North Dakota-born man was tasked with overtaking the Soviet Union in the space race

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of T. Keith Glennan, who was born in Enderlin, N.D., and played a role in the early days of "talking" motion pictures.
T. Keith Glennan. Public domain photo by NASA / Special to The Forum Credits: NASA

Most of the country was shocked and alarmed when, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into space. This signaled that the Russians had overtaken the U.S. in the space race and, not only was this a blow to our prestige, but it also meant that nowhere in the U.S. would be safe from a Soviet missile launch.

An alarmed Congress saw this as a national security threat and passed the National Aeronautics Space Act, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed on July 29, 1958. This act authorized the creation of the National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) with "a broad mission for the agency to plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities." The person chosen to head this new agency was born in North Dakota.

Eisenhower selected T. Keith Glennan, president of the Case Institute of Technology, to be the first administrator and director of NASA, and Congress approved of Glennan's selection on Aug. 15. Glennan's first challenge was to bring together various agencies, “key interest groups, and scientists committed” to work on space projects. On Oct. 1, NASA, with Glennan as chief administrator, began its official operation.

Thomas Keith Glennan was born Sept. 8, 1905, in Enderlin, to Richard and Margaret Laing (Paulin) Glennan. Richard was a train dispatcher for the Soo Line Railroad and, at the time of Keith's birth, Enderlin was at the head of the rails. The family lived in a boxcar, and their address kept changing as new tracks continued to be laid westward through North Dakota and Montana.

In 1912, the Glennan family permanently relocated to Eau Claire, Wis., where Keith grew up and attended school. He was a very good student who loved to read, and was a whiz in mathematics.


While in high school, Keith Glennan knew he would be attending college and, to earn money for that, he "worked at a variety of jobs" because his family was very poor and in debt. Following graduation in 1922, Glennan attended the Eau Claire State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire) and planned on becoming a teacher. While in college, he worked most afternoons at a clothing store.

After a year and a half of college in Wisconsin, Glennan decided that he didn't want to be a teacher, and a good friend, who was attending Yale University, told him to apply there. Glennan sent an application to Yale, but was turned down, so his friend convinced the administration at the school to allow Glennan to enter on a provisional basis. In September 1924, Glennan enrolled as a sophomore at a special school at Yale called the Sheffield Scientific School that focused on science and engineering.

To earn money for his schooling, Glennan began a chauffeur or driving service at Yale. One of his most frequent clients was the noted economist Thomas Sewell Adams, a Yale professor. Dr. Adams soon became Glennan's friend and mentor and, in 1931, became his father-in-law when his daughter, Ruth, and Glennan got married.

During his junior and senior years, Glennan received the Lord Strathcona Scholarship, "recognizing achievements of the children of railroaders." Lord Strathcona was a very wealthy Canadian who sold his St. Paul and Pacific Railroad to James J. Hill, who greatly expanded the railroad throughout North Dakota and renamed it the Great Northern Railway.

T. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator from 1958 to 1961. Painted by Albert Murray / NASA public domain image / Special to The Forum


In the spring of 1927, Glennan graduated cum laude from Yale with a bachelors' degree in electrical engineering. This was a time of great excitement in the movie industry because film engineers at the Western Electric Co. (WECO) had discovered how to add sound to motion pictures, which they employed with the release of the John Barrymore motion picture "Don Juan" in 1926. It had a musical soundtrack and incidental sounds, but did not contain any dialog and, in 1927, the talkie movie "The Jazz Singer" was released. It was apparent that talkies were the future of the movie industry, and all the major studios wanted to be able to make talkie movies.
Two of the leading engineers in the development of talking motion pictures were Lee De Forest and Theodore Case, and both men were engineering graduates from Yale. Upon graduation, Glennan was hired by WECO to work for their subsidiary, Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI), installing "sound motion picture recording and reproducing equipment in theaters all over the world." He was soon promoted to assistant general service superintendent at ERPI, supervising nearly 300 employees. Within two years, Glennan was supervising about 1,000 employees in 10 countries "setting up and running installation and service operations."


In March 1930, Glennan returned to the U.S. to serve as assistant manager in the production of educational films. In 1934, he went to Hollywood to work as vice president and general manager of General Service Studios, which was producing feature-length motion pictures. From 1935 to 1940, Glennan served as studio manager of Paramount Pictures where he was "responsible for budgeting productions, lighting, sound, set construction, wardrobe, art, and film processing.

In 1940, with World War II underway in Europe, the Royal Air Force of the British Isles was in need of a light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, and they contracted with the Vega Aircraft Corp. to build 500 of them. Previously Vega, a subdivision of Lockheed, manufactured small airplanes. Since Vega needed to quickly come up with a design for the aircraft, they contracted with some of the country's best design engineers, and Glennan worked for Vega until the design for the airplane was completed. He returned to Hollywood later in 1940 to become studio manager of Samuel Goldwyn Studios.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the entry of the U.S. into World War II, Glennan left Goldwyn in the summer of 1942 to work on a defense contract. He accepted a position with the Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory (NUSL) which had as its primary focus antisubmarine warfare through the use of "passive sonar, ocean acoustics, and recordings and interpretations of underwater sounds."

In December 1942, Glennan became the director of NUSL and reported directly to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Almost all of the wartime research and development was carried out by OSRD. Glennan "embodied the progressive trend in U.S. politics that emphasized professionalism and scientific or technological expertise over politics in solving national problems." Glennan's work with leading scientists would later be of great assistance with his work on the Atomic Energy Commission and as head of NASA.

On June 1, 1945, just as World War II was ending, Glennan resigned as director of NUSL to become assistant production manager of the Ansco Division of the General Aniline and Film Corp., a German company that was seized by the American government during the war and managed by government-appointed directors.

After two years with Ansco, Glennan received a phone call informing him that the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, was looking for a new president and that he should apply. Glennan did just that, and was hired.

We will conclude the T. Keith Glennan story next week.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at


Curt Eriksmoen mug 10-20-20.jpg
Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That" columnist. landscape

Curt Eriksmoen mug 10-20-20.jpg
Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That" columnist. landscape

What To Read Next
Get Local