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No. 2424:
The National Institute of Standards and Technology

by Andrew Boyd

Today, we measure things. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We spend a good part of our lives measuring things — length, weight, time. But how do we know that a pound of coffee weighs the same in Miami as it does in Seattle? Or that a gallon of gas is the same in Houston as it is in New York?

The need for uniform measures in the United States was recognized in the Constitution. It grants Congress the power to establish standards. George Washington understood the need for standards. In his 1790 State of the Union address, he proclaimed that "Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to." However, it wasn't until 1901 that Congress established the organization we know today as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST for short.

It's easy to imagine NIST as a building filled with artifacts, like a chunk of metal under glass with a sign reading "this is a standard pound." There's some of that. But NIST is really much more.

standard kilogram
The standard kilogram is housed at the International Bureau of Weights and Standards near Paris. NIST maintains an official copy.

NIST's work with clocks is a good example. In 1904, it bought a sensitive pendulum clock from Germany, declaring it the U. S. standard. Since then, the "standard" has changed many times. Today we use an atomic clock developed at NIST — a clock based on the stable emissions of cesium atoms. Atomic clocks are millions of times more accurate than their predecessors. NIST also operates an Internet time service that sets over thirty thousand computer clocks every second. All around the world we can agree what time it is. That's important for commercial transactions.

NIST F-1 atomic clock
The NIST F-1 atomic clock is accurate to within 
one second every thirty million years. 

So is Internet security. In 2001, NIST adopted a data encryption standard that's made it much easier for businesses to communicate. Estimated savings from the standard run into the billions of dollars. 

NIST also provides carefully produced measurement samples. They're used to calibrate test equipment. For $320, you can purchase water bottles with precise amounts of alcohol mixed in. They're used by police to tune blood alcohol measuring devices. $603 will get you three jars of peanut butter. Each comes with a certificate describing exactly how much fat, vitamins, and other ingredients are in the jars. Food companies use them to test the instruments they analyze food with. That way, we can be sure of exactly what we're getting when we buy our peanut butter at the store. For a mere $143, you can get ten packs of painstakingly produced cigarettes to "assess and control [the] testing of cigarette ignition strength."


From the extraordinary to the mundane, NIST is the keeper of standards that help keep the economy moving — though I'm not sure our nation's founders could ever have anticipated exactly what they were setting in motion.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Many thanks to Dr. Ron Boisvert, Chief of the NIST Mathematical and Computational Sciences Division, for making me aware of the many fascinating activities taking place at NIST.

See, among other related Engines episodes, Man the Measure and Leap Second.

R. Boisvert. Succeeding at a Federal Lab. Doctoral colloquium presentation given at the 2008 INFORMS Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology web site. Accessed October 20, 2008.

All pictures are courtesy of NIST.