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Samuel W. Stratton papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0008

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Stratton papers consist of correspondence, biographical material, scrapbooks, reports, minutes, speeches, articles, and printed material. With the exception of the speech file, the collection does not directly relate to his position as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The papers have been arranged into four series: 1. Biographical Materials, 2. Correspondence and Scrapbooks of Letters, 3. Subject Files, and 4. Writings and Clippings.

There is substantive biographical material in the collection because Samuel Prescott started to write a biography of his friend after Stratton's death in 1931. With the help of Stratton's personal secretary and companion, Morris Parris, Prescott acquired recollections from Stratton's old friends. The recollections are in series 1 and in some of the correspondence of series 2. While the biography was never finished, series 1 does contain manuscript drafts on Stratton's early life as well as genealogical information on the Stratton family. Further biographical information is provided through obituaries and a short autobiographical sketch in a letter (February 10, 1914) to the president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The bulk and the most significant part of the Stratton collection is concerned with the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). Stratton was instrumental in establishing the NBS, and his efforts are reflected in the collection. Many of the responses to his appeal for support of the NBS are in the form of personal letters and resolutions from the American Chemical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and many other prominent scientific groups. At Stratton's behest, manufacturers and scientists wrote to their senators and congressmen urging them to support the NBS bill, and these resolutions and letters are in series 2. Series 3 contains other material that helps to trace the origins of the NBS, such as transcripts and notes from the Congressional Hearings on the bill and Stratton's report to the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard and Geodetic Survey which recommends establishment of the NBS. A report on the advantages of an NBS and salary and other budgetary recommendations are also in series 3.

Most of the material in the collection relating to the NBS is about its establishment, but there are some records from Stratton's years as director of the NBS. These records include blueprints and plans submitted by various land owners, which are concerned with the NBS's location. There are also a number of reports on the development of standard methods for various items and reports and articles about the NBS's progress. Speeches and printed articles that relate to the NBS appear in series 4.

Stratton was a reserve officer for the military. The collection contains reports and correspondence about a court martial as well as clippings and letters of command during the Spanish-American War. As a civilian, Stratton continued to support the military through speeches and other activities. Series 4 contains some speeches that Stratton gave for the military, such as "Creative Spirit in the Navy," which was delivered at the Naval War College. He served on the Submarine Safety Board for the U.S. Navy from June 1928 until March 1929. The collection contains correspondence, minutes, memoranda, and notes concerning the Board's activities. Drafts of the final report are in series 3 (see folder 84) and correspondence is in series 2. Because a Naval submarine sank in 1927, the Safety Board was formed to study and recommend a variety of safety features for submarines. Other members of the Board included Dr. Willis R. Whitney, Captain Thomas A. Scott, and Rear Admirals Joseph Strauss and David W. Taylor.

Series II also contains some correspondence concerned with the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics on which Stratton served.

Stratton was appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to serve on a committee to investigate the verdict of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. With Judge Robert Grant and A. Lawrence Lowell, Stratton reviewed the trial transcript (see folders 65-80) and decided that the trial was fair. The collection does not include the final report or any other material that was generated by the committee as a whole. However, the correspondence does contain letters from the public expressing opinions about the trial and a few letters from other members of the committee. Some newspaper and magazine articles concerning the trial may be found in series 4.

There is little material from Stratton's early career as a physics professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago. In series 4 there are formulas and a formula book and some reprints of Stratton's scientific articles. Series 2 contains a few letters and a scrapbook from the University of Chicago.

Most of Stratton's speeches (series 4) were delivered while he was president of MIT, and they are usually given in his role as president. The speeches are addressed to annual alumni gatherings, student assemblies, and commencement audiences. Stratton also spoke to manufacturing groups, such as the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers and the Cotton Thread Manufacturers, often on the subject of research in industry and science.


  • 1881 - 1934


Access note

This collection is open.

Digital Access Note

Some parts of this collection are available online. Links to specific online digital items are found within their entry in this finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


Samuel Wesley Stratton's father grew up in Litchfield, Illinois, and went into stock farming and later into lumbering. He married a widow, Mrs. Mary Webster Philips, and Stratton was born on the Litchfield farm on July 18, 1861. In 1880, Stratton left the farm to study at the Illinois Industrial University at Urbana, which later became the University of Illinois, and enrolled in the course entitled "machine shop practice."

Stratton worked part-time while attending the university. During his last two years of study Stratton lived with the University's president, Dr. Delim H. Peabody. In exchange, he maintained the president's grounds. In 1884, Stratton received a completion certificate from the university and started teaching. With the submission of his thesis, "The Design of a Heliostat," he received his B.S. degree in 1886.

Stratton was an instructor of mathematics and physics at the University of Illinois from 1884 until 1889, when he became assistant professor of physics. In 1890, Stratton organized a course in electrical engineering and became professor of physics and electrical engineering.

At the request of Professor Albert A. Michelson, Stratton joined the University of Chicago's faculty as assistant professor of physics in 1892. He helped to organize the Ryerson Physical Laboratory, which Michelson directed. Stratton's major research at the lab was in interferometry. Michelson and Stratton collaborated on at least two papers, "Harmonic Analysis" and "The Source of X-rays." Stratton became associate professor in 1895 and professor in 1900.

While attending college Stratton was a cadet captain of a battalion, and in Chicago he and Michelson organized a voluntary naval militia. Stratton was in charge of one unit of the battalion. The Spanish-American War started in 1898 and Stratton became a commissioned lieutenant. He took the Chicago battalion to Key West, Florida, for active duty and served on several vessels before he was discharged in November 1898.

Stratton returned to Chicago in the fall of 1898. The following year he was to go on sabbatical in France, but the Secretary of the Treasury, Lyman J. Gage, at the behest of both the Assistant Secretary, Frank A. Vanderlip, and the Superintendent of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, Dr. Henry S. Pritchett, asked Stratton to head the Survey's Office of Weights and Measures. Stratton gave up his European plans and agreed to take the position temporarily in order to develop a plan for the establishment of a bureau of standards. In October of 1899, Stratton was formally appointed Inspector of Standard Weights and Measures. Pritchett and Gage agreed with Stratton's plans and a bill was drafted asking Congress to establish a national bureau.

Throughout 1900, Stratton contacted manufacturers and scientists, asking for their support of the bill. He received widespread backing through both letters and testimony to Congress. The law establishing the National Bureau of Standards passed in March of 1901 and went into effect in July. President McKinley appointed Stratton its director soon after the bill's passage. As director, Stratton found a site for the laboratory, planned its equipment, and hired personnel. He contributed to choosing members of the visiting committee that advised the Bureau. Stratton remained as the director of the National Bureau of Standards for twenty-one years and helped to foster its growth. The Bureau started as a small part of the Treasury Department and was a large agency within the Department of Commerce when Stratton left.

Stratton's interest in education did not wane when he stopped teaching. At the National Bureau of Standards he created a program of graduate science courses for employees. The program continues today.

In January of 1923, Stratton became the eighth president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At the Institute Stratton encouraged research in engineering, industrial processes, and in pure science as well as expansion into new fields of applied science. It was during his term that salaries were increased, a dean of graduate students was appointed, and the departments of Hygiene, Building Construction, and Fuel and Gas Engineering were created. The campus also expanded with the erection of dormitories, the Guggenheim Laboratory, and the Homberg Memorial Infirmary. After seven years in office, Stratton became the first chair of the Corporation and Karl Taylor Compton assumed the presidency.

In addition to his primary administrative functions, Stratton was on the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics for many years. He also served as an expert consultant for the Department of the Interior, on the Board of Visitors at the United States Naval Academy and on the Advisory Committee for the American Delegation for the Conference on Limitation of Armaments. While at MIT, he became a member of the visiting committee to the National Bureau of Standards and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Museum of Peaceful Arts. With A. Lawrence Lowell and Judge Robert Grant, Stratton served on a committee appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts which investigated the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti. They found the trial fair, despite public pressure to exonerate the defendants. From June 1928 to March 1929, Stratton served on the Navy's Submarine Safety Board.

As a scientist and as an educator, Stratton received many honors. While he never earned a doctorate, he was given a number of honorary degrees: Dr. Eng. from the University of Illinois; D.Sc. degrees from the universities of Pittsburgh, Cambridge, and Yale; a Ph.D. from Rensselaer; and an LL.D. from Harvard. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Councillor of the American Philosophical Society, and honorary vice-president of the Association of International Patentees and an honorary member of the Optical Society, the University Club, and the Algonquin Club. As a member of the National Research Council he served on the Technical Committee of the Patent Office and on the Division of Foreign Relations. In 1919 he served as a delegate to the International Research Council for the National Research Council. Stratton was awarded the National Academy of Sciences medal for Emminence in Application of Science to the Public Welfare; he also received the Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute. Internationally, Stratton was a chevalier and an officer of the Legion of Honor. He was chair of the International Conference on Weights and Measures and vice president of the Committee of Organization for the International Congress of Electricity. Stratton also served on the selection committee for the Coffin Medal of the National Light Association and for the Byrd Medal of the Military Order of the World War. He was a member of many organizations including the National Academy of Sciences, the International Association of Weights and Measures and several engineering societies.

Samuel Stratton died on October 18, 1931. In 1962, the National Bureau of Standards established an annual Stratton Award for an employee who accomplished outstanding scientific or engineering achievements.


4 Cubic Feet (9 manuscript boxes, 2 volumes in 2 flat storage boxes)

Language of Materials



Samuel Wesley Stratton was the eighth president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), serving from 1923 to 1930. In 1931 he became the first chairman of the MIT Corporation. Earlier, as head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Office of Weights and Measures, he developed the plan for a bureau of standards. The bill establishing the National Bureau of Standards was passed in 1901, and Stratton served as its first director for twenty-one years. The bulk of the collection documents his efforts to gain support for the establishment of the Bureau. Also in the collection are biographical materials, scrapbooks, minutes, and articles. With the exception of the speech file, the collection does not directly relate to his position as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Related Materials in the Institute Archives and Special Collections

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the President Records, 1883-1930 (AC 13).

John Ripley Freeman Papers, 1876-1932 (MC 51).

Dugald Caleb Jackson Papers, 1878-1952 (MC 5).


  • Cochrane, Rexmond C. Measures for Progress. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1966.
  • Prescott, Samuel. Samuel Wesley Stratton (1861-1931). Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 69, No. 13, February, 1935, pp. 544-547.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Guide to the Papers of Samuel W. Stratton
Ready For Review
Mary Jane McCavitt
(Copyright 1980)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of the collection was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 21: Edited by Lana Mason for compliance with DACS single-level optimum requirements.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
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