Recently on Adirondack Almanack, two inventions of Ogdensburg native William Chauncey Geer (who lived in Potsdam for ten years of his youth) were addressed, one of them a writing implement to replace pens, pencils, and crayons (an idea that was ultimately relegated to oblivion). The other was a highly successful project resulting in a standard golf ball used by professionals for more than two decades.
Three of Geer’s other works deeply impacted America and the world. The subject here is the third most prominent among them — the gas mask. Its importance rose unexpectedly to critical levels during the First World War when the Germans began engaging in large-scale chemical warfare.
The US entered the conflict after fighting had raged for nearly three years. When Congress declared war, the call went out for massive production increases of items needed by our soldiers. Production of some battleground materials had already been ramped-up for two reasons: sales to allies, and our own needs in anticipation of possibly joining the war. But there was one notable shortcoming among supplies. While horrible reports of soldiers being gassed with toxic substances had become commonplace, Colonel Bradley Dewey noted that, “At the time of America’s entrance into the war in April 1917, almost no information had come to this country about gas warfare or the requirements of gas defense equipment. In fact, it had been the policy of the allied nations … to surround the subject with considerable secrecy.”
William Geer’s involvement in the government program began in May 1917 (a month after war was declared on Germany) when a “gas-mask of the box-respirator type that had been made by the English” was delivered to his office at B. F. Goodrich with a simple query: could it be easily duplicated? Yes, he said, but time was needed to map out the workings, plan how to produce each part, choose the best materials, and add improvements.
However, within a day or two, Colonel Dewey himself arrived at William’s office looking for help. Years later, Geer wrote about the encounter. “His first remarks were, as always, straight to the point. ‘We want you to make the rubber parts for 25,000 gas masks by ten days from today.’ He was nothing if not direct. We told him that he might as well ask us to move the building in which we were sitting to Brooklyn in ten days. Such a retort made no impression; he went right on: ‘I am not yet commissioned; I have no formal order to give you. You will have to run your chances [assume the financial risk] of getting your money back; but we want the masks, and we are going to have them.’ … It was of no special credit to B. F. Goodrich that we accepted the call. All American businessmen did the same in those days.”
The logistics seemed impossible. With virtually no knowledge about making or producing gas masks, researchers had to deal with many issues: mask modifications were necessary for speedy production; achieving such a quick turnaround required shortcuts; machines had to be retooled; and production had to be shared with other companies, large and small, under Geer’s guidance.
But somehow, a week after Dewey’s request, 3,000 masks a day were being produced. Said William, “At the end of ten days we had nearly completed the order. These were not good masks, but they did have a definite value in offering some protection against gas.” A few weeks later, the first American troops arrived in Europe with new masks in tow.
But millions more would soon be needed as raw recruits were sent across the ocean, knowing that gas attacks against them were likely. The first job handled by Geer needed to be replicated, but on a grand scale, requiring the suspension of normal competition against other companies. Alliances with private businesses are essential to success during major conflicts, and in this particular case, American industries answered the call, as confirmed by the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (1919). “The spirit of cooperation and desire to serve the Government was early evident, as was shown by the attitude of the B. F. Goodrich Company in giving technical and cost information to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and the United States Rubber Company, in order that they might intelligently bid on a project in which no one but the B. F. Goodrich Company had any experience. This was a distinct departure from practice in competitive industry….” Colonel Dewey added that “the most excellent cooperation of the varied manufacturing interests of the country deserves a place in the annals of America’s accomplishments in the world war.”
Under the umbrella of the US War Committee were a multitude of important agencies, including the Chemical Warfare Service. Colonel Dewey was urged to immediately organize a committee of experts from the major rubber manufacturers, which he did, choosing two men from Goodyear, one from U. S. Rubber, and as chairman, William Geer of B. F. Goodrich. They conducted experiments to determine the best rubber parts, mask fabric, carrying systems (the Geer Carrier Harness was a stepping-stone to the end result), how to build a one-size-fits-all version, and a design that could be worn for extended periods. Teams of test subjects under Geer’s committee wore masks day and night for a week at a time, removing them for only 30 minutes a day to eat. Otherwise, they dug trenches, fought fake battles, slept, and played baseball (a short video … worth it!), all while wearing gas masks. As the war progressed, it was also necessary to adjust for new noxious chemicals used by the Germans.
The same journal cited above noted that “Dr. W. C. Geer, second vice-president of the Goodrich Company, never relaxed his efforts and interest in the work.” While personally addressing material and design issues, he also took several leadership positions. In 1917, Geer was chairman of four separate war agencies: Gas Defense Division, Gas Mask Committee, Specifications Committee, and Mechanical Goods.
The short version of the story is one of success: under the program, more than five million masks were produced, nearly four million of which were delivered to Americans overseas.
In 1919, a leading trade magazine, India Rubber World, assessed the gas-mask program and concluded: “The problem of supplying our soldiers with satisfactory gas defense equipment was a start from nothing, so far as knowledge in this country at our entrance into the war was concerned…. In the matter of development cooperation, it is desired to mention especially the work of Dr. W. C. Geer of The B. F. Goodrich Co. He became interested early in the great problem of gas defense and its tremendous possibilities, and gave unstintingly of his time in the solution of these problems. His ideas were a constant source of inspiration to the Service. Among the things which he produced were a better gas-mask fabric, a lower resistance exhalation valve, a telephone mask, and a fighting mask which embodied the Akron-Tissot principle, combined low resistance, and provided a carrying position of canister on shoulder away from chest, thus permitting the soldier to carry on offensive operations more successfully.”
Geer also designed the first naval officers’ mask, and continued improving on previous versions after the fighting ended. His patent filed in 1919 and approved in 1921 included the following: “Be it known that I, William C. Geer … have invented certain new and useful Gas-Masks…. This invention relates to respirator masks for protecting the wearer’s eyes and breathing organs against fumes, gases, smoke, and other contaminations of the atmosphere, and its general objects are to improve the sealing properties of the mask around the edges thereof, to provide a better mode of ventilating the eye-pieces, to minimize the amount of dead air space, reduce the weight and cost, and increase the comfort of wearing the mask.”
Geer was justifiably proud of his performance under pressure and the end results of the team’s daunting tasks. In The Armies of Industry (1921, Volume 2), authors Benedict Crowell and Robert Wilson wrote about the masks: “As to the quality of them, it is only necessary to say that they gave twenty times the protection afforded by the best German gas-mask. We protected our soldiers against the German poisons effectively. No American soldier was ever gassed because of the failure of an American gas mask, and such casualties as did occur were due to the fact that the masks were not quickly enough utilized when gas was thrown over, or because the soldiers were unaware of the presence of gas. With such protection, there was no longer reason to fear that the frightfulness of chemical warfare would reduce Americans’ morale. The production of gas masks was one of the most picturesque and successful phases of our entire war preparation. It engaged the attention of some of the principal chemical engineers of the country.”
The suffering averted and number of lives Geer helped save can never be known. Yes, war is hell, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. In World War I, America was lucky to have the North Country’s great inventor, William C. Geer, on our side.
Photos: Geer gas mask (US Militaria Forum); British box-type mask delivered to Geer in May 1917 for replication (US Militaria Forum); soldiers testing masks played baseball (National Archives, 1917); patent drawings for Geer gas mask (1921, US Patent Office)