Taking America's Measures-Fun Activities for KidsGo to the National Institute of Standards and Technology homepage

Take a look around. Chances are no matter where you are there is something near you that researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have studied, measured, or improved at one time or another.

Cars, mobile phones, roads, furniture, CD players, shoes, houses, trees, even the water we drink and the air we breathe. NIST has studied and measured them all and countless other things we value in our everyday lives.

NIST is one of the nation’s oldest and largest science and technology laboratories. The U.S. Congress created NIST about 100 years ago. Back in 1901 life was very different than it is now. There were as many as eight different “standard” gallons. Brooklyn, N.Y., had four different legal measures of the “foot.” About 50 percent of scales in grocery stores were wrong, and many shopkeepers used scales that they knew cheated their customers.

Scientist CartoonFind out what time it really is

Today a gallon of milk bought in California is the same size as a gallon of milk in Vermont. A pound of beef is exactly a pound whether you’re in Denver or Dallas. Your family car or your school bus has more than 15,000 different parts, but somehow they all fit together just right.

The parts fit together just right because during the last 100 years, NIST researchers in Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo., have been working with other agencies from all over the world to make sure we have the best measurement system possible. During the last 10 years, Congress has given NIST important additional jobs like helping companies and other organizations create new technologies or improve the quality of their products and the way they run their businesses.

But it is NIST’s measurement mission that literally affects everyone every day. What exactly is a measuring system? It is a way to answer questions like: How big is it? How much does it weigh? How much time does it take?

In times past, people created lots of different ways to measure things. The first measurement systems were based on parts of the body. The inch was the width of a man’s thumb. A yard was the distance around his waist. The problem with these measurement tools was that they varied from place to place and from person to person.

Today, the modern products we take for granted like computers, video games, mobile phones, and DVD players depend on having one very precise, very reliable measuring system that everyone has agreed to use.

And we do mean EVERYONE. Just about the whole world bases its measurements on the International System of Units (commonly called the metric system). “But wait,” you say, “the United States still uses inches, pounds, and miles.” True. But in 1875, the United States also signed the Treaty of the Meter that established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France. Through this treaty, the U.S. agreed that all of its measures will be based on international standards like the kilogram, meter, second, and the liter.

NIST creates and maintains all the U.S. primary standards needed to measure just about anything you can imagine. Primary standards are the “master rulers” that all other “rulers” are measured against. In today’s high-tech society, you need lots of different kinds of rulers or ways to measure things—things like length, time, temperature, light intensity, pressure, volume, hardness, particle size, flow rates, X-ray doses, electric current, angles, chemical amounts, and magnetic forces.Deci Cartoon

My watch is always right because the NIST radio station near Ft. Collins, Colo., sends out a time signal so strong it can be received by special watches and clocks like mine from Miami to Seattle.
-- Deci

So the next time you’re reading the ingredients on the side of a cereal box you should think of NIST. NIST standards help food processors measure food components more accurately. The light bulbs that help you read the label were measured using standards that rely on a NIST master light standard. The electricity for the light bulb is measured based on NIST electric current standards. Your carton of milk was filled based on a NIST standard for measuring volume. The refrigerator that chilled the milk was tested with a NIST method that helps consumers tell which appliances use energy most efficiently. And the clock that told you to hurry up with breakfast before you were late for school was set based on the official NIST time and NIST’s atomic clock—a clock so accurate it would have to run for 70 million years before it would be wrong by even one second.

Like we said at the start, NIST connections are all around you. You just have to know where to look.

Created: May 8, 2001
Last updated: Sept. 10, 2006
Contact: inquiries@nist.gov

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Betcha didn't know that light can push Nano Cartoonthings. NIST physicist William Phillips won a 1997 Nobel Prize for figuring out how to use laser beams to push gas atoms into a ball and hold them still.