Midwest Research Institute’s Early Technology – A Photo Essay

(originally published 7/16/20)

Last week, I shared some of Midwest Research Institute’s early history. A hallmark of those early days was the struggle to stay current with, or even just acquire, the high-dollar, over-sized equipment that was necessary for “hard” science research. The whole field of instrumentation was evolving. The market for that equipment was small, and those who understood, built, installed or maintained it were few and far between. For its first projects, MRI often borrowed equipment from their client to perform the research, all the while hoping that the client might “forget” they loaned it out. No such luck.

Even when I arrived in the early 1980s, things were not as up to date as one might think if one only has a 21st century perspective. Most of us in the Economics and Social Sciences Department didn’t need fancy equipment, but we were still calculating with adding machines. It wasn’t just that these machines weren’t electronic, they didn’t even run on electricity. All manual, punch in the numbers, pull the handle down, listen for the big “ca-chunk” and so forth. No hard feelings nor disrespect. The cost of keeping current on equipment was and probably still is, an ongoing challenge for the Institute. But we got there. By the time I left as an employee 8 years later, most people had a PC.

So this little photo essay is an “homage montage” to the early years at MRI when scientists not only had to be innovative in their methods, but also in their mechanics, a time when references to working with “chewing gum and baling wire” were not that far-fetched. In keeping with that spirit, the captions that accompany the pictures here were the same ones that accompanied them in Charles N. Kimball’s book “Midwest Research Institute: Some Recollections of the First Fifty Years – 1945 -1975,” (hereinafter MRI30) which was the source of last week’s piece as well.

Nothing Up My Sleeve!

“Gained through hard work, not magic, MRI’s first project was nevertheless celebrated with good humor in an early photograph.” (Image courtesy MRI30)

Let’s be honest. It’s not that scientific types don’t have a sense of humor. They do. What they often lack is a sense of whimsy, which is what struck me about this photo. This literal interpretation of a scientific discovery as equivalent to “pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” is – admit it – kind of charming. But to my original point, of all the many photos in MRI30, this is the only one with any sense of whimsy. After all, science is serious business. By the way, the fellow left rear, gazing at the bunny and holding the hat, is the infamous and beloved Charlie Kimball, the “father” of MRI.

Science Fact – Stranger than Science Fiction?

In a world where there’s more computing capacity in your smartphone than there was on an Apollo guidance system, the equipment shown below seems more like the gizmos of a Saturday matinee sci-fi flick than state-of-the-art systems. But state-of-the-art it was in their respective periods – roughly 40s, 50s and 60s left to right.

(left) “Equipment was scarce in the beginning and what MRI had was often secondhand or borrowed. A 1946 electronics bench looks primitive by today’s standards. (center) “Paul Constant, electrical engineer, worked with the hydraulic analog computer planning water distributing systems in Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi and Nebraska, 1952.” (right) “The accident rate for aircraft landing on carriers at sea and to the US Navy’s program at MRI to develop methods of tracking wind speed and gusts to reduce these hazards.”

Chewing Gum and Baling Wire

With the sort of equipment in use in MRI’s early years, it makes sense that repair/customization was often DIY. But don’t discount the technical skills (soldering, wiring, fabrication, etc.) and the wonderful ingenuity and inventiveness of a scientist. Such talents might as well be part of the job description, so prevalent are they. The images below attest to that. From (left to right) having to innovate a new technology for an urgent need, to customizing the equipment for the subject, to finding equipment at hand for new applications, these scientists were handy to have around the MRI house.

(left) “After the 1951 flood, the worst in Kansas City’s history, MRI’s researchers used stress gauges attached to oil storage tanks to measure possible stress fracture.” (center) “A special assignment for MRI was the transfer of NASA’s life science findings to the health care industry.” (right) “New methods of measuring air speeds of helicopters were found for Bell Helicopter Corp. in 1959.”

Rosie the Researcher

World War II gave women employment opportunities they might otherwise never have had. But for most women, those jobs disappeared when the war ended. And, too, most jobs women held were not jobs yet elevated to a professional level where a woman would have been considered as a candidate. Yet, as they say, “she persisted.” To the Institute’s credit, women were a part of MRI from the beginning, even if in the early years their roles were too often relegated to administrative and supportive research roles. By the time I came in the early 80s, there were a fair number of women at all levels and in all roles, including as principal scientists and division and department leadership. There could have been more. I hope by now there are.

(left) “Staff members in the home economics section evaluated restaurant equipment, conducted food-related studies, and experimented with detergents , laundry methods and coffee brewing.” (center) “Studying ‘dishpan hands’ helped in the evaluation of detergents for skin irritation in early MRI experiments.” (right) “Research associates in the Chemistry Division in 1945. Most of the Institute’s early projects were in the chemistry field.

Strange Places

A research institute sounds like a pretty sterile place to work, but a lot of the work spaces were about as quirky as they get, as the photos below show. Not pictured but worth mentioning is the Deramus Field Station. Just a few blocks south of Main Street in Grandview, the station sits on 125 acres, including a lake, donating by the Deramus family in 1957, and used primarily for environmental projects and anything requiring being outdoors. Let your imagination run where it might. I don’t know what went on there – I’ve never been on site.

(left) The original caption for this picture talked only about the testing, but it’s included here to point out that the original MRI labs were in the fire engine bays of the old Westport Fire Station, as evidenced by the large arched doors in the background. (center) “The Barstow School loft, once an art studio, served many purposes for the Economics Division.” (right) “A permit for the Institute to handle radioactive materials came in the mid-1940s.”

Modern Times

Even during its early years, and for all its quirkiness, MRI really has made some significant contributions. The images below represent just a few of those, chosen because the focus of the research is something most of us have seen at work during the course of our lives.

(left) “Bioengineering done in collaboration with the Kansas University Medical Center resulted in an early heart-lung machine, a forerunner of those used in cardiac surgery today.” (center) “A scale model of the Apollo was used to study the effect of sun on the spacecraft. Studies simulating the sun’s heat showed that spacecraft could be slowly rotated to distribute heat and cold. This discovery is still important to space exploration today.” (right) “The role of automobile exhaust in creating smog was confirmed by a 1955 project sponsored by the Southern California Air Pollution Foundation. The effects of sunlight on engine exhaust were measured in a greenhouse behind the Institute.”

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