A century of progress
The year was 1901. The Victorian era had ended and the age of technology
had dawned. The new Nobel Prize, established under the will of Swedish
chemist Alfred Nobel, offered international recognition of scientific
achievement. That year, Jacobus Henricus Vant Hoff of the Prussian
Academy of Sciences, Berlin, became the first Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
for his discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure
America was poised for a new century of progress and competition. But
there were few authoritative national standards for measuring, comparing
and evaluating the products Americans were making, selling, buying and
using. A foot in Illinois was longer than a foot in Virginia. Eight different
values defined a gallon. Time-keeping was local. The new technology of
electric power lacked defined electrical units. American scientists sent
their instruments abroad for calibration.
The problem was urgent and the solution was swift.
Lyman J. Gage, Secretary of the Treasury, led the campaign for a national
standardizing laboratory. His letter to Congress in the spring of 1900
cited the need for uniform standards of length, mass, time, temperature,
pressure and other physical quantities. He also stated that "rapid
progress of pure and applied science has increased the scope of such work
until it includes many important branches of physical and chemical research,
requiring a complete laboratory, fitted for undertaking the most refined
measurements known to modern science."
In March 1901, Congress approved the charter for the new national laboratory
and Samuel W. Stratton, a physicist from the University of Chicago, became
the first director. The staff of 12 included one chemist, one physicist,
their two assistants, one engineer, a clerk, a messenger and a watchman.
Their initial challenge was to establish standards for electricity, then
length, mass, temperature, light and time. This nucleus expanded to a
staff of 58 by February 1903, and grew steadily into an organization which
today employs 3,300 scientists, engineers, technicians, business specialists
and administrative personnel. Then and now, chemical sciences and technology
play a vital role at NIST.