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NIST in the 1940s

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NIST in the 1940s

Ed. Note: This post is part of a series following the release of the 1940 Census highlighting various Commerce agencies and their hard work on behalf of the American people during the 1940s through today.

In 1940, the United States was officially not involved in the burgeoning conflicts in Europe and Asia. Yet secretly the country was hurriedly preparing for war. A decade of drought and economic depression and 20 years of peace had left the military with a fleet of outdated ships, divisions of ancient armored vehicles, scores of rusty rifles, and little in the way of new weapons and other technological development.

Mobilizing for war in the face of these deficits required materials and production on a monumental scale. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (then called the National Bureau of Standards) was enlisted to ensure that those materials and the manufacturing processes used to shape them were of the highest quality and performed as expected.  

By December 1941, 90 percent of NIST’s staff was engaged in war research. Among the first orders of business was to test enormous quantities of quartz, which was necessary for tuning the frequency of radios and radar. NIST tested 6 million pounds of quartz by the end of the war and found more than 25 percent of it unsuitable for use. 

With the country cut off from supplies of natural rubber, NIST supplied data and created tests and standards needed for the full-scale manufacture of high quality synthetics.

NIST built wind tunnels for bomb and projectile research and manufactured and calibrated thousands upon thousands of gage blocks—small metal rectangular blocks used in every aspect of precision metal work and the manufacture of interchangeable parts. 

NIST researchers helped to invent, design, test and build the radio proximity fuze, which triggers an explosive before it hits the ground to maximize its impact, for all types of ordnance. Eight million of these fuzes were produced by the end of the war.

From 1942 to 1944, NIST helped the U.S. Navy and U.S. industry to create an entirely new weapon called the Bat—the first truly self-guided missile. Like its namesake, the Bat had wings and used echolocation—but based on radio waves instead of sound—to find its target. Navy pilots used the Bat successfully during the final year of the Pacific campaign.

NIST was also home to the Uranium Committee, the precursor of the Manhattan Project. The 60 full-time staff devoted to the project came up with a means of producing purified uranium and graphite, methods to verify the purity and quality of materials needed to construct the bomb, as well as radiation safety standards.

The end of the war in 1945 prompted the exit of senior NIST staff, many of whom had been with the agency their entire careers. Their retirement, delayed by the war, made way for a new generation of scientists and a new host of challenges including NIST’s first forays into computing and atomic timekeeping—two areas where NIST continues to produce world-leading research.

The 1940s were a time of sacrifice and transition at NIST. Although the agency was established to serve peacetime commerce and strengthen the competitiveness of American industry, NIST, along with countless other American institutions, rose to the extraordinary needs of the day. 

Today the challenges have evolved to everything from precision measurement of devices smaller than the eye can see to Smart Grid power networks to span the continent. What hasn’t changed is the sense of duty to ensuring that U.S. industry and science have the standards, technology, and other tools they need to innovate and compete in the global marketplace. 

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