In This Issue: Inventor Merged Three Technologies to Speed Mail Sorting NIST Fingerprint Software Says Thumbs Down to Criminals For Frequency Measurements, One Laser Is Better Than Several Florida Firm Gets Lean with Help from MEP Using Computers to Streamline Clinical Care-Finally Huff and Puff and Shake ... The Houses Won't Fall Down Tech Trivia
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The National Institute of Standards and Technology's 100th year of service to America began on March 3, 2000, and will culminate with our centennial anniversary one year later. For each month during this period, NIST Tech Beat will honor the rich history of the agency by recalling a significant event or accomplishment that occurred during that month in the past century.
Inventor Merged Three Technologies to Speed Mail Sorting
When the U.S. Postal Service decided in May 1973 to honor its 700,000 workers and the equipment they used to move 90 billion pieces of mail a year, a new stamp with a NIST connection was issued. The 8-cent postage depicted the automatic letter-sorting machinery designed in the 1950s by National Bureau of Standards (the predecessor to NIST) researcher and inventor Jacob Rabinow.
By the early 1950s, Rabinow had created a punched-card sorter, a magnetic disc memory device and an "optical character recognition" reading machine. Rabinow proposed to the Post Office that the three technologies, linked together with computers, could be used to sort mail automatically. Such a system would need to read an address, look up the information for sorting or distributing the envelope, and then physically separate the individual letter from others and stack it for delivery or further sorting.
Rabinow, who left NBS in 1954 to form his own company, was awarded a contract to make the device a reality. The firm worked closely with the Bureau's Computer Division to turn out a letter sorter, special memory devices, optical and magnetic envelope coders, equipment for encoding abbreviated addresses onto envelopes for subsequent machine processing, and computers to read and sort the coded mail.
Today, the latest generation of the machine Rabinow pioneered can process millions of letters a day. To honor the technology's development, one of Rabinow's first OCR devices is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Michael E. Newman, (301) 975-3025
NIST Fingerprint Software Says Thumbs Down to Criminals
When suspected criminals are booked at a police station, an experienced officer will carefully take fingerprints of the suspect. Sometimes, the fingerprints can then be matched electronically against those of a convicted criminal or fugitive by using a database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Trying to make a match based on the latent fingerprints found at crime scenes is a much more difficult task. Typically, detectives have to work with smudged, partial prints that are naturally of poor quality. Until recently, it was impossible to match these crime scene fingerprints electronically with those in the FBI's database.
Computer scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, working with the FBI, have now developed software that enhances low-quality fingerprints for electronic matching. The new software makes it possible to search the entire FBI fingerprint database, instead of only part of it. Additionally, it allows police departments in different states to exchange fingerprint information directly, instead of working through a national database.
Law enforcement agencies around the country are testing the new computer program, which speeds up and automates a very laborious process.
Philip Bulman, (301) 975-5661
For Frequency Measurements, One Laser Is Better Than Several
Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Bell Laboratories of Lucent Technologies recently teamed to produce a more precise method for measuring the frequency of visible and infrared light. The new technology one day may help build more accurate atomic clocks, improve scientists' ability to identify molecules and elements by spectroscopy, and provide more reliable frequency standards for use by the telecommunications and related industries.
Reported in the April 28, 2000, Science, the technique uses a single laser to measure optical frequency instead of a cumbersome and expensive multiple laser system. The measurements made by the NIST/Lucent system are more precise because they are compared to the well-defined frequency of a cesium-133 atomic clock.
The researchers "locked" a special laser so that it generated a repeating series of ultrashort optical pulses. Each pulse is so short that it contains only about three cycles of light. The new technique is based on controlling the phase of the pulses, effectively putting them in "lock step." Through a high-resolution spectroscope, the laser's output is seen as sharply defined lines, separated by the pulse repetition frequency. The scientists call this spectrum a "comb" because it has the appearance of a common pocket comb.
Because the rate that the pulses repeat is locked to the standard frequency set by the atomic clock (9.2 gigahertz) and the pulses are in lock step, one can more accurately determine the frequency for each "tooth" of the comb. In turn, the frequency of an "unknown" optical source can be obtained by comparing it to a nearby "tooth."
Collier Smith , Bouder (303) 497-3198
Florida Firm Gets Lean with Help from MEP
With summer fast approaching, everyone's trying to get leaner, including Atkins Technical Inc., a small manufacturer of precision thermal measuring instruments and temperature probes in Gainesville, Fla. The 100-person firm was having trouble keeping up with customer demand and wanted to improve its productivity and competitiveness. Craig Bystrom, operations manager at Atkins, turned to the Florida Manufacturing Technology Center for assistance.
An affiliate of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership, FMTC helped Atkins use "lean manufacturing" techniques to improve its order-fulfillment process. Originating in Japan in the 1970s, lean manufacturing is a concept that eliminates manufacturing activities or actions that add no real value to the product or service.
After implementing lean techniques, time for production of 500 units decreased from 40 hours to 11 hours and customer response time decreased from 28 days to one to two days. "Lean manufacturing enables us to more quickly respond to our customer's actual demand and become much more competitive," said Bystrom.
Small manufacturers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico can reach their local NIST MEP affiliate by calling (800) MEP-4MFG (637-4634).
Jan Kosko, (301) 975-2767
Using Computers to Streamline Clinical Care-Finally
VitalWorks of Waltham, Mass., makes it easy and productive for physicians to enter patient data directly into computers, an advance that overcomes a major obstacle to the conversion from paper to electronic medical records.
The technology was developed with co-funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program. In the three-year ATP project (1995-1998), VitalWorks adapted an existing note-writing system to capture clinical data automatically through a pleasing user interface. Combining medical expertise and computational linguistics, the researchers wrote software algorithms to codify the patient data and developed a specialized knowledge base to support data collection and text generation. As a result, a physician can select just a couple of terms and the system produces a grammatical sentence; it also integrates the substance of the clinical note into a database suitable for research.
Commercial products incorporating the ATP-funded technology are installed at more than 250 endoscopy sites and 100 primary care/emergency medicine sites. Doctors benefit because they can use the system for both clinical reporting and research; patients benefit because they can get copies of their own medical reports very quickly. In addition, the system reduces errors of omission in clinical notes, from an average of 22 percent of notes in one study to an average of 8 percent, and as few as 1 percent in certain cases.
Michael Baum, (301) 975-2763
Huff and Puff and Shake ... The Houses Won't Fall Down
Demolished wood frame houses left in the wake of earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados should become a less frequent sight if NIST testing of housing system components helps builders create more disaster-resistant homes. That's the goal of structural engineers in the agency's Building and Fire Research Laboratory who are developing three-dimensional computer models to illustrate the behavior of a complete house-including wall-to-roof, wall-to-foundation and wall-to-wall connections-under varying seismic and windstorm conditions. Data acquired from these models could lead to improved construction standards for wood frame houses planned for disaster-prone areas.
The researchers are building their computer models by subjecting a full-scale section of a wood frame house to simulated earthquakes and windstorms. By pushing such wall-to-roof connectors as hurricane clips (sheet metal devices designed to hold the structure's roof and wall connections together) to their breaking point, researchers will determine their "real-life" tolerances. Similar experiments also will be performed on simple nailed connections and connectors such as framing anchors and hanger nails. Later, the researchers will test the performance of these connectors when used to join walls to foundations and other walls.
Data for all of the connections will be integrated into computer programs to establish baseline performance criteria.
John Blair , (301) 975-4261
NIST Boulder engineer Bill Dubé is the designer, builder and driver of the world's quickest electric motorcycle, the "KillaCycle." The 300-plus horsepower bike's official record stands at 10.539 seconds and 188 kilometers per hour (116 miles per hour) for a 0.4-kilometer (0.25-mile) run. To put these numbers into perspective, the "KillaCycle" does zero to 97 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) in 2.9 seconds.
In 1978, Smithsonian Institution geochemist James Blackman bombarded archaeological specimens of clay and glass from the Middle East with neutrons from the Center for Neutron Research to analyze their composition. Comparing the data to materials from known sources, Blackman traced the artifacts to their points of origin and postulated the 5,000-year-old trade routes along which they were carried.
The first atomic second was born on Oct. 8, 1964, when an international conference on weights and measures authorized the designation of an atomic frequency as the physical measurement of time. The American delegation to the conference, headed by NIST Director Allen Astin, pushed for the frequency of cesium-133 to be the standard. Three years later, the second was officially set as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of a well-defined resonance in the cesium-133 atom.