Samuel Wesley Stratton

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Samuel W. Stratton
Stratton in 1918
8th President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In office
January 1, 1923 (1923-01-01) – January 30, 1930 (1930-01-30)
Preceded byElihu Thomson (acting)
Succeeded byKarl Taylor Compton
1st Director of the National Bureau of Standards
In office
March 11, 1901 (1901-03-11) – December 31, 1922 (1922-12-31)
Succeeded byGeorge K. Burgess
Personal details
Born(1861-07-18)July 18, 1861
Litchfield, Illinois, US
DiedOctober 18, 1931(1931-10-18) (aged 70)
Boston, Massachusetts, US
Resting placeMountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California
Alma materIllinois Industrial University at Urbana
Academic work

Samuel Wesley Stratton (July 18, 1861 – October 18, 1931) was an administrator in the American government, physicist, and educator.

Life and work[edit]

Stratton was born on farm in Litchfield, Illinois on July 18, 1861. In his youth he kept farm machinery in repair and worked as a mechanic and carpenter. He worked his way through Illinois Industrial University at Urbana (later the University of Illinois), receiving his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1884. He became an instructor in mathematics and physics following his graduation, and in 1889, when Physics department head Theodore B. Comstock, Professor of Mining Engineering and Physics, inexplicably failed to return to campus after the summer vacation, Stratton was appointed head[1] of the Department of Physics by regent Selim Hobart Peabody. As Physics head, Stratton organized a formal curriculum in electrical engineering, which was taught in the Physics Department until a separate department of electrical engineering was established in 1898.[2] Stratton moved to the University of Chicago in 1892 as Assistant Professor of Physics, then Associate Professor in 1895 and Professor in 1898.

Stratton served in the Illinois Naval Militia from 1895, as a lieutenant in the Navy in the Spanish–American War, and from 1904 to 1912 served as commander in charge of the Naval Militia in the District of Columbia.

Dr. Stratton in the Evening Star, 1901

In 1899 he was asked to head the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey's Office of Weights and Measures, where he developed the plan for the establishment of a bureau of standards. He won the support for his plans from Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage and in March 1901, President William McKinley appointed him the first director of the National Bureau of Standards. He served until 1923. Under his leadership it grew from 24 to 900 employees scattered over 14 buildings. His operation was designed to recruit recent college graduates, train them, and feed them into private industry and its higher salaries. His team was called "lowest-paid corps of first-rank scientists ever assembled by any government."[3] The Bureau worked hand in glove with industry to undertake research that the private sector required but could not finance itself.

In 1904, he was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society.[4]

He was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal of The Franklin Institute in 1912. In 1917 Stratton was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.[5]

His boss, then Secretary of Commerce (later President) Herbert Hoover had used the occasion of Stratton's departure from government service as an opportunity to bemoan the low salaries paid to government scientists.[6]

Stratton in 1905
Stratton at the Fourth Conference International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research at Mount Wilson Observatory, 1910

Note that the Stratton Student Center on the MIT campus is dedicated to a different former president of MIT, Julius Adams Stratton.

In January 1923 he became the eighth president of M.I.T. and served for seven years. In his inaugural address he said: "The terms pure and applied science have not the same distinction as formerly. The same men, methods and equipment are involved in getting at the facts, whether they are needed in solving problems in industry or in extending our knowledge of principles. There are few cases of the latter that do not find immediate application." Tying education to industry, he said that industry that had once been slow to seize upon scientific advances was now demanding them.[7] As recounted by Time magazine, "he demonstrated the economic wisdom of generous support for research in pure science. He said that the automotive industry must find a substitute for gasoline, on which the elder Edison commented that the electric storage battery has already filled the bill. Edison looks for all transportation and industry to be electrified."[3]

In 1927, he served as one of three members as an Advisory Committee to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, along with President Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard and Probate Judge Robert Grant. They were tasked with reviewing the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti to determine whether the trial had been fair.[8] Stratton, the one member who was not a Boston Brahmin, maintained the lowest public profile of the three committee members and hardly spoke during its hearings.[9]

Upon his retirement in 1930 he became the first chairman of the MIT Corporation under a new plan of organization that he had devised. A lifelong bachelor, Stratton belonged to numerous private clubs. The carpentry he learned in his youth remained a lifelong hobby.

France made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1909, and he received honorary degrees from the University of Cambridge and Yale University among others.[6]

On October 18, 1931, he died of heart disease at his home in Boston's Back Bay while dictating a tribute to his friend Thomas Edison, who died earlier in the day.[10]

He is buried at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California.[11]

The Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards, has presented the Samuel Wesley Stratton Award annually since 1962 for outstanding scientific or engineering achievements in support of the objectives of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


  1. ^ Almy, Gerald Marks (December 1967). "A Century of Physics at the University of Illinois: A talk given before the History of Science Society in December 1967". University of Illinois. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  2. ^ Baker, Ira Osborn; King, Everett E. (1947). A History of the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois 1868-1945. Part I. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved June 5, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Science: Stratton and Edison". Time. July 25, 1923. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved December 25, 2009.
  4. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-06-28.
  5. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved February 14, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "Elect Dr. Stratton President of M.I.T.". New York Times. October 12, 1922. Retrieved December 20, 2009.
  7. ^ "M.I.T. Inaugurates Stratton as Head". New York Times. June 12, 1923. Retrieved December 19, 2009.
  8. ^ "Appoints Advisers for Sacco Inquiry". New York Times. June 2, 1927. Retrieved January 6, 2010.
  9. ^ Watson, Bruce (2007). Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Viking. pp. 311–3. ISBN 978-0670063536.
  10. ^ "Dr. S.W. Stratton, Educator, is Dead". New York Times. October 19, 1931. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  11. ^ "Obituary: Stratton". Los Angeles Times. October 25, 1931. p. 22. Private funeral services for Dr. Samuel Wesley Stratton. who passed away October 18 in Boston, Mass., will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the grave in Mountain View Cemetery, Pasadena. Alternate Link via ProQuest.


External links[edit]

Media related to Samuel Wesley Stratton at Wikimedia Commons

Government offices
New office 1st Director of the National Bureau of Standards
1901 – 1922
Succeeded by
Academic offices
Preceded by 8th President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1923 – 1930
Succeeded by