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History of the Bureau of Engineering During World War I 

Publication Number 5 

The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published seven monographs on the U.S. Navy and World War I between 1920 and 1923. The monograph History of the Bureau of Engineering was the fifth in the series and was published in 1922. This 2017 essay from NHHC historian Jon Middaugh provides an introduction to the monograph as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I. The text of the monograph itself along with a downloadable PDF is available in the Navy Department Library Online Reading Room.


The confluence of several new capabilities made possible by airplanes, submarines, and radio created a continuously evolving challenge for the Bureau of Steam Engineering in World War I. Complicating the Bureau’s burdens was the Navy’s own rapid expansion as the United States fought from April 1917 through November 1918 in its first large-scale overseas war. Nevertheless, the uniformed and civilian engineers and mechanics managed to develop and field new systems for ships and aircraft that quickly contributed to the fight.

The Bureau of Steam Engineering, which had been established in 1862 and would become simply the Bureau of Engineering in 1920, had a broad mission. Central to its responsibilities was “all that relates to designing, building, fitting out, and repairing machinery used for the propulsion of naval ships.” Its portfolio also encompassed internal and external communications systems for ships and aircraft; equipment for processing salt and fresh water; shipboard maintenance tools, equipment, and supplies; the provision of sources for gas to fill dirigibles; and much more.[1]

Rear Admiral Robert S. Griffin headed the Bureau throughout the war and oversaw an increase in the size and complexity of his organization’s already diverse prewar responsibilities.[2] A fleet of about 350 ships swelled to nearly 2,000 by mid-1918, including over 100 German and Austro-Hungarian vessels the United States interned—but not before they had been sabotaged by their former crews. The U.S. Navy’s establishment of air and radio stations throughout Europe also expanded the amount and types of equipment under the Bureau’s purview. Griffin’s supporting cast of officers therefore grew from 35 before the war to 143 and his civilian ranks likewise expanded.[3] The technical challenges confronting them required the testing and incorporation of new technologies in the unforgiving and pressing laboratory of war. But the fielding of new systems encountered delays due to shortages of materials, transportation snags, or technical dead-ends.[4] The requirement that U.S. ships working closely with the British fleets be able to link to the latter’s systems also added difficulty. Meanwhile, the Bureau navigated contentious litigation cases generated by inventors or companies wanting to ensure they profited financially from their contributions to radio and other powerful new technologies.

The Bureau received assistance from many quarters, however. Expertise came from recalled retirees and from the newly established U.S. Naval Reserve Force, which in the last months of the war became larger than the active force.[5] Industrial giants such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and Ford partnered with the Bureau to develop promising concepts and then leveraged their capacity for large-scale production. The Bureau also attacked problems by working with universities such as M.I.T. and Columbia, employing successful designs from the British Admiralty, and welcoming assistance from Allied scientists such as Nobel laureate Sir Ernest Rutherford.[6]

While many hands helped lighten the load, organizational concepts were also important. Flexibility with public-private contracting needs sometimes meant that the government assisted businesses by paying directly for their plant expansions and equipment or else offering “special rental” rates that ensured companies could make a profit while retooling for a period of unknown duration. But the Bureau often found that using its own engineers yielded more effective designs than what came from the diverse group of ambitious but inexperienced radio or aviation companies. The Navy also pushed hard to standardize equipment to make it easier for operators to use and maintain it. This was especially desirable for a rapidly expanding force that generally had little or no familiarity with the era’s cutting edge technology. Nevertheless, standardization had to be balanced against the need to improve the performance of radios, airplanes and other parts of an interrelated but evolving system. The Army and Navy’s differing operational needs for ostensibly similar craft, for example, created headaches for the engineers working to improve the Liberty aircraft engine. This experience reinforced the Navy’s belief of needing to preserve its own aviation force after the war. It also highlighted the difficulty of producing a “one size fits all” product, a concept that still confronts engineers as is illustrated by the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.[7]

Today Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is the most direct descendant of the Bureau of Engineering, which in 1940 merged with the Bureau of Construction and Repair to form the Bureau of Ships. Subsequent reorganizations resulted in the Naval Ship System Command in 1966 and finally NAVSEA in 1974. This transition resulted from Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s department-wide effort to introduce modern management practices to what he considered a stove-piped organization struggling to integrate the new wave of capabilities associated with computers, nuclear power, and jet propulsion.[8] The largest of the five systems commands, NAVSEA today is responsible for the building of ships, their maintenance and repair, and the procurement of the equipment and systems necessary to keep them operational. Its force of 74,000 civilian, uniformed, and contract support personnel dwarfs the staff of the Bureau during the war. But unlike the Bureau, NAVSEA does not direct the development of aircraft propulsion efforts. Today’s emphasis on engineering multiple communications, maneuver, and fire control systems, however, reflects the legacy of the Bureau’s efforts to integrate a range of powerful new technologies during World War I.[9]

The history of World War I’s Bureau of Steam Engineering sheds light on a remarkable period that ought to inspire and inform us. The United States’ first large-scale overseas conflict posed great challenges for those attempting to rationalize the effort. Great bottlenecks in the manufacturing and supply efforts appeared early and often. Nevertheless, sound concepts such as standardized designs and practical flexibility with private-public contracting efforts helped the Navy to execute the nation’s strategic military objectives. Still, we must also address whether today’s highly sophisticated but relatively limited industrial base would have the raw capacity to expand itself for a large-scale conflict of extended duration. The Navy and military in general depends heavily upon a healthy public-private relationship, and today’s corporate structure may face more pronounced constraints than it did a century ago.[10]

—Jon Middaugh, NHHC



Brown, Harold Gardiner. Ships, Machinery and Mossbacks: The Autobiography of a Naval Engineer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Navy Department. Office of Naval Records and Library Historical Section, “History of the Bureau of Engineering Navy Department During the World War,” 1922.

Schaffer, Ronald. America in the Great War: The Rise of the Welfare State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Sims, William S. The Victory at Sea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.

Still, William. N., Jr. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006.

Winkler, David F. Ready Then. Ready Now. Ready Always: More than a Century of Service by Citizen-Sailors. Washington, D.C.: Navy Reserve Centennial Book Committee, 2014.


[1] Navy Department. Office of Naval Records and Library Historical Section, “History of the Bureau of Engineering Navy Department During the World War,” 1922, v., available at; Naval History and Heritage Command, “Bureau of Steam Engineering,”, accessed 16 March 2017.

[2] Naval History and Heritage Command, “Robert Stanislaus Griffin,”

Accessed 22 March 2017. Griffin was an 1878 graduate of the Naval Academy.

[3] “History of the Bureau of Engineering Navy Department During the World War,” 4, 73-81.

[4] Ronald Schaffer, America in the Great War: The Rise of the War Welfare State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 30-38. At one point during the construction of the Hog Island shipyard, an eleven mile backlog of railroad cars filled with construction materials for the yard had developed outside of the gate. For the country as a whole, the railways between Chicago and the east coast had become so clogged by late 1917 that President Wilson ordered a federal takeover of large swaths of the system.

[5] David F. Winkler, Ready Then. Ready Now. Ready Always: More than a Century of Service by Citizen-Sailors. (Washington, D.C.: Navy Reserve Centennial Book Committee, 2014), 26-43.

[6] “History of the Bureau of Engineering Navy Department During the World War,” 5-8, 33-34.

[7] Anthony C. Robinson, “Averting the Navy’s Tactical Aircraft Crisis,” Proceedings, vol. 139: no. 6 (June 2013), 54-58. The F-35 program aims to serve several U.S. allies as well as the joint services.

[8] Thomas C. Hone, Power and Change: The Administrative History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1946-1986 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1989), 57-73.

[9] Naval Sea Systems Command website,, accessed 22 March 2017;, accessed 19 April 2017.

[10] John L. Birkler, et. al., “Strengthening the Shipbuilding Industry,” Proceedings, vol. 139: no. 12 (December 2013),40-46. 

Published: Wed May 16 10:34:22 EDT 2018