National Institute of Standards and Technology
Dedicated December 5, 2001, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, during the 100th anniversary of the establishment of a national physical science research laboratory.
The federal government’s first physical science research laboratory was chartered by Congress on March 3, 1901, as the National Bureau of Standards, which became the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988. Recognizing the critical importance of chemical measures and standards, NIST established the Chemistry Division as one of its first programs. Today, the Chemical Science and Technology Laboratory, one of the Institute’s seven measurement and standards laboratories, offers the most comprehensive range of chemical, physical, and engineering measurement capabilities in its field.
- Establishment of the National Bureau of Standards
- NIST's First Director, Samuel W. Stratton (1861-1931)
- NIST's First Chief Chemist, William F. Hillebrand (1853-1925)
- NIST’s Nobel Prize Winners
- Milestones of Chemical Standards and Research at NIST
- NIST’s Service to Society: Contributions to Everyday Life
- Further Reading
- Landmark Designation and Acknowledgments
- Cite this Page
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 Van’t 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 in solutions.
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, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), 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.
Born on a farm outside Litchfield, Illinois, in 1861, Samuel W. Stratton gravitated not toward animal husbandry, but to farm machinery and new mechanical devices to facilitate farm work.
In 1880, young Stratton sold a colt he had raised to finance his first year of college. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1884 with a degree in mechanical engineering and was appointed instructor of mathematics and physics. In 1889, he became assistant professor of physics and electrical engineering.
In 1892, he joined the new University of Chicago and in 1900 became a full professor. Stratton eventually received six honorary doctorates. Part of his research included a new form of harmonic analysis, a device for high-precision measurement of electrical frequencies.
Commissioned in the Illinois naval militia unit, he served during 1898 as a Navy lieutenant in the Spanish-American War. Stratton was brought to Washington to help write legislation for the establishment of the National Bureau of Standards, predecessor to NIST, and head of the Office of Weights and Measures in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. He was appointed NBS' first director when Congress established the laboratory in 1901.
Known rather formally as Dr. Stratton to his friends, he quickly became the “Old Man” to the young scientists on his staff. He was said to be outgoing and accessible without a trace of affectation. A great champion of technology and research, in 1902 Stratton told a House committee: “If we are to advance, we have to create original things.”
After heading NIST for 21 years, Stratton became president of MIT in 1923. There, he expanded research in engineering and industrial processes, pure science and new fields of applied science.
In 1926, he returned for NIST’s 25th anniversary celebration. Asked to recall the greatest accomplishments under his direction, he cited “the influence upon manufacturing of the introduction of scientific methods of measurement and methods of research.”
At age 70, Samuel Stratton died suddenly of a coronary occlusion in 1931.
William F. Hillebrand is remembered for his contributions to analytical chemistry and his absolute insistence on the highest standards of accuracy in this work.
Born in Honolulu in 1853, Hillebrand was the son of a physician who was also an authority on the botany of the Sandwich Islands. In 1872, after two years at Cornell University, he decided to become a chemist, heading for the University of Heidelberg that fall. In 1875, he received a doctorate, summa cum laude. He had discovered the pyrophoric properties of cerium filings, later used commercially for the tips of gas lighters.
In 1876, Hillebrand attended the University of Strasbourg and, in 1877, studied at the Mining Academy at Freiberg. He joined the United States Geological Survey in 1880, analyzing rocks and minerals. In 1904, he called attention to the large quantities of potash that were lost during the processing of Portland cement. Years later, recovery became a valuable commercial process.
In 1908, Hillebrand became chief chemist of the National Bureau of Standards, now NIST. Among his responsibilities was the program of Standard Reference Materials. An initially modest list of standard samples, which included three of iron, one limestone, and one zinc ore, grew to 5,000 samples representing 65 materials by 1925.
Known for his exacting standards, Hillebrand was referred to by his staff as “The Supreme Court of Analytical Chemistry.” He read voraciously, watched birds, fished for bass, and enjoyed piano and philately. Hillebrand was active in the American Chemical Society, serving as associate editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, assistant editor of the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry and as the Society’s president in 1906. He is memorialized by the Hillebrand Award of the Society’s Chemical Society Washington section, given annually to an outstanding area chemist.
In 1916, Hillebrand was awarded the Chandler Gold Medal by Columbia University. In 1923, he began co-authoring Applied Inorganic Analysis, which was incomplete at his death in 1925. The work was published in 1929 and became known as “the analyst’s bible.”
William D. Phillips, NIST physicist, was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light. He shared the prize with Steven Chu of Stanford University and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji of the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure.
Eric A. Cornell, NIST senior scientist, Carl E. Wieman of the University of Colorado and Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics. Cornell had observed a new state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate in 1995, a form predicted by Albert Einstein that occurs at just a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero.
Heat and thermometry were early concerns of the newly formed laboratory. In 1901, the lab acquired specially constructed thermometers in Europe and was prepared to certify almost any precision thermometer used in scientific work. But a unified standard was needed. By 1927, after years of research, laboratories in Great Britain, Germany, and the United States proposed the adoption of an international scale ranging from the temperature of liquid oxygen to that of incandescent bodies. The first cryogenic investigations of extreme low temperatures began in 1904.
In 1905, the railroad industry was trying to solve the problem of rail car derailments caused by the fracturing of cast iron wheels. The industry called on the Chemistry Division to provide “standardizing” materials to calibrate measuring systems for quality control during production. The first Standard Samples defined composition of various types of iron.
In 1906, the laboratory initiated the Standard Reference Materials program (SRMs)—well-characterized homogenous materials or simple artifacts certified by NIST as possessing specific physical and chemical properties. That year, NIST answered a request from refrigeration engineers to provide physical data for more efficient refrigeration by determining specific heats of several calcium chloride brines. This early work has grown into 50 electronic databases, including information for analytical chemistry, biotechnology, chemical engineering, thermodynamics, and thermochemistry.
In 1908, William F. Hillebrand became Chief Chemist of the laboratory, a position he held for 21 years.
The laboratory addressed construction industry standards in 1911, testing 23,900 samples of cement purchased for government projects. By 1912, a single specification certified for chemical composition governed all federal construction purchases.
During World War I, NIST performed composition analysis and properties determinations for chemicals and steels used in weapon production.
In 1917, research began in standards for dental amalgams. In 1919, the gas chemistry section pioneered the development of thermal-conductivity methods, using with new instruments for showing the presence and amount of combustible gasses in air.
Automotive industry standards, pursued in 1922, included research on engines to identify ways to increase operating efficiency. Also in the lab's early years, chemists began using the polariscope, an instrument that measures the rotation of polarized light to analyze solutions, to help standardize operations in U.S. Customs Service laboratories.
The Chemistry Division made the first “heavy water” produced by electrolysis in 1931 and, together with the Cryogenic Laboratory, supported theoretical work that subsequently won the Nobel Prize for Harold Urey.
In early 1940, NIST participated in the Manhattan Project, developing a new technique for the analysis of impurities in uranium and a method of ether extraction that became the standard technique for purifying uranium. Also during the 1940s, NIST advanced national standards by developing tests such as the measurement of freezing points to determine material purity.
In a highly classified project in 1947, the chemical division developed carbon monoxide indicators by producing a sensitive calorimetric-indicating gel placed in a tube for use in the cockpits of fighter planes and crew quarters of bombers.
When the war cut off imports of natural rubber in 1943, NIST helped determine which types of synthetics to use. NIST’s application of viscometry for characterization and testing became an indispensable tool.
During the 1940s and 1950s, NIST’s thermochemical determinations of the heat of combustion and the heat of formation of compounds gave an important boost to the nascent synthetic polymer industry. Today, most manufacturers of polymer resins rely on NIST’s SRMs.
In 1952, NIST’s 1,200-page circular, Selected Values of Chemical Thermodynamic Properties, evaluated and systematized data that appeared in chemistry literature. The book became the bible of thermochemists.
The Electrochemistry Division’s testing of a commercial battery additive called AD-X2 led to Congressional hearings in 1953. By helping to expose fraudulent claims, NIST garnered praise for its testing procedures and integrity.
During the 1950s, NIST developed a new method to accurately measure isotopic abundance in SRMs used in nuclear chemistry and geochemistry. In the early 1960s, this process supported determination of the Faraday constant and improved the accuracy of the key element of weight determination for the unified atomic weight scale.
NIST continues to develop SRMs and NIST-traceable reference materials as solutions for specific needs. In recent work with industry, NIST has helped ensure that air pollution reduction goals are met.
Assisting industry in attaining ultra-high resolution depth profiles, NIST develops measurement tools that enable chemical characterization at the millimeter to nanometer spatial scales.
In 1967, a measurement for serum cholesterol was the first of 12 health care markers. The first standard for DNA profiling, released in 1992, paved the way for DNA acceptance as evidence in court.
In May 1999, the Advanced Chemical Sciences Laboratory began addressing 21st-century needs from pharmaceutical manufacturing to pollution monitoring and nutritional analysis to tissue engineering. By 2004, a new Advanced Measurement Laboratory will help NIST chemists keep pace with emerging technologies.
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, NIST’s 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 NIST’s earliest efforts, the laboratory’s 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, America’s 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—America’s only supply, from Germany, had been cut off. NIST was the country’s only producer of optical glass during WWI and produced about half of the country’s supply during WWII.
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 today’s 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 nation’s crime lab
During the early 1930s, 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 today.
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 nation’s clock
NIST has maintained the nation’s 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 was installed in 2000, 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 children’s sleep wear and mattresses. In 1997, NIST produced the only validated method for quantifying lethality of smoke, now routinely used in fire hazard analysis.
NIST’s 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.
- American Chemical Society Landmark Designation of NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology)
- William D. Phillips Autobiography (Nobelprize.org)
- Eric A. Cornell Autobiography (Nobelprize.org)
It is therefore the unanimous opinion of your committee that no more essential aid could be given to manufacturing, commerce, the makers of scientific apparatus, the scientific work of the government, of schools, colleges and universities, than by the establishment of the institution proposed in this bill.”
— Report on bill to establish the National Bureau of Standards, House of Representatives, May 14, 1900
The American Chemical Society designated the National Institute of Standards and Technology as a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony on December 5, 2001, in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The text of the plaque commemorating the landmark reads:
For one hundred years, scientists and engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards, have made broad-based and comprehensive contributions to chemical science and technology and to the economic strength and competitiveness of the United States. Through internationally recognized programs in materials characterization and standards, measurement, calibration, and synthesis — and in areas as diverse as cryogenics, weather prediction, solid state devices, and synthetic rubber — the National Institute of Standards and Technology continues to demonstrate that the intelligent application of research in physical sciences to a wide range of societal challenges contributes to a higher quality of life for everyone.
Adapted for the internet from “National Institute of Standards and Technology,” produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2001.
American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks. National Institute of Standards and Technology. http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/nist.html (accessed Month Day, Year).
Learn more: About the Landmarks Program.
Take action: Nominate a Landmark and Contact the NHCL Coordinator.