought and eventually obtained the withdrawal of oil bearing lands in California and Wyoming. Although Secretary Ballinger was exonerated by Congress, he was condemned by the public and resigned in 1911. Congress, however, had resolved the question of the legality of the withdrawals by passing the Pickett Act in 1910. Thereafter, the resources of all withdrawn lands except the coal lands, which could be sold after being classified and appraised by the Geological Survey, became unavailable.

In May 1910, while the Ballinger-Pinchot investigation was still underway, Congress established a new agency, the Bureau of Mines, designating the Technologic Branch of the Geological Survey as its nucleus, a designation later changed to require the transfer of the structural-materials testing to the National Bureau of Standards and the mine-accidents and fuel-testing investigations to the Bureau of Mines. George Otis Smith served for a few months as Director of the Bureau of Mines as well as of the Geological Survey until Joseph A. Holmes, who had been head of the Technologic Branch in the Survey, was made Director of the Bureau of Mines. Unlike the spinoff of the Reclamation Service in 1902, which had been accompanied by an increase in the Survey appropriation, this second spinoff from the Geological Survey resulted in a decrease in the appropriation and a greater loss of personnel than the transferred elements of the Technologic Branch.

The Geologic Branch by this time was making an effort to combine some fundamental research with the classification studies. When Chief Geologist Hayes resigned to become the vice president of an oil company in 1911, his successor, Waldemar Lindgren, insisted on the opportunity for research and a reduction in the administrative burden of the office. In 1912, the Land Classification Board was separated from the Geologic Branch and made an independent branch. It had no funds of its own, however, and had to subsist on assessments on the the funds of the other branches. When Lindgren left in 1912 to become a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, paleobotanist David White, even more committed to research, became Chief Geologist. In 1913, to draw attention to the research aspects of the branch's work, a new Professional Paper series, "Shorter Contributions to General Geology," was begun.

In 1914, the Survey faced a new problem. Congressmen from Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern States, reacting to the concentration of Survey work in the public-land States--much as Congressmen 2 decades earlier had reacted to the emphasis on general geology--filed bills to require a more equitable distribution of work, especially of the topographic mapping and water-resources investigations. In retaliation, a Congressman from California proposed an amendment to the appropriations bill to restrict the geologic work of the Survey to the public lands. The House passed the amendment but, fortunately, the Senate and the Conference Committee rejected it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Great Depression began only 7 months after Hoover's inauguration, and efforts to combat it dominated the next decade. Before it began, however, Hoover's interest in science and conservation brought about a change in the Survey's work in several respects, first in conservation activities and then in basic research. In the conservation of the public lands, Hoover recognized three urgent problems: overgrazing, which diminished the value of the lands and imperiled the water supply through destruction of the natural cover; the best method of applying reclamation in order to gain real and enlarged conservation of water resources; and the conservation of oil and gas resources. He took action first on the third problem, announcing on March 12, 1929, that henceforth there would be the greatest possible conservation of Government oil, thereby changing the work of the Conservation Branch with respect to oil and gas leases. The importance given to the conservation of water resources led to a still greater expansion of the Water Resources Branch.

In the fall of 1929, the first Hoover budget called for increased funds for scientific agencies, including $100,000 for fundamental research in geologic sciences, the first substantial increase in Federal funds for geologic investigations since 1915. In the spring of 1930, Congress appropriated $2.87 million for the Geological Survey and also appropriated funds for the expenses of a commission on the conservation and administration of the public domain.

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