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Beginnings: The National Applied Mathematics Laboratory

Dates: 1947-1954

NBS inaugurated its National Applied Mathematics Lab on July 1, 1947, marking the first mathematical and statistical unit on its organization chart. Mathematics and statistics have remained an important part of NIST research to today.

Picture of Mina Rees, John Curtiss, Olga Tausky
Mina Rees, John Curtiss, Olga Tausky
Credit: From John Todd’s collection. Used by permission.

The many important contributions to the war effort made by mathematicians led many to believe that it would be in the interest of the nation to establish an applied mathematics organization which could continue to be a source of such expertise. Edward Condon, the NIST Director at the time promoted this idea, and engaged John Curtiss, a recently hired statistician, to draw up plans.

On July 1, 1947, the NBS National Applied Mathematics Laboratory (NAML) became the first mathematical organization established at NBS. Curtiss became its director. Substantial funding was provided by the Office of Naval Research. Mina Rees, who was head of the Mathematics Branch at ONR at the time was a strong supporter.

“It is my expectation that the new center will make an important contribution to the development of our scientific resources and their application to national security and peacetime technology.” - E. U. Condon (1947)

Its initial charter was [1]:

  • to conduct basic research in various fields of mathematics heavily drawn upon by the physical and engineering sciences, placing special emphasis on the development and exploitation of high-speed numerical analysis in these fields,
  • to provide a consulting service in special problems in such fields of mathematics,
  • to develop and construct tools (such as tables and automatic high-speed computing machines) for work in such fields of mathematics,
  • to conduct theoretical and in-service training in such fields of mathematics and in particular, in the disciplines needed for the effective
  • use of automatic high-speed computing machines,
  • to provide an extensive general-purpose computing service specializing in digital methods of calculation, and
  • to prepare reports, monographs, manuals, indices, and other types of publications, setting forth the results of the work of the Laboratories and providing expository treatments of technical material lying within the scope of the Laboratories.

NAML had four operating units [1, 2]:

  • Institute of Numerical Analysis (INA). Conducted research and training in mathematics pertinent to the efficient exploitation and further development of digital computing machinery. Provide and expert consulting service for local groups with immediate computational problems as well as in formulation and analysis of difficult problems in applied mathematics. The INA was housed on the UCLA campus[1] and had both NBS and university researchers. (Gertrude Blanch relocated here.)
  • The Computation Lab. Provided a general computing service of high quality and large capacity, for use by private industry, government agencies, educational institutions, etc. Prepared and distributed mathematical tables and formulated and analyzed computational problems of the more routine type. (Fifteen staff members from the Math Tables Project moved from New York to Washington to join this group. Among those were Milton Abramowitz and Irene Stegun.)
  • The Statistical Engineering Lab. Provided a general consulting service on the methods of modern statistical inference as applied to the engineering and physical sciences. Provided training in the theory of statistics and formulated requirements for statistical tables and other aids for applications. Churchill Eisenhardt was the founding Director.
  • The Machine Development Laboratory. Developed and constructed computing machines as needed by NAML and by other agencies. This lab was split between Washington and UCLA.

By 1954 the organization’s name had been changed to the Applied Mathematics Division.


  1. J. H. Curtiss. The National Applied Mathematics Laboratories --- A Prospectus. Annals of the History of Computing 11 (1989), 13-30.
  2. J. H. Curtiss. The National Applied Mathematics Laboratories of the National Bureau of Standards --- A Progress Report Covering the First Five Years of Its Existence. Annals of the History of Computing 11 (1989), 69-98.

[1] This may have been NIST’s first “joint institute.”

Created March 11, 2022, Updated April 21, 2022