From steamboats to public policy: a capsule history of US think tanks

Think tanks trace their roots as far back as the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, founded in 1824. Dedicated to applying interdisciplinary scientific principles to the solution of technological problems, it centered its first investigation on the causes of boiler explosions on steamboats. Over the years, other laboratory research institutes came into being - Arthur D. Little in Boston (1866), the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh (1911), the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio (1923), and the Rand Corporation (1947).

In 1916, a group of American businessmen wrote, ''With the increasing complexity of modern life, the scope of governmental activities will steadily and inevitably increase.'' They asked, ''How can the citizens exercise intelligent and effective control over their joint public business?'' Their answer was to found the Institute for Governmental Research in Washington. The first public-policy research organization dealing with national issues, it was modeled, in part, on the New York Bureau of Municipal Research. Under the guidance and financial support of St. Louis manufacturer Robert S. Brookings, it became the Brookings Institution in 1927.

The Hoover Institution, nearly as old, was founded in 1919 at Stanford University by Herbert Hoover. From its beginnings as a library of materials dealing with the causes and consequences of World War I, it now houses one of the largest private archives in the United States.

The consequences of war also prompted the founding of the American Enterprise Association (later Institute) by Lewis Brown of the Johns-Manville Corporation in 1943, largely to study the economic challenges facing the world after World War II.

In recent decades, the growth in numbers of public-policy think tanks has kept pace with the expansion of government. The Heritage Foundation, one of the newer ones, was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for conservative thinking.

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