The Revolution in Science in America, 1900–1950

From Firenze University Press Journal: Substantia

University of Florence
2 min readJan 28, 2022


Jack Cohen, Chemistry Department, Ben Gurion University, Be’er Sheva, Israel

Americans are used to thinking of their country as the greatest in the world, both in terms of economic clout and military strength. But few know how it got that way. The fact is that the US became the greatest industrial power, out-performing the UK, its parent country, in industrial out-put (measured as GDP per capita, to correct for different sized populations) around 1890,1 and has been estimated to have out-produced all of Europe around 1917, during World War One.

But in military terms the US had no “regular” Army as generally under-stood until 1913, when Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson organized one, in the form of four divisions assigned to protect each geographical region of the USA. At this time, the UK had a large military force both fighting in and occupying colonies throughout the world. For example, at the Battle of Waterloo in 1813, the British Army, consisting of regular and conscripted forces, numbered around 250,000 men. But, at least until World War One, and more generally until World War Two, the US was still a secondary power, especially in scientific terms.

Most of the great discoveries and basic research that revolutionized Western society were made in Europe, in the UK, Germany and France. But eventually the US out-stripped its European rivals in science too. How this happened is a unique and intriguing story. The first organized attempt to improve US scientific standing was made in 1903 with the formation of the Carnegie Institute of Washington (CIW), founded by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant steel magnate.

He specifically envisaged that the CIW would engage in basic research (without specific applications) in all areas of science. But, over time, the CIW’s impact was limited.The next great attempt to expand American science was made during and after World War Two by Vannevar Bush, an extraordinary intellect, who envisaged an early version of the internet, and who was appointed Adviser for Science and Development by President Roosevelt.

His influence caused a revolution in how science was thought of in America, both by the Government and its people.Most people would be shocked to discover that the US became the great scientific and technological power it is today by ironically exploiting two groups of Germans, first German (and other European) Jewish émigré scientists before World War Two and then German scientists, particularly German rocket and aeronautical engineers, after World War Two. I endeavor to tell the story of how America became the world’s scientific superpower through these developments in science and technology.


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