During World War II American torpedoes that struck their targets often wouldn't explode. The U.S. government quickly created two applied physics laboratories, one at the UW and the other at Johns Hopkins University, to find out why. During the war, all the UW laboratory's efforts went into applied research, mostly weapons related, according to John Harlett, deputy director of the laboratory.
Following the war, the lab continued to be nurtured by the War Department (later the Department of Defense) and conducted its program under wartime secrecy, complete with a force of security guards. (The APL building was later to become a target of student demonstrations during the Vietnam War.)
The lab gradually broadened its program, especially in ocean science. In 1969 President Charles Odegaard appointed a special committee to assess the relationship between the APL and the UW. The committee suggested a closer link with academic departments and that the building be an "open" facility.
Soon, experts in high-frequency sound energy looked for civilian uses that could be spun off from research into enemy weapons and submarines. Oceanographers pursued projects into fundamental environmental questions about ocean circulation, storms and the polar ice caps.
Today 250 scientists, engineers, programmers and support staff work at the Applied Physics Laboratory along with 34 graduate students. The laboratory is part of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences with close ties to the School of Oceanography and departments such as atmospheric sciences and electrical engineering. APL is home to both oceanographers and to ocean engineers who devise instruments and computers needed to explore the seas.
About 85 percent of the lab's grants and contracts are with the Navy. One-third is from the Office of Naval Research for fundamental oceanography work--research that may never have direct Navy applications. The Navy needs to know as much about the ocean environment as possible because its fleet operates there, Harlett explains. It's just like the Air Force paying for basic meteorological work.
Cold War Inventions May Help Save the Earth
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