National Bureau of Standards

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NATIONAL BUREAU OF STANDARDS. The question of standards first arose with the union of the thirteen colonies. In a predominantly agricultural nation, the power to coin money, to regulate the alloy and value of coin, and to fix the standard of weights and measures throughout the United States, granted to Congress in the Articles of Confederation in 1776 and in the Constitution, were deemed sufficient to serve a simple economy. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had advocated for a uniform system of weights and measures at a time when a variety of systems, many of them remnants of methodologies employed during medieval times in England, were still in varying use in industry and commerce. As early as 1821, John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, advised Congress to consider adopting the metric system, which was then being used in France. However, the United States opted instead to adopt a version of the English system, culminating in the creation of the Office of Standard Weights and Measures in 1824. Despite some degree of standardization, the system was cumbersome, at best, using such constructs as "Queen Anne's gallon" (231 cubic inches), the "avoirdupois pound" (7,000 grains), the "troy pound" (5,760 grains), and the "U.S. bushel" (2,150.42 cubic inches), a derivation of the fifteenth century "Winchester bushel." In 1836, responsibility for the construction of weights and measures was transferred from Congress to the secretary of the Treasury, who was already maintaining standards in the customs houses. The new office was set up in the Treasury Department's Coast and Geodetic Survey. The use of the metric system was first authorized in the United States in 1866, but its genesis goes back to 1670 in France, where it was generally recognized that there was a need for a uniform system to facilitate scientific communication.

Originally known as the Office of Standard Weights and Measures, Congress created an agency in 1824 within the Treasury Department to establish and promote the consistent use of uniform weights and measures. In 1890, Congress established the Office of Construction of Weights and Measures, and in 1894, it authorized that office to define and establish the units of electrical measure. In 1901, the name was changed to the National Bureau of Standards, where its responsibilities were expanded to address the growing use of electricity. In 1903, it was moved to the Department of Commerce and became involved in promoting the use of technology as a means of increasing the international competitiveness of American businesses. In 1988, the name was again changed to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

By 1900, when U.S. exports exceeded imports for the first time, the industrialization of America was well underway. When the National Bureau of Standards was founded the next year, with a staff of twelve, the secretary of the Treasury appointed a visiting committee of five distinguished scientists and industrialists to report annually to the secretary on the work of the bureau. That same year, construction began on the first of its laboratories in Washington, D.C. Augmenting its staff and planning new laboratories, the bureau began establishing more accurate and stable standards, launched a crusade for the use of honest weights and measures in the marketplace, began testing materials and supplies purchased for government agencies, and developed test methods for use in evaluating consumer products.

In succeeding decades, through its fundamental research in measurement and materials on behalf of government, industry, science, and the public, the bureau developed thousands of new standards of quality, safety, performance, and precision measurement. These standards played a significant role in the development of the radio, radio propagation, automotive technology, aviation, cryogenics, electronics, nuclear physics, and space science. The National Bureau of Standards thus became one of the largest institutions for scientific research in the world.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the NIST developed and promoted the use of measurement, standards, and technology designed to facilitate trade, enhance productivity, and improve the quality of life. A staff of approximately 4,600 scientists, engineers, technicians, visiting researchers, manufacturing specialists, and support and administrative personnel, with an annual budget in excess of $800 million, conducted research in engineering, chemistry, physics, and information science through four main programs: the NIST Laboratories (in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Boulder, Colorado), the Baldrige National Quality Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and the Advanced Technology Program (all located in Gaithersburg). The Baldrige National Quality Program promotes performance excellence in manufacturing, services, education, and health care. The Manufacturing Extension Partnership provides technical and business assistance to small manufacturers, and the Advanced Technology Program supports research and development of innovative technologies with the potential for broad-based national benefit.

NIST researchers, responding to industry needs and in collaboration with industry colleagues, academic institutions, and government agencies, carry out their work in specialized laboratories. The building and fire research laboratory addresses issues of construction quality and productivity, as well as loss due to fires, earthquakes, wind, and other potentially damaging natural occurrences. The Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory strives to improve public health and safety and American industrial competitiveness in the global market by developing universal reference standards, models, and measurements for chemical, biochemical, and chemical engineering applications. The electronics and electrical engineering laboratory establishes and maintains all electrical measurements in the United States, with applications in the fields of microelectronics, optoelectronics, radio frequency technology, semiconductor electronics, electromagnetic and magnetic technologies, and law enforcement. The information technology laboratory focuses its research on rapidly changing information technologies to improve the reliability and security of computers and computer networks. Research areas include mathematics and computational sciences, convergent information systems, software diagnostics and conformance testing, advanced network technologies, information access, and statistical engineering. The Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory develops measurement methods, standards, and technologies aimed at improving U.S. manufacturing capabilities, efficiency, and productivity. In addition to maintaining the basic units for measuring mass and length in the United States, this lab conducts research in the areas of precision engineering, intelligent systems, fabrication technology, manufacturing metrology, and manufacturing systems integration. The Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory provides technical leadership and expertise in the use of ceramics, polymers, metallurgy, neutron characterization, and materials reliability, which are critical in the microelectronics, automotive, and health care industries. This laboratory contains the first cold neutron research facility in the country (the NIST Center for Neutron Research), as well as the Center for Theoretical and Computational Materials Science. The Physics Laboratory, in collaboration with industry, works to implement commercial and industrial solutions to problems encountered in the fields of electron and optical physics, optical technology, atomic physics, ionizing radiation, quantum physics, and time and frequency. The Technology Services division provides several products and services to both industry and the public, including standard reference materials and data, weights and measures information and data, laboratory accreditation, and the training of foreign standards officials.


Passaglia, Elio, and Karma A. Beal. A Unique Institution: The National Bureau of Standards, 1950–1969. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1999.

Snyder, Wilbert F., and Charles L. Bragaw. Achievement in Radio: Seventy Years of Radio Science, Technology, Standards, and Measurement at the National Bureau of Standards. Boulder, Colo. National Bureau of Standards, 1986.

Christine E.Hoffman

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National Bureau of Standards