Exhibit - Lyman Briggs
On May 7, 1874, Lyman James Briggs was born on a farm just north of Battle Creek, Michigan. Briggs grew up on the family farm and in 1889, at the age of 15 entered Michigan Agricultural College where he would graduate with a degree in Agriculture in 1893. He went on to receive a M.S. in physics at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. In 1896, Briggs married his college sweetheart Katharine Cook and took a job in the Department of Agriculture in the Bureau of Soils to support his marriage.
Once Briggs’ education was complete he began his research in the field of soil physics, leading to the development of moisture equivalent classification method for soils. Briggs also worked with ecologist H. L. Shantz, publishing research on the relationships between environmental factors and water requirements of plants.
Briggs’ work in the Department of Agriculture began to turn heads and in the run up to World War I was requested by the Department of Commerce to join the Bureau of Standards. Briggs was tasked to organize a division within the Bureau to develop a certification of gauges for the manufacture of munitions. Briggs was also assigned other projects during this time, including the development of a stable zenith instrument for the Navy and to construct a wind tunnel for aeronautical research. Due to the success of his projects, Briggs was given a permanent appointment as the chief of Mechanics and Sound Division, where he expanded his research into aeronautics and helped invent the compass Charles Lindberg would use to fly across the Atlantic.
In 1932, Briggs was named acting director of the Bureau of Standards by President Herbert Hoover and was officially nominated to the position by President Franklin Roosevelt. During the depression Briggs was tasked with keeping the Bureau afloat despite budget cuts. Briggs kept the Bureau viable during these years and in 1939 was called to the White House and tasked with a top-secret investigation into atomic power.
Named as chairman of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, Briggs soon began to prove the possibility of atomic power and weaponry. The committee was absorbed into the National Defense Research Committee where Briggs and his fellow scientists furthered their research and ultimately recommended a determined effort to develop an atomic weapon. The project was taken over by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the Manhattan Project was formed from the research Briggs and his colleagues conducted.
After the war, Briggs retired from the Bureau and returned to his research. Briggs embarked on a wide variety of topics, including finding out if a curveball really curves, helping with a stratospheric balloon flight, studying eclipses around the world, and much more. Briggs also enjoyed spending time with his daughter Isabel and his two grandchildren. Briggs enjoyed watching baseball, cheering on the Detroit Tigers and playing billiards. Throughout his lifetime Briggs received numerous awards and honors and was highly published within the scientific community.
Lyman Briggs passed away in his sleep March 25, 1963 at the age of 88.
Exhibit created by Jake Makowski
Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections