The Problem Solvers

Have you ever seen a dam or road or some other massive public works project and wondered who could be responsible for such a massive project? Chances are it was the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).  George Washington appointed the first army engineers on June 16th, 1775 and the Corps of Engineers was established as a permanent branch of the army on March 16, 1802.  Engineers have served in all subsequent conflicts that the United States has been involved in. The USACE is not only responsible for the building of large-scale military projects but also a major chunk of the country’s civil engineering works as well. It was the Army Corps of Engineers that was responsible for constructing much of the original infrastructure at Yellowstone National Park in the late nineteenth century.  The has also provided disaster relief since 1882, when Mississippi River floods drove thousands from their homes. The corps provided transportation for those displaced by the floods and tons of supplies. The Department of Defense created a film in1979 titled “The Problem Solvers” to illustrate the diverse and often little known roles that the US Army Corps of Engineers fulfills for the country.

The film begins with a brief overview of the what the USACE is and how it functions.  It then goes into detail about the specific functions that the corps performs, beginning with the military side.  One of the main functions of the engineers is to facilitate the movement of troops on the battlefield.  One of the ways that the modern corps tackled that problem was with the “Army Mobility Model” which was used to help design, test, and evaluate the performance of military vehicles on cross country terrain, create counter measures against enemy vehicles and even contributed to the design of the suspension system of the M-1 tank.  The film also highlights the use of (then brand new) computer technology to identify terrain that is best suited for the movement of troops and vehicles. Another key aspect of the Corps of Engineers is the Research & Development branch, that tackles problems including vehicle safety, the creation of portable shelters from manmade and natural elements, and new methods of demolition (using bridges already slated for destruction).

Of course, The bulk of the corps time is spent maintaining and improving army installations, which is their primary responsibility. An army installation is effectively its own small city, and the USACE has incorporated computer technology to help the engineers design buildings better, faster, and cheaper.  One of these technologies is the weld quality monitor. Designed to ensure the integrity and uniformity of welds, which helps ensure structural stability in army engineer projects.   Another test facility studies the efficiency of temperature control systems and insulation materials.  The U.S. military, in order to be ready to help the country whenever and wherever they are needed, also partakes in disaster planning, especially against forces such as earthquakes. Research into seismic activities helped the army to create buildings better equipped to handle such events when they occur.  This research went so far as to construct scale model houses on shake tables for acoustical studies to learn the amount of noise that buildings and people (volunteers in this instance) can tolerate. As a matter of fact, at the time of production, it was one of the largest shake tables in the United States.  The computer-controlled table could simulate a number of scenarios, from an aircraft flying overhead to an actual earthquake. 

Next the film switches to the civil projects that the USACE performs on behalf of the people of the United States.  One of the major undertakings of the corps is the stabilization of coastal beach sand with vegetation, dune construction, and structures when necessary.    The USACE also creates giant models, filling entire buildings, to study water resources, navigability of rivers, flood control methods, and harbor safety.  The particular model that is shown in the film is of Oceanside, California, where researchers study and collect data under controlled conditions.  This data is used to make recommendations for seawall construction, docks, piers, and shoreline erosion. This is to ensure that the harbor remains operational and stable. The corps also uses model ships to study the alignment of channels and the placement of lock chambers along the major U.S. rivers.  The USACE has even developed a system to prevent the freezing of lock chambers during the winter, called a “bubbler system”. The Ice Engineering Facility created by the USACE is used to simulate frozen conditions along U.S. waterways.  The corps also studies de-icing agents for use on American roads to improve winter transportation. The Engineers also fight the perennial problem of potholes on American roadways.  The USACE is constantly researching ways to prevent potholes from forming, including improved design and construction, and quick and inexpensive methods of repairing them when they do appear.

The Corps of Engineers also find innovative solutions to practical problems.  In order to combat overgrown vegetation in U.S. waterways, which had made them unusable for public and commercial purposes, the USACE created a demonstration project at Lake Conway.  One of the solutions was to create specially designed boats to cut and store the plants.  Another suggested solution was the release of fish, in this case the white amur, which could eat the vegetation in huge quantities.  At the conclusion of the test it was found that the fish significantly decreased the amount of plant growth with no adverse environmental effects.

The film concludes by noting that many of the problems that the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to solve are often beyond the scope of the technology available, and that when that is the case, they work to advance the current technology to provide an improved solution.  Much like the United States, the Corps of Engineers is constantly evolving to meet the demands of the future.

List of facilities seen in the film. Stills from “The Problem Solvers” (Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Edited Visual Recordings of Civil Engineering Projects, National Archives Local Identifier: 77-EDCOE-35)


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers homepage

Record Group 77 – Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers History

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Locations

Taming the Mississippi

100-year-old National Park Service’s roots go deeper with U.S. Army

Historical Vignette 036 – The Corps has been engaged in disaster recovery since 1882

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Library