Samuel Wesley Stratton

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Samuel W. Stratton
Samuel Wesley Stratton, 1905.jpg
Samuel Wesley Stratton, 1905
President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In office
Preceded by Elihu Thomson
Succeeded by Karl Taylor Compton
Personal details
Born (1861-07-18)July 18, 1861
Litchfield, Illinois
Died October 18, 1931(1931-10-18) (aged 70)
Boston, Massachusetts
Alma mater Illinois Industrial University at Urbana

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 U.S. 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.

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.[4]

President Herbert Hoover used occasion of Stratton's departure from government service as an opportunity to bemoan the low salaries paid to government scientists.[5]

Samuel Wesley Stratton, 1920s

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 principals. 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.

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


  1. ^ A Century of Physics at the University of Illinois, Gerald Marks Almy, A talk given before the History of Science Society in December, 1967, Accessed 5 June 2017
  2. ^ A History of the College of Engineering of the University of Illinois 1868-1945. Part I. Baker, Ira Osborn; King, Everett E. (Urbana, Il: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign., 1947) Accessed 5 June 2017
  3. ^ a b Time: Science: "Stratton and Edison," July 25, 1923, accessed Dec 25, 2009
  4. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 14 February 2011. 
  5. ^ New York Times: "Elect Dr. Stratton President of M.I.T.," October 12, 1922, accessed Dec. 20, 2009
  6. ^ New York Times: "M.I.T. Inaugurates Stratton as Head," June 12, 1923, accessed Dec 19, 2009
  7. ^ New York Times: "Appoints Advisers for Sacco Inquiry," June 2, 1927, accessed January 6, 2010
  8. ^ Bruce Watson, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind (NY: Viking, 2007), 311-3
  9. ^ New York Times: "Elect dr. Stratton President of M.I.T.," October 12, 1922, accessed Dec. 20, 2009
  10. ^ New York Times: "Dr. S.W. Stratton, Educator, is Dead," October 19, 1931, accessed Dec 18, 2009
  11. ^ Find a Grave: Samuel Wesley Stratton, accessed Dec. 21, 2009


External links[edit]

Media related to Samuel Wesley Stratton at Wikimedia Commons