Vol. 23, No.3
Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Celebrates its Centennial
Establishment of the National Bureau of Standards
Scientific Work of NBS/NIST
NBS/NIST Participation in IUPAC
Mark the Centennia
by Dr. Robert N. Goldberg
and Dr. David R. Lide
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) celebrates
its centennial this year. NIST, formerly known as the National Bureau
of Standards (NBS), was established in 1901 by the U.S. Congress to
maintain custody of the national standards of measurement and to develop
new ones as needed by the countrys rapidly expanding industry.
NIST/NBS has grown from a relatively small laboratory with approximately
12 employees to a major research laboratory. NIST has also had a long
involvement with IUPAC in many areas of chemical research.
|NBS occupied the former quarters of the Office
of Weights and Measures in the Coast and Geodetic Survey Building
shown here in 1901.
The aim of this article is to give a brief history of NIST/NBS, with
some discussion of its interactions with IUPAC.
Three excellent written histories of NIST/NBS exist. They include Measures
for Progress: A History of the National Bureau of Standards, by
R. C. Cochrane (National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce,
Washington, DC, 1966, 2nd Printing, 1974); A Unique Institution:
The National Bureau of Standards, 1950-1969, by E. Passaglia and
K. A. Beal (NIST Special Publication 925, U.S. Department of Commerce,
Technology Administration, NIST, Washington, DC, for sale by the Superintendent
of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999); and Responding
to National Needs: The National Bureau of Standards Becomes the National
Institute of Standards and Technology, 1969-1993, by J. F. Schooley
(NIST Special Publication 955. U.S. Department of Commerce, Technology
Administration, NIST, Washington, DC, for sale by the Superintendent
of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, 2000). The history described
herein has been excerpted from these sources.
Establishment of the National Bureau
of Standards (NBS)
|Samuel Wesley Stratton, the first
director of NBS.
The United States was a rapidly changing nation 100 years ago. The
country had been primarily agricultural for most of the 19th century,
but had undergone extremely rapid industrial growth in the latter part
of that century. By 1900, the United States was already a major industrial
power, and electricity was arriving in many cities and towns. Articles
of commerce require legally based standards to ensure fairness in trade,
and there was clearly a need for standards for many physical quantities.
In 1836, the United States had established a Bureau of Weights and
Measures that maintained standards of mass, length, and volume. In 1884,
the Bureau of Weights and Measures also adopted standards for electrical
units. Yet, the work of the Bureau of Weights and Measures had very
little legal standing, as this function was left to the individual states.
Also, the United States had been one of the 17 original member states
of the "Convention of the Metre" (1875) that led to the founding of
the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris. By
the end of the 19th century, several countries had established prominent
national standards laboratories, among them the Physikalish-Technische
Reichsanstalt (Germany, 1887) and the National Physical Laboratory (Great
Britain, 1899). Surprisingly, at the turn of the last century, the United
States was the only great commercial nation without a significant standards
laboratory. Thus, a convincing case for the establishment of a proper
standards laboratory could easily be made on the basis of the rapidly
changing nature of the nations economy, a desire to aid the scientific
enterprise, and a wish to be commensurate in this important activity
with other modern nations in the new century. As indicated above, the
need for standards was particularly acute in regard to the rapidly developing
electrical industry. Thus, the administration of President McKinley
pressed Congress for the establishment of a modern national standards
laboratory. Enabling legislation was passed 3 March 1901, but did not
become effective until 1 July 1901. The National Bureau of Standards
(NBS) was originally established within the Department of the Treasury;
it was moved to the newly formed Department of Commerce (and Labor)
NBS was first located in the Coast and Geodetic Survey Building, which
was the home of the Office of Weights and Measures in Washington, DC.
The first director, Samuel Wesley Stratton, had been a professor of
physics at the University of Chicago. He brought incredible talent and
energy to the Bureau and worked hard to establish the new laboratory.
The original staff consisted of approximately 12 individuals, but grew
to about 800 during the nearly 22 years that he served as director before
leaving in 1923 to become president of the Massachusetts Institute of
During his tenure as NBS Director, Dr. Stratton enlisted a very distinguished
staff that included well-known experts in various scientific disciplines:
E. B. Rosa and Frank A. Wolff (electrical measurements); Charles W.
Waidner, Nathan S. Osborne, and Hobart C. Dickinson (heat and thermometry);
W. W. Coblentz and W. W. Bates (optics); and W. A. Noyes and W. F. Hillebrand
(chemistry). The emphasis was to serve science and industry in the nation.
While the scientific work of the Bureau became ever more well-known
in scientific and technical circles, the general public of-ten identified
NBS with standards and calibrations. Additionally, NBS publications
on subjects of interest to consumers and on popular science subjects
attracted significant attention.
|NBS occupied a 3-hectare site about
6km north of the White House in 1910. Subsequent land purchases
expanded the site to about 28 hectares.
Early in 1904, NBS moved to its Connecticut Avenue location in Washington,
DC, where it would remain for about 60 years. Relocation of the main
laboratory to the present Gaithersburg, Maryland site took place from
1962 to 1969. In 1951, a new NBS laboratory that specialized in cryogenics
research was established in Boulder, Colorado. The Boulder laboratory
also housed research on radio propagation and became the home of the
Time and Frequency Division.
Scientific Work of NBS/NIST
Most of the work of NBS/NIST had its origins in standards. Calibration
services available from NBS in its early years were limited to mass,
length, volume, temperature, electric potential, and resistance. Much
of the early scientific equipment was imported with the assistance of
the European standards laboratories. However, as NBS expanded its staff
and its expertise, this relatively new laboratory rapidly became an
equal to the other great standards laboratories. Because standards are
almost always international in nature, collaboration with other standards
laboratories and organizations has always been an important organizational
goal for NBS/ NIST.
The current administration building of the National
Institute of Standards and Technology at Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Scientific endeavors at NBS/NIST have resulted in two important university
collaborations. The first was the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics
(JILA) that was created in 1962 by a memorandum of understanding between
NBS and the University of Colorado. The aim of JILA was the study of
the basic physics of atoms and molecules in space. The second collaboration
was the establishment with the University of Maryland in 1984 of the
Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (CARB). The main focus
of scientific research at CARB is protein chemistry. Currently, structural
and theoretical chemistry, molecular biology, and thermodynamics are
all applied toward understanding protein structure and function.
NBS programs were clearly affected by national and international events.
Thus, NBS played an important role in the early days of government testing.
These testing activities included a wide variety of products, many of
which were being used by the U.S. Government. However, many of the results
of the tests were made available to consumers who benefited from the
information. NBS also made significant contributions to the U.S. effort
during both world wars. Important breakthroughs were the development
of the radio proximity fuse and improved methods for the production
of synthetic rubber and aviation fuel. In 1953, the defense programs
that had existed at NBS were transferred to the newly created Harry
Diamond Ordnance Laboratories and the Navy Corona Laboratory, both in
the Department of Defense. While this transfer involved a loss of over
one-third of the NBS staff and more than one-half of its budget, it
also meant that the work of NBS was now devoted primarily to standards,
civilian technology, and science.
A very important change in NISTs interaction with industry came
with the Advanced Technology Program, which was established in 1988
to form a partnership with the private sector for the purpose of accelerating
the development of innovative technologies that promised significant
commercial payoffs and widespread benefits for the nation. An additional
NIST program that interacts directly with industry is the Manufacturing
Extension Partnership. It consists of a nationwide network of not-for-profit
Centers in over 400 locations nationwide. Its purpose is to provide
small- and medium- sized manufacturers with access to technical information
that can help them succeed. NIST also manages the Malcolm Baldridge
National Quality Award, which aims to encourage improvements in manufacturing
performance and in the quality of goods and services. The Baldridge
Award consists of a prestigious prize given annually to U.S. organizations
that have demonstrated performance excellence. The increasing importance
of technology in the work of NBS led to a name change. Thus, in 1988
the name of the agency was changed to "National Institute of Standards
and Technology" to reflect more accurately the involvement of technology
in the work that was being done.
NISTs work is made available to the public in several forms that
include calibration services, standard reference materials, standard
reference data, and scientific publications as principal mechanisms
for the distribution of services and information. At present, the most
widely disseminated standard is time and frequency, which is broadcast
from the NIST Boulder laboratory. This information, which is essential
to communications and transportation, is now accessed several million
times daily. The best source for current information on NIST can be
found at its web site: http://www.nist.gov.
This article was contributed by Dr.
Robert N. Goldberg (Biotechnology Division, NIST, Gaithersburg,
MD 20899, USA; E-mail: [email protected]),
Secretary of the IUPAC Commission on Biophysical Chemistry (I.7), and
Dr. David R. Lide,
NIST alumnus and former President of the IUPAC Physical Chemistry Division