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Soil Science Society of America Journal Abstract - SOIL HISTORY

The Life and Scientific Contributions of Lyman J. Briggs


This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 67 No. 3, p. 681-693
    Received: July 8, 2002

    * Corresponding author(s): erlanda@usgs.gov
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  1. Edward R. Landa *a and
  2. John R. Nimmob
  1. a U.S. Geological Survey, 430 National Center, Reston, VA 20192
    b U.S. Geological Survey, Mail Stop 421, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025


Lyman J. Briggs (1874–1963), an early twentieth century physicist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), made many significant contributions to our understanding of soil-water and plant-water interactions. He began his career at the Bureau of Soils (BOS) in 1896. At age 23, Briggs published (1897) a description of the roles of surface tension and gravity in determining the state of static soil moisture. Concepts he presented remain central to this subject more than 100 yr later. With J.W. McLane, Briggs developed the “moisture equivalent” concept (a precursor to the idea of field capacity) and a centrifuge apparatus for measuring it. Briggs left the BOS at the end of 1905, under pressure from Milton Whitney, and moved to the Bureau of Plant Industry. Briggs' multi-state experiments with H.L. Shantz on water-use efficiencies showed that in a climate like that of the Great Plains, plants use water more productively in the cooler north than in the warmer south. In 1920, he moved from the USDA to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), rising to Director in 1933. Among his other contributions to the American scientific community was his leadership, beginning in 1939, of a top secret committee that evolved into the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. A life-long baseball fan, Briggs at age 84, studied the speed, spin, and deflection of the curve ball, aided by manager Cookie Lavagetto and the pitching staff of the Washington Senators; he published these findings in a paper in the American Journal of Physics in 1959.

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Copyright © 2003. Soil Science SocietyPublished in Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J.67:681–693.