George Housner's oral history comments on pump lab

by George W. Housner (BS 34 CE, PhD 41 CE)


From the Caltech Archives, the oral history of George W. Housner, dated July 1984, pages 30-32:

Housner: In the 1910's, it became clear to Los Angeles that they wouldn't have enough water. So they set up the project to bring water in from the Owens Valley. In the 1920's, Pasadena saw that it wasn't going to have enough water either. And they undertook to build the Morris Dam in San Gabriel canyon to derive water but saw that they needed a broader supply, that the population was increasing in the area and there had to be extra water brought in. At that time, Professor Franklin Thomas and Professor Robert Daugherty of Caltech were on the Pasadena board of directors, and Samuel Morris was the head of the Pasadena Water and Power Department. Daugherty was also mayor of Pasadena for a while. So they played important roles. The word I get is that they decided there ought to be a cooperative deal. So they went to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles said, "No, you can't have any of our Owens Valley water, unless we annex you." So they drew up a plan and got state approval to form a metropolitan water district. And Franklin Thomas was on the board of directors of that. And that's how the Colorado River Aqueduct was planned and built. And since there was to be a lot of pumping of water through the aqueduct—this was still before the project was completed, around 1930—apparently the question came up, were the pumps any good? At that date, you merely ordered a pump—the manufacturer said, "I make this kind of a pump, and that's it." So the board of directors had their chief engineer contact Professor Daugherty, who had written a book on pumps. He was interested and got a young assistant professor, Robert Knapp, to start working on it. And Knapp and George Wislicanus, who was a graduate student at that time, set up a little lab. The essence of whether they could do the job or not was whether they would be able to make the necessary measurements with the requisite accuracy. Apparently, they worked for a couple of years and were able to show that they could indeed do it. And at that stage, a contract was signed between Caltech and MWD to make these measurements and see how they could improve the pumps. Then Karman came into the picture. Von Karman, Daugherty, and Knapp were sort of the three principals. This lab then moved over into the basement of Guggenheim.

Interviewer: This is the pump lab?

Housner: The pump lab. Before that, I don't think it had an official name; it was just a lab in what used to be the old ME shop building, which is now torn down. Then the project went on there. They were able to make the measurements and show how to improve the pump. When I asked Professor Converse if he remembered, he said that they were able to save $50,000 a year on pumping costs. Of course, that was in 1933 dollars so that would be maybe $700,000 a year now. They did a good job.

Then the Grand Coolee project got underway. I should say this, that one of the reasons for concern was that the Metropolitan Aqueduct pumps were very large for the time. And the Grand Coolee project had even bigger pumps, bigger than anybody had used before. So they also came to the pump lab and asked them to do the same thing for their pumps, which they did. Then, after WWII, well, the pump lab kept going until—I'm not sure, I don't have the dates in my head, but it must have been around 1950 or the early 50's. And then the Feather River project got underway, and they would be pumping even more than the Grand Coolee. And Professor Acosta tells me that he and James Daily—who, when he got his Ph.D. degree from Caltech in 1945 and then worked in the pump lab—they went up and talked to the Department of Water Resources people in Sacramento, thinking they would be doing the same kind of thing for their pumps. But they said, no, all they wanted was verification that they satisfied the specifications, somebody to take the pump and measure and say yes, it satisfies, and we didn't want to do that, so the pump lab died out.

I should mention that during the war, and after the war, what used to be the pump lab got involved in things like launching torpedoes—the kind that you drop form airplanes, and which impact the water surface. They also studied cavitation produced by high-speed objects moving in water. The lab had a large circulating water tunnel for their research.

Interviewer: Who was running the pump lab then?

Housner: Well, I think when Daily left, it gradually got frittered away. I think as long as Knapp was around, they were interested in the experiments—shooting the missiles into the water and so on, making measurements. Some of the people after that were still interested in cavitation measurements. I remember Al Ellis; he's now a professor at UC San Diego I don't know exactly, but I guess they didn't have anybody who wanted to really take hold of it, and they didn't see where they were getting any money, and it just kind of died off.

From the oral history of George W. Housner, dated July 1984, pages 62-63:

Housner: Ed Simmons is the "Renaissance man" you see him walking around on the campus. Have you ever seen him? In tights? He wears tights, a strange looking sort of garb of the 1400s. I don't know why he does that, nobody knows. I knew him in the early days because when I was a graduate student working for my PhD, he was around, and I engaged him to do some work or other. At that time, we thought he was sleeping in the lab. He'd gotten his degree, but he was still hanging around. He was technically a very clever man. When the war broke out, Professor Donald Clark engaged him to work on a research project they had; I think it was war work. He said to Simmons once, "We ought to find some way of measuring what the strains of the material are." And Simmons thought about it, and he took some silver constantine wire that has properties that cause electrical resistivity changes when it's stretched or contracted. So he glued this on, and sure enough, he could measure the strain. Now actually, that was a great invention, because since the war it's being used all over the world—the electrical resistance strain gauge. It turned out to be a very important thing. But the thing got all fouled up when the patents were taken out. Dr. Millikan said, "We'll take the patents out in the name of the school."

Interviewer: Did this make Simmons angry?

Housner: Yes, and he brought suit. He was his own lawyer. He could show he wasn't hired to make inventions for the school; he was just a guy hired to do things in the lab. In this case, there was no patent agreement or anything. So he was awarded the full rights of the patent.

I remember when I was a graduate student, Simmons always wore the same clothes—dirty yellow corduroy trousers and a knitted green sweater buttoned down the front. You never saw him in anything different, so we thought that was all he owned, and probably that's right. This was back in 1940. Then after the war, around 1950, he was given an award by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for this invention. And I saw the photograph of him accepting the award at the meeting. And there he was in his yellow cords and his green sweater. [Laughter] And now he wears these strange costumes.

Last updated 2/16/07.

Christopher E. Brennen