Helium – Child of the Sun
Reprinted with Publisher’s Permission
Chapter 3 – Sciences Harnesses the Golden Ray
Cady and McFarland seemed to lose interest in helium soon after the publication of their monumental paper on the subject. Perhaps it was due to other activities, or because there seemed to be no use for the rare gas. However, they did not devote some time to setting up a new spectroscope. As a means of calibrating it, they made use of an electric arc with iron electrodes. In a hurry to get underway, they overlooked the fact that close and prolonged exposure to such a light would result in an exaggerated case of sunburn. They were queer looking specimens for a few days, with one side of their faces burned a fiery red. I later used the calibration curve of the new instrument in connection with my thesis study on rare gases found in natural gas.
Dr. Cady’s notebooks furnished every indication that he and Dr. McFarland intended to investigate the possibility that natural gas might contain other unusual substances besides helium. In those days such a study would have involved lengthy and tedious procedures. The outcome was, of course, in doubt, so they must have postponed the undertaking in favor of greener pastures. As events proved, however, Cady was quite willing to pass the chore to a less sophisticated experimenter.
When I joined the faculty of the University of Kansas as a chemistry instructor, Dr. Cady suggested that I might consider as my thesis subject a resurvey of helium in natural gases. The idea was to obtain samples of gas from the same sources reported ten years earlier, to analyze them and determine if there had been any change in composition. Cady’s suggestion was not at all appealing to me at the time, and I accepted the assignment with reluctance. By a queer twist of fate, that thesis was the start of almost 50 years of work in developing helium from a chemical curiosity into one of the country’s most valuable assets.
My lack of enthusiasm for the new undertaking must have been contagious, for it soon became evident that samples from the existing old wells would not be forthcoming unless a personal visit could be made to each location. The indifference of the well owners, coupled with a lack of finances, caused a change in the assignment. My new objective involved a determination of the presence and percentage of the five rare gases in natural gas. One large sample of gas had been obtained. Now the unfinished Cady-McFarland project was activated.
As anticipated, the work went slowly. However, by the time of the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society that was held in Kansas City, Mo., April, 1917, my manuscript on “The Rare Gases of Natural Gas” was scheduled for presentation. When I finished reading the paper, still thinking of the many hours spent on a seemingly valueless undertaking, I expressed regret that the study had no practical application and awaited the few questions I hoped would come. Little did I realize that the discussions which were to follow would, like a rolling snowball, soon develop into a full-scale avalanche.
Perhaps it was prophetic that Dr. Richard B. Moore, a former student of Sir William Ramsay, attended that Kansas City meeting. He was then superintendent of a Bureau of Mines station at Golden, Colo., where he was directing the production of radium bromide. His own thesis, under Ramsay, had been on rare gases. Gaining recognition from the chair, he read a letter dated February 28, 1915, written by Sir William, as follows: “I have been investigating blowers, that is, cold, damp rushes of gas, for helium for our Government. There does not appear to be any in our English blowers, but I am getting samples from Canada and the United States. The idea is to use helium for airships.”
“There,” said Moore “is your practical application.”
At the time, the idea sounded ridiculous to me. I had in my possession practically all of the helium available in the United States (less than half a cubic foot), and I sold small amounts of it for experimental uses at the rate of $2,500 per cubic foot. I could hardly wait to engage Dr. Moore in private conversation and to explain how impossible Ramsay’s idea was. Even a small blimp would require a hundred thousand cubic feet, and the entire American supply was definitely less than one cubic foot. No method for commercial production was known, and at the current price it would cost more than 200 million dollars to fill a single dirigible. Dr. Moore was not in the least dismayed, and he replied, “You are young! You don’t have the vision. It will be perfectly practical to fill airships with helium even if you now sell it for such an astronomical figure.” Time was to prove that he had the vision I lacked.
Dr. Moore almost immediately discussed the matter with his colleague Dr. Charles L. Parsons, chief chemist of the Bureau of Mines, who was also present at the meeting. Moore insisted that the possibility of producing helium for dirigibles should be placed before appropriate government officials.
Later in discussing the overall situation with me, Moore explained that for many months he had been wondering what to do with the Ramsay letter. The United States was not in the war at the time, and he hesitated to bring it to the attention of military officials. The United States had entered the war just six days prior to the Kansas City meeting, and the paper on helium gave him the perfect opportunity to present the contents of the Ramsay letter to the leading scientists of our country.
In his letter, Ramsay was voicing the idea of Sir Richard Threlfall, a member of the British Admiralty. Some years later, I had an opportunity to discuss the idea of using helium in the lighter-than-air craft with Sir Richard. The Germans, he said, had made a shambles of parts of London by dropping bombs from high-flying dirigibles. The zeppelins often flew at 16,000 feet, an elevation not reached by airplanes of that day. For a time it seemed impossible to counter their devastating attack. Then it was discovered that the hydrogen-filled ships were extremely vulnerable to a skyrocket type of projectile. A falling spark from such a weapon would burn a hole in the hydrogen-filled envelope, ignite the escaping gas, and bring the monster down – a mass a flames. Just when the new anti-dirigible weapon was reaching its peak efficiency, Threlfall heard with dismay that the Germans were preparing to fill their airships with a nonexplosive lifting medium. Notwithstanding the fact that there was probably not a cubic foot of it in the entire British empire, he immediately suggested that serious efforts should be made to produce helium in quantity.
The history of the development of the lighter-than-air ship is a fascinating story that began when ancient Chinese astronomers discovered that certain gases could be confined in a light fabric and rise in the air. In 1783, three Frenchmen (the Mongolfier brothers and the gentleman DeRozier) and our own Benjamin Franklin became interested in utilizing this phenomenon to achieve manned flight. DeRozier is credited with making the first hot-air free balloon ascension in November, 1783. Hydrogen was first used as an inflating gas in the same year. The co-discoverer of the nature of the sun’s chromosphere, Pierre Janssen, escaped from Paris in a hydrogen-filled free balloon during the siege of 1872.
During the Civil War, the Union Army used two captive balloons for observation posts. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, then 24 years of age, was a military attache` of the German Embassy in the United States at the time; and he is credited with aiding, if not actually fighting, on the Union side. As a result of witnessing the operation of the balloons which were used as observation posts during the war, the Count first conceived the idea of rigid-type airship.
The first power-driven, lighter-than-aircraft was produced by Henri Giffard. Driven by a steam engine, Giffard’s airship could reach the daring speed of five miles per hour under favorable conditions. However, it was Count von Zeppelin who developed the lighter-than-air ship into a practical means of transportation. Like most inventors, he had his ups and downs, and he was forced to use his personal funds for many years. Eventually his ideas regarding airship design and operations were proved to be technically sound, and in 1902 he formed the German Airship Transportation Company. Thus it was that Germany had a head start in the use of hydrogen-filled dirigibles as an instrument of war at the beginning of World War 1.
A search for a source of helium in England proved fruitless, so in late 1915, when Dr. John C. McLennan, head of the physics department of the University of Toronto, asked the British Admiralty what he and his colleagues could do to help in the war effort, Threlfall immediately suggested that they should investigate possible sources of helium in Canada and the United States. A monetary grant for the purpose was provided.
McLennan set about obtaining samples of gas from Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, and even New Zealand. The samples were analyzed at the University of Toronto, and the results were discouraging; compared to the 1.84 percent helium gas known to exist at Dexter, Kan., the gas from the richest source in Canada (the Bow Island field in Alberta) showed a mere 0.36 percent helium.
The Toronto University professor, however, had great powers of persuasion, and through his efforts, the L’Air Liquide Company of Toronto made a “Claude” oxygen column available. Since the unit successfully separated oxygen from the other gases of air, it was expected that it could separate helium from natural gas. Near the end of 1917, the construction of the world’s first helium plant, near Hamilton, Ontario, was underway. The available gas supply contained 0.33 percent of helium.
Responsibility for the success of the undertaking was placed in the hands of Professor John Satterly, who was “in charge of all monies,” engineer John Patterson, and his assistant, R. J. Lang. During the construction, Patterson and Satterly, wishing to take advantage of any “know how” on the subject, spent most of the month of October visiting with officials of the United States. Their travels took them to Washington, D.C., then to Fort Worth, Tex., and from there to Lawrence, Kan., where they talked with Cady and me.
When the two arrived, John Satterly at once became the center of interest. His hands and arms were bandaged to the elbow, his face was scorched, and a great deal of his hair was missing. He explained that while he was working in the laboratory, a large spherical Dewar flask containing liquid oxygen had broken. The liquid had saturated the cotton batting in which the flask had been packed. Someone had mentioned that the Germans were trying to augment their dwindling supply of smokeless powder by using just such a combination – cotton wool and liquid oxygen. Satterly, thinking they might must be joking, remarked “you couldn’t make that stuff explode,” and touched a match to it. There was a violent explosion. In Satterly’s words: “A sudden uprush of fire and burnt wool followed, which hurt me horribly about the face and hands. The hot blast ruckled the skin on the back of my hands, burned my face, and removed the hair from the front of my head. Luckily I heal well.” He went on to say that later in his lectures on liquid air he repeated the experiment, taking care to use less liquid oxygen and cotton batting, and to replace the match by a candle wired to the end of a meter stick.
Back in Canada, fortified with information obtained at Cady’s laboratory, the two men and their assistants started the plant at Hamilton, Ontario, and in February, 1918, they were able to produce a small quantity of 87 percent helium. Unfortunately, the helium-bearing gas supply at Hamilton became depleted shortly after the plant began operating, and eventually it was relocated at Calgary, Alberta. Due in part to the unsatisfactory gas supply, the undertaking was not too successful, and in April, 1920, the Admiralty “closed its purse string.” The plant was shut down and eventually dismantled. Although the plant had been designed in the hopes of producing 30,000 cubic feet of helium per month, the total production throughout its life was probably in the neighborhood of 60,000 cubic feet of a gas that ranged from 60 to 90 percent helium.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Dr. Parsons had returned to Washington from the April, 1917, meeting of the American Chemical Society in Kansas City, and placed the suggestion of using helium in dirigibles and balloons before the director of the Bureau of Mines, Dr. Van H. Manning. The director discussed the overall situation with the Bureau’s gas expert, Dr. George A. Burrell, and requested that he look into the possibilities. Strangely enough, Burrell had given the use of helium-filled dirigibles prior thought. The matter had been brought to his attention by a former student of Sir William Ramsay’s, F. A. Lidbury, of Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Burrell wrote at once to Major Charles DeForest Chandler of the newly organized U.S. Air Corps. He asked if that group would be interested in the production of helium for balloons. Burrell’s letter eventually reached the attention of Brigadier General George O. Squires. The general was not discouraged by the limited volume of helium available, nor by the selling price. He replied at once, stating in part, “The office will be most pleased to give you every encouragement for further investigation of the production of helium in quantities for military balloon service . . . .” Encouraged by this letter, the scientists of the Bureau of Mines began an intensive investigation. No one doubted that if helium could be produced in quantities on an economical basis, it would be necessary to obtain it from natural gas. However, there were numerous problems facing those undertaking the project.
The chief constituents of the most natural gases are methane and nitrogen. The first could be liquefied under normal pressure at -258°F, the other at -320°F. There was not much chance of liquefying the helium, as that would require -452°F. It seemed obvious that the project would require a lowering of the temperature of the natural gas until everything but the helium became liquid. Then the helium could be recovered through a relatively simple liquid-gas separation. Consequently, a means for producing the necessary low temperatures would be a prime prerequisite for a successful undertaking.
The chief metallurgist of the Bureau of Mines, Dr. F. G. Cottrell, had been investigating the production of low-cost oxygen for use in blast furnaces and other metallurgical processes. His studies had brought him in contact with officials of the Jefferies-Norton Corporation of Worcester, Mass., which claimed to have an improved low-temperature process for producing cheap oxygen. Cottrell was able to convince Burrell that a modification of the Jefferies-Norton process might be successful in recovering helium from natural gas, and that such a possibility should be investigated.
Dr. R. B. Moore, who had started the ball rolling, also realized that the only economical source of helium would be natural gas, and consequently, that low-temperature refrigeration was the process likely to succeed. He knew that the Air Reduction Company and the Linde Air Products Company, both of New York, were producing oxygen by the liquefaction of atmospheric air, and that each company had considerable low-temperature experience. Moore suggested that both of these companies should also be brought into the picture, to which Cottrell readily agreed.
Dr. Burrell was a fortunate choice to direct the formative period of the project. He had outstanding organizational ability, and was an authority on the natural gases of the United States. The fact that he had never analyzed any of them for helium was of small importance. He knew the location of most of the high-nitrogen gases of the country, and Cady had shown that high helium and high nitrogen usually went hand in hand.
In order to crystallize as many factors as possible, Burrell invited a group of the country’s scientific elite to meet in Washington, June 4, 1917. Cady was there and, of course, Dr. Moore. One of the most important people at the meeting was Fred Norton, chief engineer for the Jefferies-Norton Corporation. After describing his method for the production of oxygen, he convinced one and all that it could be modified easily for the production of cheap helium.
In discussing an adequate source of helium, Burrell recalled that the gas of the Petrolia field in Texas contained nearly 20 percent nitrogen, and Cady strongly recommended that it should be analyzed for helium. A week later, a large tankful of the Petrolia gas arrived in Lawrence, and I found that it contained 0.84 percent helium.
Further information on the Petrolia field was sought. Fortunately, the area had been studied by the University of Texas and the U.S. Geological Survey, and each had published bulletins. Discovered in 1903, the Petrolia field was initially an oil field. By 1909 it had developed into gas-producing area of such magnitude that the Lone Star Gas Company had laid a 16-inch pipeline to bring the gas to Fort Worth and Dallas. Other prospective sources of helium-bearing gas were investigated, including the old Dexter field – by then largely depleted, but the Petrolia field remained the most promising.
During the June 4 meeting, Norton had been requested to submit his best estimate on the cost of producing helium. In less than two weeks he advised that his plant would cost approximately $26,500, not including the primary compressors. It would process 2,880,000 cubic feet of natural gas a day, and produce 28,800 cubic feet of a gas containing 94 percent helium. He estimated that the helium would be produced at from $2.10 to $3.80 per thousand cubic feet. The information was received enthusiastically, and shortly thereafter the Navy Department asked the Bureau of Mines to undertake the supervision of the entire project.
Burrell must have considered that Norton’s glowing report needed verification, for he sought the opinion of many professional and industrial engineers. They were unanimous in their high regard of Fred Norton’s engineering ability and their faith in his process.
The Bureau of Mines relayed the information collected up to July 19, 1917, to the chief signal officer of the Balloon Division of the Army, with the suggestion that $50,000 be allotted for the construction and operation of an experimental helium plant. Later, the joint Army-Navy Airship Board considered the proposal and was so impressed that it recommended helium be substituted for hydrogen in balloons and dirigibles. As a result, the Aircraft Production Board, later to be renamed the Aircraft Board, arranged for an allotment of $100,000, which became available to the Bureau of Mines on August 4, 1917.
At this point, it was necessary for Burrell to augment his limited staff, so he borrowed an experienced gas engineer, P. McDonald Biddison, from the Ohio Drilling and Supply Company. Biddison’s first assignment as the Bureau’s consulting engineer was the selection of a suitable supply of helium-bearing gas. Thus it was that three weeks after the $100,000 became available, Biddison and Norton were in Fort Worth, Tex., discussing with officials of the Lone Star Gas Company a plant site and a tentative supply of gas from the Petrolia field. Mr. Gage, vice-president of the Company, agreed to donate 25 or 30 thousand cubic feet of gas a day. If more than that amount was needed, there would be a charge at currently published prices. Under the circumstances, a formal gas contract was not deemed necessary, nor was one made. The gas company agreed to provide a plot of ground for the location of the plant adjoining their metering station in North Fort Worth, Tex.
While Norton and Biddison were in Fort Worth arranging for the anticipated Jefferies-Norton installation, Burrell was in Washington contacting the presidents of the Air Reduction Company and the Linde Air Products Company to obtain their participation in helium production. He also arranged, during the latter part of August, for Captain Owens of the Signal Corps to discuss the overall situation with members of the British Admiralty. As a result, Commander C.D.C. Bridge and Lieutenant Commander S. R. Lowcock came to America to canvass the helium situation and to investigate particularly the possibilities of the new Jefferies-Norton process. The arrival fo the two officers gave new impetus to the infant undertaking.
At a meeting called by Dr. Manning on October 12, 1917, the situation was discussed by the British Commission, representatives from the Canadian group working on the project, Navy and Army officials, Bureau engineers, and consultants, including Norton, Biddison, Cady, and others. The two Englishmen brought word that the Admiralty was most anxious to obtain 100 million cubic feet of helium at once and wished to contract for a further supply of a million cubic feet per week. They indicated a willingness to pay as much as $1 a cubic foot for the nonflammable lifting gas.
So much enthusiasm was developed for helium-filled dirigibles and balloons that the group recommended the approval of an additional $50,000. No definite decision had been reached at this time concerning a plant design, though several were being considered.
Five days later, the $500,000 allotment was approved. At the same time, the Aircraft Board, established on October 1, 1917, to coordinate the helium work of the Army, Navy, and Bureau of Mines, arranged for a report on both the expenditure of the money and the work to be undertaken by the Bureau of Mines. The Navy representative and chairman of the Aircraft Board was G.O. Carter, an Annapolis graduate. Formerly with the Linde Air Products Company, Carter was familiar with low-temperature processing. Dr. H. N. Davis of Harvard University represented the Army, and George Orrok of the Bureau of Mines represented the Department of the Interior. Carter made a hurried review on the Norton process. His report, which was very uncomplimentary, carried great weight with the Army and Navy officials. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Navy took action to exclude the Norton scheme from immediate participation in the $500,000 just appropriated. Officials of the Army concurred.
Contracts were signed with the Linde Company on November 16, 1917, and with the Air Reduction Company two weeks later. Both companies agreed to make available to the government a modified standard oxygen plant for helium extraction.
Secretary Daniels of the Navy might have completely eliminated the Norton plan from further consideration had it not been for the British enthusiasm over its claim for cheap helium. Instead, he referred Norton’s proposal to the National Research Council, recommending, very logically, that none of the $500,000 be spent on the questioned project pending the outcome of this investigation.
Meanwhile, both the Linde Company and the Air Reduction Company had equipment ready to ship and no place to send it. The answer was obvious – utilize the site selected by Norton at Fort Worth. Under the circumstances, Norton was forced to agree with this arrangement.
The British Helium Commission was greatly disappointed and somewhat embarrassed by the action. They mentioned that they were spending millions of dollars to build lighter-than-air craft, a large percentage of which had been destroyed because of the flammability of the hydrogen. They were confident that if helium could be substituted, warfare in the air would be completely revolutionized. They also argued that because of the strategic importance of this type of aircraft and its heavy cost, great haste should be the watchword. Furthermore, they could not lose sight of the fact that Norton promised helium at less than a cent a cubic foot, whereas they had been prepared to pay a hundred times that amount.
On January 14, 1918, the National Research Council issued its report which said in part, “ . . . the committee is unanimously of the opinion that the Norton Process . . . is scientifically sound, that it should accomplish the desired result, and that every part of it seems to have been conceived in the light of a clear understanding of the problem and of the means which good engineering would suggest as conducive to economy . . . “ With that clean bill, the Navy Department cooperated fully and within a few days made an allotment of $50,000 to the Bureau of Mines for the further development of the Norton process. This was matched almost at once by an equal appropriation from the Army.
Consequently, Norton was not completely stymied by the refusal of the Navy Department to permit participation in the $500,000 allotment. The earlier sum of $100,000 assigned to the Bureau of Mines was made available to him to enable him to continue work on the design of his proposed experimental plant.
When Dr. Cady returned to Lawrence from the Washington meeting in mid-October of 1917, he was bubbling over with important information, but could not share it with the world. He had been impressed with a need for secrecy, and yet a sum of $500.000 had been provided to produce the rare and, up to that time, seemingly useless material that he had discovered to be present in natural gas. In the wildest flights of his imagination he had never dreamed of such a possibility. He had been requested to see that all notebooks on the subject were kept in code; that was the least of his worries. A person glancing at any one of his several notebooks would have jumped to the conclusion that keeping them in code had been his standard practice. The project was so “hush-hush” that the very word helium was taboo in both correspondence and conversation. The British spoke of it as “C” gas. In America it became “X” gas and finally, to the confusion of every, “argon”. Only a few of us were privileged to share his confidence.
Perhaps the Kansas University professor was the first to recognize that the success of the low-temperature helium extraction process would depend largely on the solubility of helium in the liquefied portions of the natural gas; that if its solubility was high, the recovery of satisfactory volumes of helium would require more than a simple gas-liquid separation. Little or no information on the subject was available, so Cady decided to supply it. He and I, together with Dr. Paul V. Farragher of the chemistry department, set about determining how much helium would go into solutions in the natural gas liquids produced at the temperature of liquid methane and liquid nitrogen. Speed, rather than extreme accuracy, was the watchword, but the solubility data obtained at a pressure of 65 pounds per square inch proved quite accurate. The data showed that fractionation would not be necessary, as the resulting losses due to solubility would be acceptable and in the neighborhood of 10 to 12 percent.
Cady was confident that under the very best of conditions helium would be an expensive commodity. He saw an economic advantage in adding a limited volume of cheaper hydrogen to the helium if an explosive mixture could be avoided. After many experiments performed by Fred Bruckmiller, of the Kansas State water laboratory, and the writer, he assured the Army and Navy that approximately 10 percent hydrogen could be mixed with 90 percent helium, and that a gas of that composition would neither burn nor explode. The mixture was never used, for by the time helium-filled airships became a reality it was cheaper to purify the helium from the balloon than to use a mixture that could not be purified with safety.
The professor also recognized the need to know how rapidly helium would pass through the fabric used for balloons and dirigibles. Knowing that the laws of diffusion did not always hold in such instances, he set about determining what the loss would be. He met opposition from a government laboratory already working on the problem, but a satisfactory compromise was reached. Cady agreed to furnish a small amount of helium and, in return, was given samples of various types of balloon fabric for his tests. By this time, as Cady’s principal assistant in the helium work at the University of Kansas, it was my lot not only to carry on the diffusion experiments but also to produce the helium required by the trade. Every cubic centimeter of gas which had been separated during analysis had been carefully saved. Eventually, using that gas and an additional quantity produced by tedious laboratory extraction, we collected three and one-half liters of pure helium. The gas was placed in inverted citrate of magnesia bottles held in an open-sided wooden crate. It was our hope that anyone handling the container would see the delicate nature of the shipment and treat it respectfully.
Dr. Cady, who was blessed with a good sense of humor, said that the shipment reminded him of a litter of pups and that no mother dog ever took greater pains to protect her offspring – a remark which was to take on added meaning a few weeks later. The shipment was placed carefully on board an express car, and I heaved a sigh of relief as it started on its journey to Washington.
Months before, Dr. Cady had agreed to teach chemistry classes in summer school at Stanford University. He had purchased a Ford automobile with the idea of driving his family to the West Coast. He was torn between a desire to stay in Lawrence and continue the helium experimental work, and his urge to put the new car through its paces and see the country to the west. The car, Stanford, and the family won out; the Washington office was advised of the trip and his California address. Those of us left in Lawrence continued working on the various helium problems behind locked doors.
About two weeks after the doctor’s departure, a telegram was received from him. The message read, “He is lost; send more pups from the same litter.” It is certain that such a telegram would have stumped even an experienced cryptographist. At the University of Kansas it brought utter dismay. We had no trouble deciphering it. “He” is the chemical symbol for helium. Recalling the remark about the litter of pups, it became obvious that the shipment was lost and that another quantity of helium was needed. My entire summer was spent in producing that second shipment. Many months later the missing helium was found safe, if well hidden, underneath some storeroom steps at the Bureau of Standards. What was done with the precious extra supply was never learned.
Meanwhile, with funds assured for the helium project, Burrell, Biddison, and others had turned their attention to locating additional supplies of helium-bearing gas – and well they might, for information supplied by the British Commission indicated that from 4 to 6 mission cubic feet of helium per month might be required. The two experimental plants under contract could not possibly produce more than a quarter of a million cubic feet in thirty days. If and when the Jefferies-Norton plant should also get into full operation, the total output would be no more than a million cubic feet per month. C.F. Ward, a gas engineer from Mr. Biddison’s organization, was employed to make a quick survey in the hopes of locating additional sources for helium extraction. The only equipment capable of accurate helium analysis was located in my laboratory at the University of Kansas, so all of the samples of gas collected by Mr. Ward were sent to me for analysis. Periodically, he would stop at Lawrence to go over the results of his survey in the hopes of pinpointing the direction of the next trip.
Ward was not familiar with government rules and regulations, and not infrequently he ran afoul of them. He used official government transportation requests for his travel but paid cash for his meals and lodging, which were subject to reimbursement of $4 a day. On one occasion he arrived in Lawrence with but a few cents in his pockets and explained that he had directed the paymaster to send his expense check to the laboratory. Did he have a letter from Washington/ Cady had been holding such an envelope for several days and turned it over with the suggestion that if the check were big enough we should celebrate. Ward’s gleam of expectation was short-lived. The letter contained no money. The expense account was returned with an explanation which read, “This expense account contains an item of 24cents for porter tips. You are allowed 15 cents for a night porter and 10 cents for a day porter. Please itemize.” That silly letter probably cost the government two weeks of precious time and at least $100. Ward borrowed funds and wrote a transportation request for rail travel home. Two weeks later, back in Lawrence, he picked up where he left off. In the meantime, he had assured the government auditor that a day porter had been tipped 10 cents and a night porter 15 cents, thus arriving at the proper total.
The results of Ward’s preliminary investigation made the Bureau of Mines realize that if production of helium was to be more than just a flash in the pan, a much more comprehensive search was needed. The director of the U.S. Geological Survey was asked to cooperate, and in June, 1918, one of the finest geologists, G. Sherburne Rogers, was assigned to direct the undertaking.
Shortly after Rogers began his helium-bearing gas survey, he was able to obtain the assistance of a number of colleagues to help in the collection of samples. About this time, Dr. Moore requested my release from the University of Kansas for permanent assignment to head the Bureau of Mines laboratory at Fort Worth, Tex. We were fortunate to have the Army transfer to us James B. Ramsey, a former instructor in chemistry at K. U. He was soon making helium analysis at a rapid rate, both samples from the field and those requested by the two experimental plants.
Six months after the start of the gas field survey, three hundred samples from all over the country, collected by Rogers and his colleagues, had been sent to me for analysis. Rogers’ report was not published until 1921, but it was to remain the bible on helium resources for many years.
Credit: Seibel, C.W., (1968). Helium child of the sun. Lawrence/London, University Press of Kansas
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