Book marks 50th year of Forrestal Campus

Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- Fifty years ago this month, 450 people gathered in Plainsboro, N.J., to dedicate Princeton's new James Forrestal Research Center. The acquisition of the 825-acre complex on U.S. 1 marked a critical juncture in the University's history, enabling it to become a leader in government-sponsored research.


The story of the people and events behind what is now known as the Forrestal Campus is chronicled in a new book, "Princeton's James Forrestal Campus: 50 Years of Sponsored Research," written by J.I. "Jim" Merritt and published by the University. The book was printed in honor of the 50th anniversary of the campus, which began operating in fall 1951 and was dedicated on May 17, 1952.

Merritt said that Seymour Bogdonoff, the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Emeritus, came to the University administration about four years ago with concerns about the Forrestal legacy. "He felt that many people didn't know what had gone on out at Forrestal and how important Forrestal had been to the University's research agenda over the years," Merritt said. "He was worried this history was going to be lost."


Anniversary symposium set

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is planning a 50th anniversary symposium for Wednesday through Friday, June 5-7. The event originally was set for last Sept. 12-14, but was postponed due to the Sept. 11 tragedy.

The conference, "A Celebration of High Temperature Plasma Physics," is expected to stress the connections between fusion energy science and the many other areas of research that involve plasma science. For information and registration, visit this Web site:


Merritt, a 1966 Princeton graduate, worked at the University for 24 years in a variety of administrative positions, including serving as a press officer in the Office of Communications. He was editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly from 1989 to 1999. Over the course of his career, he had written many stories about the Forrestal Campus and science and engineering research at the University.

With the support of Robert Durkee, vice president for public affairs, Merritt began working with Bogdonoff on the Forrestal book in 1998. In addition to conducting interviews with Bogdonoff, who had been a faculty member since the 1940s, Merritt met with other early members of the aeronautical engineering department, did research in the University archives and read the memoir of Courtland Perkins, the second chair of the department.

The man behind the name

The book begins with a profile of Forrestal, a 1915 Princeton graduate who was a successful investment banker on Wall Street for many years before pursuing a second career in government service. A Navy flier during World War I, he was named assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt in June 1940 and undersecretary of the Navy two months later. In May 1944, he became secretary of the Navy.

Following World War II, Forrestal played a major role in the government reorganization outlined in the National Security Act of 1947. The act created a National Security Council and put the three military branches under one secretary of defense, a position that Forrestal became the first person to hold. He served for 19 months until March 1949, when he had a mental breakdown. Forrestal committed suicide on May 22, 1949, by jumping out of a window at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Despite his troubles in later years, Forrestal was viewed as a "man of conviction and achievement," according to the book. His creation of the Office of Naval Research in 1946 is considered by many one of his key accomplishments. Part of the office's mission involved providing grants to universities for basic and applied research.

"James Forrestal invented the Office of Naval Research -- it got us started here at Princeton and is still the only item in the Navy's budget mandated by Congress," Bogdonoff told Merritt for the book. "Every research university ought to pay homage to him."

The book describes how Princeton's Department of Aeronautical Engineering began taking off in 1941 under the leadership of its first chair, Daniel Sayre. The faculty was expanding, enrollment was climbing and the department was building cinderblock laboratories below Palmer Stadium to accommodate research initiatives.

In 1948, the Guggenheim Foundation selected Princeton as one of two sites for its new Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Centers (the other was at Cal Tech), and the Air Force and Navy awarded the department a contract to produce a 12-volume series on high-speed aerodynamics and jet propulsion.

Serendipitous sale

The department was quickly outgrowing its facilities. At about the same time, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research had decided to relocate from its U.S. 1 campus to New York City. Laurance Rockefeller, a member of the class of 1932 and of the department's advisory council, offered to help Sayre and the University negotiate with his family's foundation for the property.

"Like life in general, so much depended on timing and people being in the right place," Merritt said. "Sayre was tremendously important -- he just had an instinct for this kind of thing. He was a very entrepreneurial guy."

Rockefeller and Sayre raised the $1.5 to $2 million needed to purchase and renovate the facilities, and the transaction was completed in early 1951. "A buzz of publicity followed announcement of the Rockefeller-Princeton deal," writes Merritt in the book. "A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, noting that with a stroke of a pen the University had more than doubled the size of its land holdings, called it 'the second Louisiana Purchase.'"

Although there was some controversy about naming the center after Forrestal because he had committed suicide, Rockefeller insisted on it and prevailed, according to the book. In addition to serving as the home of Princeton's aerospace and mechanical sciences research, the campus was the headquarters for Project Matterhorn, a classified initiative funded by the U.S. government that explored the use of fusion in building the first hydrogen bomb.

Concurrently, scientists were looking into harnessing fusion as a peacetime energy source. They were working with extremely hot ionized gasses, or plasmas, which are necessary for a fusion reaction. In 1958, Project Matterhorn was declassified and work continued under what became known as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Scientists built an immense device, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, for their experiments. At its height in the 1980s, the fusion effort on the Forrestal Campus employed more than 1,000 people and occupied some 600,000 square feet of space, according to the book.

"Project Matterhorn was a top-secret operation," Merritt said. "That couldn't have happened without the isolation of Forrestal. As Matterhorn evolved into the PPPL, that couldn't have happened without the space that was needed because it became such a huge project. So it turned out that the acquisition of this land was very far-sighted on the University's part -- I don't think anybody realized how far-sighted at the time."

The book also describes the construction and operation of the Princeton-Penn Accelerator on the Forrestal Campus. As its name implies, the state-of-the-art atom smasher was operated jointly by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. According to the book, the $5.2 million operating budget of the Princeton-Penn Accelerator in the 1964 fiscal year approached the entire instruction budget for the University. The Plasma Physic Lab's budget for that year, at $7.2 million, exceeded it.

The book goes on to describe various other kinds of research conducted on the Forrestal Campus -- from efforts that contributed to the successful first lunar landing to work on understanding animal hearing. It also discusses the continuing government-funded work of three units on the property, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab, the Plasma Physics Lab and the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering's Gas Dynamics Lab.

In addition, the book chronicles the venture the University undertook in 1973 with the Princeton Forrestal Center. The goal of the project was to influence the quality of development in the surrounding area and to generate income for the University's educational objectives. The University acquired additional land to bring its holdings in the area to 1,600 acres.

The 76-page book, which is illustrated with historical photographs, is available for $10 from the Office of Communications.

*Above, Daniel Sayre, the Department of Aeronautical Engineering's first chair, and Lester Lees watched Seymour Bogdonoff adjust a supersonic wind tunnel (from the Feb. 18, 1949, Princeton Alumni Weekly). Below, this air scooter was demonstrated at a 1959 conference on the Forrestal Campus.

May 20, 2002
Vol. 92, No. 27
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