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No. 1278:
Quonset Huts

Today, we build an instant house. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As WW-II war clouds gathered in 1941, the Navy knew it would soon face vast problems of moving and housing people and materiel. War is about logistics, and people need shelter. Someone had a bright idea. Why not create a cheap, lightweight, portable structure that could be put up by untrained people?

So they went to the George A. Fuller construction company in New York. The Navy wanted buildings within two months. The British had developed a light prefab structure called a Nissen hut during WW-I. Now the Navy wanted an improved version.

And they got it: Peter Dejongh and Otto Brandenberger went to work. Within a month they'd set up a production facility near Quonset, Rhode Island. They moved so quickly that they were producing units while the design was still being tinkered.

That's how the famous Quonset hut came into being. Some people thought the old Nissen hut had been modeled on Iroquois council lodges. Now the Quonset hut version had the same shape and an Iroquois-sounding name. The Indian connection was probably fortuitous. Still, the resemblance was strong. The Quonset hut skeleton was a row of semi-circular steel ribs covered with corrugated sheet metal. The ribs sat on a low steel-frame foundation with a plywood floor. The basic model was 20 feet wide and 48 feet long with 720 square feet of usable floor space. The larger model was 40 by 100 feet.

So we entered the war armed with this cheap housing meant for airstrips, MASH units, barracks -- you name it. Historian Michael Lamm tells how Quonsets were strung together in Guam to form a 54,000-square-foot warehouse.

Around 170,000 Quonset huts were produced during the war -- enough to house the combined populations of Portland and Seattle. Then the war ended, and they were too good a resource to throw away. So the military sold them to civilians for about a thousand dollars each. They made serviceable single-family homes.

Returning veterans now occupied Quonset huts by choice. Universities made them into student housing. Architects took an interest and gussied them up in odd ways. Churches and small businesses took up residence in them. In 1948 the Sacramento Peak observatory was housed in Quonset huts. Playwright Robert Finton has written a play about them. He titled it Tents of Tin.

Drive your streets today and you'll see them here and there. Much more than relics of war, they're icons of a day in our history -- icons that spread all the way from North Africa to the Aleutian Islands. And now, a new memorial museum for war correspondent Ernie Pyle has just been built of Quonset huts. Once in a while, a really good design surfaces -- robust, simple, and enduring. The DC-3, the Jeep, and the Quonset hut all tell of the clear thinking that got us out of serious trouble, back in the 1940s.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lamm, M., The Instant Building. Invention & And Technology, Winter, 1998, pp. 68-72.

See also the Wikipedia article about the Quonset Hut.

Here is a U.S. Government photo of Quonset huts as seen in front of Laguna Peak, Point Mugu, in 1946: