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Mathematics and Statistics at NIST - A Timeline

1938 - 1946

Volumes produced by the Math Tables Project
Credit: NIST/R. Boisvert

Prehistory: The Math Tables Project

The Math Tables Project (MTP) of the New Deal’s Works Projects Administration (WPA) helped put people to work by having them serve as (human) computers constructing tables of mathematical functions which were needed for hand computation. The project was located in New York City. Thirty-seven volumes of tables for trigonometric functions, exponentials, logarithms, and so on were produced.

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1947 - 1954

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

Beginnings: The National Applied Mathematics Laboratory

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

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INA Staff Members
Credit: From John Todd’s collection. Used by permission.

INA Pioneers the Field of Numerical Analysis

The NBS Institute for Numerical Analysis helped establish the field of numerical analysis, i.e., the development and analysis of techniques for the solution to complex mathematical problems using computers, as an important new field of study and application

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SEAC computer
Credit: NIST Digital Archives

Standards Eastern Automatic Computer

The first fully operational stored-program electronic computer in the United States was built at NBS.

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Image: Magnus Hestenes
Magnus Hestenes
Credit: From John Todd’s collection. Used by permission.

NBS Discovers One of the Century’s Top 10 Algorithms

In 1952 NBS researchers published an algorithm for solving systems of linear equations which would only come to prominence two decades later as a standard method for solving very large sparse systems on supercomputers. It’s impact has been so great that in 1999 one magazine listed it as one of the Top 10 Algorithms of the Century

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First digital image
Credit: R. Kirsch/NIST

First Digital Image

The field of image processing was kickstarted at NBS in 1957 when staff member Russell Kirsch created the first ever digital image

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Staff members Christoph Witzgall and Judith Gilsinn with Alan Goldman, leader of the NBS Operations Research Section.
Credit: Douglas Shier

Operations Research: Responding to National Needs

NBS mathematicians answered many calls from government agencies, including DOD, IRS, DOT, FAA, and HUD, for help with challenging national problems. 

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Image: handbook of mathematical functions book cover
Credit: NIST/R. Boisvert

Handbook of Mathematical Functions: Abramowitz and Stegun

Originally conceived as a compendium of mathematical tables for hand computation, the Handbook of Mathematical Functions with Formulas, Graphs, and Mathematical Tables became the most widely distributed and most highly cited NIST publication of all time

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Image: Jack Edmonds
Jack Edmonds
Credit: NIST

First Mathematical Theory of Efficient Combinatorial Algorithms: Jack Edmonds

One of the creators of the fields of combinatorial optimization, polyhedral combinatorics, and computational complexity theory, NIST’s Jack Edmonds helped identify what is perhaps the most sought-after question in computer science research today: Is P=NP

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Image of Morris Newman
Morris Newman
Credit: NIST/R. Boisvert

Integral Matrices: Morris Newman

NBS’ Morris Newman was a pioneer in computational number theory, which has deep connections to cryptography.

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Donald Porter (left) and Michael Donahue (center) discuss a micromagnetic simulation with NIST physicist Robert McMichael.  Photo credit: NIST
Credit: NIST

NIST Micromagnetic Modeling Project Enables Research Advancements Worldwide

Efforts of NIST mathematicians have greatly improved the state-of-the-art in computational modeling of magnetic phenomena at the nanoscale. OOMMF. 

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Dr. Carl Miller, a mathematician in the NIST Computer Security Division and a Fellow of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science, discusses quantum algorithms with QuICS students and postdocs.
Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maryland. 

Quantum Information Theory

NIST mathematicians and statisticians have made fundamental contributions to the development of techniques to exploit the counter-intuitive properties of quantum mechanics for performing information technology tasks impossible for classical computers. 

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Image: Digital Library of Mathematical Functions Team
Credit: NIST

Digital Library of Mathematical Functions

In 2010, NIST released the Digital Library of Mathematical Functions (DLMF), an online successor to the classic Abramowitz and Stegun Handbook of Mathematical Functions. 

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Created March 11, 2022, Updated June 8, 2022