NIST: service to
A platinum alloy bar was the measure of the meter in 1901 and scientists
attempted for years to provide a redefinition. In 1960, there was a redefinition
based on the wavelength of Krypton 86. In 1972, a NIST physicist made
a measure of the frequency of laser light, which led to an international
redefinition in 1983 a meter is how far light travels in a certain
fraction of a second.
Hoses and hydrants
A raging fire in Baltimore in 1904 drew firefighters from as far away
as New York, only to stand by helplessly as more than 1,500 buildings
burned to the ground. The couplings of their hoses would not fit the hydrants,
leading NIST to help develop national standards for hose couplings. During
the 1920s, NISTs tests for fire resistance in building structures
led to standard procedures throughout the world.
First signs of neon
Luminous script signs, designed by NIST in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase
Exposition in St. Louis, illustrated the first use of the noble gasses
argon, helium, neon, krypton and xenon for display purposes.
In one of NISTs earliest efforts, the laboratorys electrical
research and testing unit supported international redefinitions of the
ampere, ohm and volt.
Original consumer reports
Measurements for the Household, published in 1915, described the
operation of common measuring appliances such as thermometers and clocks.
Safety for the Household, published in 1918, demonstrated, among
other things, the proper way to use a fire extinguisher.
Tests, tests, tests
Incandescent lamps, elevator cable for the Washington Monument and inks
for the Government Printing Office were among the first products tested
by NIST before purchase by the government. NIST also developed testing
instruments to measure currency durability, fabric stiffness and the hardness
of thin materials such as dental enamel.
During the years following the Wright brothers flight in 1903 through
the United States involvement in World War I, Americas military
forces sent the instruments from their several dozen aircraft to NIST
for testing. NIST also produced the first quantitative data ever on power-producing
qualities of fuels and the first U.S. study of the aerodynamics of flight,
building a wind tunnel to study wind stresses and airspeed indicators.
The radio wave
NIST was one of the first radio broadcasters, pioneering a market and
crop report service to facilitate its research into the technical limitations
of this emerging medium. This research led to standards of frequency.
The front lines
During World War I, NIST developed a radio direction finder antenna, which
it had earlier developed as an aid to navigation, that was used to pinpoint
positions of enemy forces. By 1917, the military services were requesting
some sort of scientific work every 20 minutes, including the manufacture
of optical glass Americas only supply, from Germany, had
been cut off. NIST was the countrys only producer of optical glass
during WWI and produced about half of the countrys supply during
Air traffic control
NIST developed an aircraft radio guidance system for "blind landings,"
using an instrument panel to record signals from strategically placed
radio transmitters, allowing pilots to track approximate positions at
all times. This principle is the basis of todays air traffic control
systems worldwide. The first fully blind landing was achieved in 1931.
NIST provided physical measurement standards to assure the safety of X-rays,
and helped bring about the 1931 X-ray safety code.
The nations crime lab
During the early 30s, a NIST scientist acted as a criminologist
in federal investigations, including the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Since
the early 1970s, NIST has developed more than a dozen law enforcement
standards such as ballistic resistance of police body armor. In 1995,
NIST developed a program for fingerprint screening.
In 1936, NIST built the radiosonde, a balloon-borne instrument that increased
the range and quality of weather data. Weather balloons continue in use
In 1941, NIST tested the radio proximity fuse for non-rotating projectiles,
a mechanism for exploding projectiles (bombs, rockets, mortars) when directly
over targets rather than on impact, often described as a leading technical
advance of the wartime period. The staff also worked on Bat, the first
fully automated guided missile used successfully in combat. By 1943, the
entire staff was involved in war work.
The nations clock
NIST has maintained the nations primary time standards, from the
pendulum to the quartz clock to the first atomic clock, developed in 1949.
After six generations of fine-tuning, the current accuracy standard is
one second in 20 million years.
The dawn of computers
In 1947, NIST began building the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer
(SEAC), a major achievement as the first operational internally programmed
digital computer in the United States.
NIST helped preserve the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and
Bill of Rights in 1951, building a helium-filled museum case. A new state-of-the-art
enclosure is in progress, utilizing expertise in the measurement of low
level impurities in gasses.
The space program required new measurements of the combustion of rocket
fuels and rocket thrust, plus the effects of sudden changes in temperature
and pressure on rocket engines. NIST worked on similar measurements for
the first supersonic flight in the late 1940s. By 1964, NIST was routinely
measuring temperatures in the 20,000° C range as well as calibrating
devices to measure the forces of large rockets.
In 1971, NIST developed methods for broadcasting time and frequency information
on television, precursor to the closed-captioning used today.
In 1974, NIST helped develop the first standards for smoke detectors.
Extensive work in fire research also included standards on childrens
sleep wear and mattresses. In 1997, NIST produced the only validated method
for quantifying lethality of smoke, now routinely used in fire hazard
NISTs scientists are contributing to energy conservation and environmental
protection, advanced encryption and robotics, computer security and semiconductor
testing, radiopharmaceutical standards, and fiber optics. They continue
to explore the ever-expanding frontiers of science and industry.