Remarks by Dr. Robert Hebner
NIST Acting Deputy Director
At the SIMnet Launch
December 4, 1998
It's my pleasure to provide some history and background information to those of you who have not devoted your life to the international measurements system. I am doing this so you can understand why those of us involved with SIMnet are so excited about the potential of what we're doing today. This technology may really change the entire activity that we've been engaged in for our careers.
As Ray Kammer mentioned in his introduction, metrology is a critical underpinning for trade. To buy or sell anything, we must have a system of money to know the cost. But also, we need a system of measurement to know the quantity, or to know the attributes, of the thing that we're buying. This allows us to characterize it in an objective way, so we can agree on how much of it there is, or what it does.
And this has been true through the history of trade. We know that admonitions about fair measurements are included in that part of the Bible that is common to the Christian tradition, the Jewish tradition, and the Muslim tradition. From this evidence, we know that in the Middle East for a long time, people have been worrying about making fair measure to support trade.
We also have written records showing that during the Chinese warring states period, more than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese took special effort to make sure that the measurement capability continued to exist, so that trade could continue.
We know, historically, that the Europeans developed measurement systems based on, say, the length of the thumb of the king. Or, in Portugal the king had a very elegant cup made to measure volume. So countries involved in trade knew that they needed to make measurements and invented ways to do so.
About 1875, the world recognized that it was getting smaller, and world trade was becoming more important. The Treaty of the Meter was signed, in which the countries decided to use a consistent and understandable measurement system to support this new world trade that was happening around 1875.
Two other things happened at about that time that made it very important that consistent measurements would be made. The first was the development of ways to reasonably inexpensively generate and transmit electricity. Shortly after, we started on this century-long effort to electrify the globe. Both the research required to improve the equipment and the sales of electricity stimulated the need for a scientifically based, consistent measurement system.
The other thing that happened about that time was the dramatic growth in manufacturing of devices with interchangeable parts. When you had interchangeable parts, you needed to have a manufacturing technology in which you could actually measure the size of all the pieces. So that I knew, with good measurements, if I made a trigger assembly for my gun, it would fit in any of the guns, not just the one it was made for.
So measurements became more important. In response, many nations established national measurement institutes. These national measurement institutes were the pinnacle measurement organization in each country around the world. Their job was to develop and maintain measurement artifacts, making sure that they were consistent with other artifacts in other countries, and making sure they were available to all the people in their country.
You are now visiting the national measurement institute for the United States. We were founded in 1901, as a result of these global pressures that I have been talking about.
As the economies have become more complex, measurement has become more and more important. We have moved away from a fixed platinum/iridium meter bar and are basing more and more of our measurement capability on the fundamental attributes of nature. These include the speed of light, or the exquisite precision that was given to us by the then modern atomic physics starting in the 1920's, or the wonderfully complex, but stable, interaction of electrons in a solid, when they near absolute zero temperature, which became part of our standard set in the 90's.
Because these developments have been made, each of the national laboratories has the capability of realizing the definition of the basic measurement concepts. They all also have better ways of making sure that the measurement institutes remained consistent with one another.
This structure has led to a collection of experts around the world who know how to make certain types of measurements. This expertise is concentrated in these national measurement institutes. In the demonstration that you're going to see, for example, we have at NIST today, 12 of America's experts on electrical measurements.
In fact, we probably have the top 12 electrical measurement experts of the Americas here today. If they were the best, the top 12, tennis players in America, or top 12 musicians of the Americas, the place would be full of press; we'd have fans out on the lawn. But because it's the top 12 metrologists, they are doing something which is probably more fundamentally important to the world than the athletes or musicians would do, but they don't get the recognition. So, I'm happy to endorse the work of those folks today.
The world in which this system operates nearly seamlessly is changing, however. And the world is changing because of technology. We are now in an era in which technological change is underpinning all of the products we buy, sell, and use. We have more and more technology embedded in everything we buy.
The speed at which things are changing, the speed at which we can communicate, and the speed at which we can send objects around the world, is increasing rapidly. The Americas are, maybe not becoming unified, but really becoming co-dependent.
I was trying to find an analogy to use, to show how the countries of the Americas depend upon each other. One actually was handed to me this morning in my morning newspaper.
Like many other people, I check the paper every day to find out how my stocks did the day before, so I know what my personal worth is and how much longer I have to work before I can retire.
This morning I found out that I became poorer yesterday. The U.S. stock market fell, and my net worth went down. They had a very nice article, right there on the front page of the business section, explaining why.
The reason my net worth went down is because they had a vote in the legislature in Brazil, and they voted not to tax themselves. Within hours my personal wealth declined, because there was concern by American investors. The Brazilians not increasing their own taxes might de-stabilize their own country a little bit, which might reduce this trade in the Americas, which therefore depresses the US stock market, which made me poorer.
So I am convinced that the Americas are a coherent set of neighbors who really depend upon each other. We need all of us to succeed if any of us are going to succeed.
And that's part of what this whole demonstration is about today. Things are happening very rapidly. Things that happen in Brazil affect me immediately.
This rapid change is occurring everywhere. The cycle time in getting products from design, to marketing, to distribution has been reduced dramatically over the last decade.
Even low technology businesses can take advantage of technology to do very well in this global marketplace. Those of you who are from the United States probably have seen a certain commercial, and those of you who are visiting us may have seen it in your hotel room.
There is a very ubiquitous commercial on U.S. television, in which there is a small, family run olive oil plant in Italy. The plant is going out of business because they can't sell enough olive oil to the Italians. And it is destroying the family.
But the punch line of the commercial is that by using the Internet, they can sell their olive oil globally. They can take orders over the Internet, using modern transportation, and deliver anywhere in the world in 24 hours. They have become a global company in a very low technology product, a product that they have been making exactly the same way for hundreds of years. But the technology makes this trade all possible.
Our measurement system that works so well, that underpins all this trade, is not changing rapidly enough to keep up with an economy that is being driven faster and faster by new technology.
In fact it was just yesterday that I was told that there was one very prominent nation in the world that has a very significant measurement problem with one of its electrical measurements. The problem was discovered through an international comparison.
Unfortunately, it took months to discover it and correct it. And we don't have months today, when a product can be manufactured anywhere in the world, and delivered within 24 to 48 hours.
We have to be able to make these measurements quickly. We have to prove consistency quickly. We need to work with each other. And that's what the system you're going to see today allows us to do.
In a traditional international comparison a laboratory sends a device to another laboratory, which works with the device for months. It then sends it to another laboratory, which tests the device and sends it to another laboratory, until all necessary laboratories have their turn. A year or two later, comparing the results, changes could be made. This is the way that we could work 20 years ago, but not today.
Today, we're going to be able to work in real time, with each other. And that brings me back to the point I was saying about these few electrical measurement experts. When you only end up in the Americas with 12, or 25, or 50, experts in how to do electrical measurements, you have very few in each country.
When they have problems, they need to speak to their peers, and their peers aren't the people next door. Their peers are the people in the country next door.
What we're trying to do is make those peers be in their laboratory when they need them. These people who are working together here at NIST today are going to be able to work together as conveniently, in their home countries, every day, this month, next month, and the month after.
And as part of doing that, we expect them to have a measurement system in the Americas which can change rapidly, which allows them to establish, in every country where we need it, whatever measurement capability we need.
We plan to have the measurement system flexible, nimble, accurate, and to be, as Ray Kammer said in his opening, so invisible that it's just like breathing. If you want to sell things in the Americas, of course measurements aren't a problem. "They" have already taken care of that.
Well, today you are going to find out whom "they" are. You will see them on the screen. You will see how they are going to do it, and you are going to see the brilliant work that they are doing. They are making sure that the measurement capability works, and that it will be here, not just today, but tomorrow, and for the next 10 and 20 years, and not be a problem.