A Saxon manufacturer of silk cravats found that his orders were steadily diminishing, although the season and the market were both in his favor. He made an investigation and discovered that his customers were buying silk cravats from a Prussian manufacturer at a price fifty per cent less than that at which he could produce them. To the Saxon's eye and touch the cheaper cravats were as good as his own. He could detect nothing in the material that could explain why cravats exactly the same in appearance should be sold at two widely different prices. He spent a month in thoroughly overhauling his factory. He found that he was buying his raw material at the lowest possible prices; that his wages were not higher than they should be; that his overhead charges were not excessive, and that his organization was good. Yet the fact remained that the Prussian was underselling him and was apparently making money. The Saxon was an expert in cravats—at least he thought he knew all about them, because he had been making them for the better part of his career. Yet for the life of him he could not explain why it was impossible for him to compete with the Prussian. One day a salesman of his suggested that it might be well to have the Saxon and the Prussian cravats scientifically compared by the Koenigliches Material-Prue-fungsamt—the Royal Laboratory for Testing Materials at Gross Lichterfelde, near Berlin. The examination would cost but little and might explain the mystery. As a manufacturer, the Saxon was convinced that he knew more about cravats than any scientist in any government testing laboratory, and that his trained eye and his sensitive thumb were more to be relied upon than lenses and chemicals. Still he consented. Samples of the Prussian and Saxon cravats were sent to Gross Lichterfelde. Two weeks later he received a formal report. His own cravats were pure silk. The Prussian's cravats were half genuine silk and half artificial silk (nitro cellulose). A chemist and a microscopist, neither of whom had ever made a cravat in his life, had not only discovered in an hour or two a deception that a manufacturing experience of thirty years had failed to 'note, but even revealed what particular process had been used in making the artificial silk employed. The Technical Problems of Commerce. It would not be difficult to relate a hundred instances such as this, all of them typical of the work done at the most remarkable testing laboratory in the world. At Gross Lichterfelde I saw not only cravats undergoing a rigorous scientific investigation, but chains, girders, paper, textiles, wood, dyes, copper, rubber, ink, typewriter ribbons—almost every kind of material that is used in our daily lives. Sometimes, as in the case of the Saxon manufacturer of cravats, the manufacturer was puzzled by a rival's success ; sometimes he found himself with oxidized metal or faded goods on his hands, unable to discover the cause of the defects; sometimes he thought the customs officers had wrongly appraised his importations, because they had misjudged the character of the material; sometimes he wanted to know which of several raw materials should be employed for a specific purpose and was unable to decide himself. The Royal Laboratory for Testing Materials works hand in hand with the German industrial. For a sum of money that must seem slight to Americans it places at his command a staff of two hundred and twenty-two men, seventy-two of whom are technically trained and the highest authorities in their respective departments of science. These men have at their disposal an equipment that includes the best obtainable apparatus for testing and analyzing any given material. In Germany, indeed in Europe, the Laboratory is regarded as a court of last resort in matters involving the application of science to business. It is frequently difficult for a scientific man in the employ of a large corporation to deliver an absolutely impartial opinion on his firm's product. Inevitably there is a tendency to. underestimate the products of a rival manufacturer and to view his own with favor. There is no such tendency in the Royal Testing Laboratory. Every chemist every engineer, every microscopist, every physicist, is a government official, and, as such, he is enabled to assume an absolutely impartial and judicial attitude toward the problem given him for solution. Indeed, impartiality is insisted upon, not only in the testing and examination of materials, but also in the phrasing of the reports submitted to an applicant for information. The manufacturer who can use one of the Royal Testing Laboratory's colorless opinions for advertising purposes would be miraculously ingenious. To restrain him, however, from exercising too freely what average ingenuity Nature has endowed him, and to prevent him from quotmg with approval a report which is many years old and not at all applicable to his present goods, the Director of the Laboratory refuses to furnish certified copies of opinions more than one year old, and sometimes goes to the trouble of checking up advertisements in which reference is made to the favorable opinion of the Royal Testing Laboratory. Scientists Who Study Factory Methods in Factories. In order that the Laboratory may keep in close touch with industrial developments, members of its staff are sent from time to time to factories in order . to study the exact manner in which textiles, cement, paper, ink, and the like are made. Thus, when it was decided to elaborate the equipment for testing caoutchouc and electric insulators, the exact manner in which rubber goods are made industrially was carefully studied, so that machinery could be designed which would enable a chemist or physicist to determine those facts which would be most useful to a rubber manufacturer. What manufacturer, for example, can tell definitely whether or not rubber goods should be stored in moist or dry rooms; whether that room may be indifferently hot or cold, dark or light; whether a rubber strip should be stored stretched or unstretched? These and similar questions Gross Lichterfelde will soon answer for him definitely, as the result of a long series of most practical experiments. Geripan manufacturers have not been slow to recognize the immense value of a government laboratory which solves for them the technical problems of commerce. A number of manufacturers of electric insulating materials jointly supplied the necessary funds for a painstaking study of insulating materials and of the insulating properties of rubber substitutes. The many compositions submitted were tested at various temperatures to determine their readiness of manipulation in the factory, their behavior under tension, torsion, and traction; their hardness; their ability to withstand exposure to weather and chemical corrosives. When the results of these studies are published. the Society of German Electro-Technicians will frame specifications for electric insulating materials, in which for the first time some admirable substitutes for rubber will receive their due. How very impartial is the attitude assumed by the Laboratory is apparent when it is considered that manufacturers of competing materials may appeal for scientific information to Gross Lichterfelde at the same time. Sand-lime brick and clay brick are competitive building materials. Yet a powerful association of sand-lime brick manufacturers and an equally powerful association of clay brick manufacturers simultaneously consulted Gross Lichterfelde for the purpose of improving their respective bricks. The comparative tests which were made proved immensely valuable to both associations and gave the ultimate consumer a far better building material than he would otherwise have been able to purchase. Perhaps the Laboratory has done its most efficient work in co-operation with the technical associations of Germany—associations of engineers, manufacturers and technical men. Thus in conjunction with the Society of German Cement Manufacturers, the Laboratory conducted an exhaustive investigation which has resulted in a scientific standardization of Portland cement, and has definitely settled such nice points as the influence of high temperature on concrete, the effect of copper, lead and zinc on cement, and the comparative merits of Portland cement and iron slag Portland cement. Similarly, in co-operation with the Society of German Bridge and Structural Iron Builders, a painstaking study of the strength of rivets in steel girders was made. A Study of Paper and Ink. It must not be supposed that all German manufacturers have been broad-minded enough to submit their products to Gross Lichterfelde for approval. An attempt to analyze the various kinds of automobile gasoline sold throughout the German Empire, and to induce the wholesale dealers in gasoline to standardize liquid fuel so that the motor car owner could buy gasoline in Southern Germany exactly similar in quality to that sold in Northern Germany, was met by a flat refusal on the part of the dealers to assist the Laboratory. It is only a question of time when the Laboratory will succeed in carrying out its plan. Similar opposition was encountered when Gross Lichterfelde was commissioned by the government to analyze German papers and to determine their availability for bank notes, public documents and the like, an opposition that may be understood when it was discovered that only a very small percentage of German papers were found to answer the government's requirements. As the result of the work done at Gross Lichterfelde, the German paper manufacturer has so far improved his product that rarely indeed has he failed to fulfill government conditions. Opposition to the scientific investigations of the Laboratory has given place to the heartiest co-operation. It was but natural that after paper was studied for the government the thousand and one inks sold in the German market should have been carefully analyzed and tested to determine their chemical composition and their ability to withstand light, fire, and weather. That investigation has only recently been completed. The government can now specify with scientific precision the characteristics of a wellnigh perfect ink to be used on its wellnigh perfect paper. The standardization of manufactures is thus undertaken only for the government. The Laboratory, as a government institution entrusted with the scientific examination of material used by the government, can dictate the requirements which that material must fulfill; but it would not set up standards for the manufacture of articles for ordinary consumption. When a manufacturer requested the Laboratory to determine for him the qualifications that an asphalt should have for insulating purposes, he was told that the asphalt industry must frame its own standards, but that the Laboratory would assist him by giving scientific advice. A Scientific Court of Last Resort in Technical Disputes. As an impartial institution for scientifically passing upon the commercial availability of manufactured products, Gross Lichterfelde is required by law, when requested to do so, to settle technical disputes. stead of wasting time and money in asking the courts to decide whether or not a contract has been carried out according to the spirit and the letter, the disputants often submit their case voluntarily to the Laboratory for decision. A builder ordered a large quantity of roofing tiles and specified that they were to be waterproof. When the tiles were delivered he refused to pay for them on the ground that they failed to comply with the conditions of the contract. The dispute was submitted to the Laboratory for decision. The tiles were tested and it was found that they were sufficiently waterproof to come within the meaning of the contract. Even if a case does go to court, the Laboratory may be asked by the presiding judge to decide the technical point at issue. The decision is binding upon both sides —a veritable boon to a court confronted with a mass of conflicting expert testimony. In one case it appeared that in the construction of a wall a stone composed of crushed slag had been employed together with lime mortar. The mortar failed to harden. The dealer who had delivered the slag stone insisted that the wrong kind of mortar had been employed. The mortar maker retorted that the slag stone was worthless. The experts summoned by both sides failing to agree, as might be supposed, the court submitted the whole matter to Gross Lichterfelde. There it was decided that the mortar had- failed to harden, not because it had been made with the wrong kind of sand (as one expert had declared) nor because the slag was of the wrong kind (as another expert had insisted), but because many lime mortars harden only when exposed to the air, and then only after they have been alternately moistened and dried. Hence, said Gross Lichterfelde, the core of a wall, as in the case in question, is not likely to harden at all, whether or not a slag stone or good brick is employed. In another case the court called upon the Laboratory to decide whether or not a certain lubricant had spoiled a suit of clothes. The judge washed his hands of the matter and submitted the lubricant to the Royal Laboratory for Testing Materials. With characteristic thoroughness the Laboratory experimented with stains which were produced by the lubricant. First, it determined whether the stains could be eradicated by washing or only with the aid of special or not at all. Then it determined whether the color of the cloth had suffered as the result of attempting to remove the stains. Finally, it ascertained whether the strength of the cloth fiber had been impaired by the process of cleaning. It reported to the court that. stains made with the lubricant on cotton, wool and linen could be removed ', that the lubricant had no injurious effect on the dyes employed, and that the lubricant did not weaken the fiber, even after prolonged intimate contact—in a word, that the cloth was not irretrievably spoiled.
This article was originally published with the title "A Laboratory for Manufacturers" in Scientific American 105, 27, 595 (December 1911)