Spectator: A River Runs by it: The Pioneering IIHR

Monday, February 21, 2011

Spectator: Old Gold: A river runs by it: The pioneering Iowa Institute of Hydraulics Research

Earth, air, fire, and water—the four basic elements of our physical universe. We’ll bypass the periodic table of the elements here, since Old Gold couldn’t grasp its meaning in junior high science class. Talk about the basic four, though, and he is in his scientific comfort zone. The fact that The University of Iowa is home of the renowned Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research makes that zone even more meaningful.

IIHR, one of the world’s foremost research centers on water and fluid mechanics, is a testament to the foresight of Floyd Nagler. The Michigan native and graduate of Michigan State College and the University of Michigan joined the UI College of Engineering faculty in 1920 as a professor of mechanics and hydraulics.

In his 13-year tenure he established a research center occupying the stately five-story structure that hugs the western bank of the Iowa River below the Burlington Street Bridge. The building, completed in 1927 and restored in recent years, is a familiar and historically significant landmark on Riverside Drive.

Since its inception, the institute—today officially known as IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering—has collaborated with federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Weather Bureau (now National Weather Service), and the U.S. Geological Survey. Areas of research at the institute have included ship hydrodynamics, hydrometeorology (the science of moisture in the sky), river diversion and control, and factors specific to settings most anywhere in the world.

Consider a 1990s proposal to build a causeway at Nome, Alaska, a coastal community facing the Bering Sea. A model of the causeway created at IIHR predicted the likelihood of ice floe blockage during the winter.

More recently, IIHR researchers have received National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA grants totaling nearly $1.5 million. They include an NSF grant to Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center, which is helping researchers develop better ways to predict the course of floods, and a NASA grant to Thanos Papanicolaou and colleagues who are exploring the impact of intensified corn production on soil erosion.

To learn more about the fascinating history of this unique research center, check out Cornelia Mutel’s thorough and informative book Flowing Through Time: A History of the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (Iowa City: Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research, 1998).

—David McCartney, University Archivist

Examining water flow in the hydraulics laboratory, 1930s.

Examining water flow in the hydraulics laboratory, 1930s. Libraries

Adjusting levers and dials in the hydraulics laboratory, Aug. 15, 1948.

Adjusting levers and dials in the hydraulics laboratory, Aug. 15, 1948.Libraries

The hydraulics laboratory, 1950s.

The hydraulics laboratory, 1950s

View of the IIHR building from the east, after 1932

View of the IIHR building from the east, after 1932

All of this month's images from the F.W. Kent Collection of Photographs (RG 30.01.01), Colleges and Departments series, "Hydraulics" folder, University Archives, Department of Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.