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Floyd Nagler, IIHR’s First Director

by Cornelia F. Mutel

IIHR’s first director and founder, Floyd Nagler, examines a turbine.

IIHR’s first director and founder, Floyd Nagler, examines a turbine.

Floyd Nagler, IIHR’s founding director, focused his entire life on making a difference. One could see it in his tending of his large vegetable garden (he felt fresh foods were crucial to his family’s health). And in how he took over the pulpit when his minister traveled elsewhere (he wanted to explain the workings of God’s creation to the public). And, perhaps most profoundly, in the way he bull-headedly established IIHR as a growing and innovative hydraulics research and teaching center. Each of these actions was capable of carrying another person — and, through that person, the world — in a slightly different direction. Each action made a difference.

Nagler came to the nascent hydraulics laboratory in 1920 at the age of 28. He was hired to use the university’s initial tiny laboratory to test electrical-generation turbines, but his energy and vision rapidly led him to attack additional practical questions. How could we transport water underneath the highways that were proliferating across the country? How could we decrease natural scouring of the riverbed around bridge piers? Questions such as these were addressed through the use of small-scale hydraulic models, a research practice then coming to the fore. Nagler’s model work complemented other research being performed directly in rivers, such as the laboratory’s program to test current meters for measuring water-flow velocity.

Nagler’s research required a fully functional laboratory to house the hydraulic models. One of his major achievements was creating the physical and organizational structure that still largely describes IIHR today. In 1931, he officially transformed the Hydraulics Laboratory into the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (today’s IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering), an organizational modification that increased the lab’s stature and outlined its independent business configuration.

Floyd Nagler, IIHR’s founder and first director, traveled Iowa’s backroads to perform field investigations of the state’s rivers and mill sites.

Floyd Nagler, IIHR’s founder and first director, traveled Iowa’s backroads to perform field investigations of the state’s rivers and mill sites.

Even before this restructuring, and decades before federal research monies became the norm, Nagler had succeeded in attracting funds from government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), in addition to private companies and engineering firms, thus establishing an unusually firm financial footing for the laboratory. In 1932, he opened the doors of the current Hydraulics Laboratory on Riverside Drive, an edifice more than 50 times larger than the original small building. This laboratory (which was extensively remodeled in 2000) still serves as the hub of IIHR’s activities.

Nagler directed much of the laboratory’s early research himself. Diverse projects reflected his love of rivers, his fascination with water’s flow, and his desire to transform the energy of free-flowing water into a “useable” form that would better life in Iowa. He was instrumental in conceiving and shaping a reliable navigation channel in the Upper Mississippi River — its current nine-foot channel — and in convincing the Corps to use hydraulic models to design its lock-and-dam system. Soon the Hydraulics Laboratory was serving as a major Corps modeling site for Upper Mississippi constructs. Nagler also measured the Mississippi’s flow over spillways of the Keokuk Dam, which early in the century was the world’s largest electrical generating plant.

Floyd Nagler

Floyd Nagler, IIHR’s founder and first director on the Keokuk Dam, Mississippi River

He performed the first detailed surveys of many Iowa rivers, examining them both in terms of their physical traits and their potential for producing hydroelectric power, which he delighted in promoting. While tramping along the banks of Eastern Iowa’s rivers and streams as he performed these river surveys, Nagler eagerly searched for abandoned mills and millstones, which fascinated him. Legend has it that he would carry these millstones back to his car. A pair of Nagler’s millstones still preside over the west entrance to Stanley Hydraulics Lab. Nagler was a large, powerful man, who routinely returned from his ambles in the field loaded down with rocks, which he used to build a large rock garden at his home with a fountain, a waterfall, and three interconnected pools.

Nagler didn’t forget the need of Iowans to relax and enjoy nature: he performed additional river surveys for the burgeoning Iowa State Park System, surveys that identified sites where rivers could be dammed to form recreational lakes.

Some of his interests and research were remarkably prescient. Consider for example his papers on water yield from small watersheds and on Iowa floods, as well as his successful efforts to institute a statewide stream-gaging program and a long-term monitoring system for multiple aspects of flow in the Ralston Creek drainage just east of Iowa City. Were he alive today, Floyd Nagler’s research would still fit in well with the activities of the Iowa Flood Center, established at IIHR in 2009.

Despite his many responsibilities and efforts, Nagler was devoted to his family and his community. He included family members in as many of his daily activities as possible, taking his young son Robert with him to play at the Hydraulics Lab while he worked, and bringing his wife and young children with him to professional meetings and on field exercises whenever possible. Outside his own home, Nagler was active as a church officer and Sunday School superintendent; he also counseled his church’s youth and worked with the Boy Scouts.

Floyd Nagler died unexpectedly in 1933 at age 41, from complications of a burst appendix. Looking back at his 13-year tenure at IIHR, one wonders how he could have accomplished so much in such a brief time period. His legacy certainly attests to his energy and focused attention. In addition to leaving behind the physical and organizational structure that identify IIHR today, he established the standards of excellence and the traditions of high productivity, innovation in research, and devotion to problem-solving that still characterize IIHR. And he commenced certain fields of study that continue to the present day. But perhaps most importantly, Floyd Nagler created an institution that was ready to take on a life of its own and was primed to make a difference in many ways. That goal remains a guiding light for IIHR. With Nagler’s firm guiding hand and passionate dedication, IIHR was set on the course it still largely follows today.

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Last modified on June 18th, 2015
Posted on November 12th, 2013

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