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National Institute of Standards and Technology Gears Up to Celebrate Centennial

What do gas pumps, truck scales, blood-cholesterol tests, DNA chips, industrial lasers, satellite antennas, aircraft altimeters and bullet-proof vests have in common?

In no small measure, these diverse tools and technologies owe their reliable performance to an indispensable, albeit small, federal agency that is about to celebrate its 100th birthday.

Founded March 3, 1901, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has supplied a century's worth of essential technical contributions to science, industry, human health and safety, the environment and national defense. Throughout the year 2001, the agency that began life as the National Bureau of Standards will be hosting events to highlight its past achievements and to help focus attention on 21st-century science and technology needs.

Today's NIST sprouted from an operation of about a dozen people in the Treasury Department. Now part of the Commerce Department, NIST is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., with major laboratories there and in Boulder, Colo. Operating on an annual budget of about $720 million, the agency has a staff of about 3,200 scientists, engineers, technicians, business specialists and administrative personnel. About 1,600 visiting researchers complement the staff. In addition, NIST partners with 2,000 engineering and business specialists at the more than 400 centers and offices in its nationwide network of manufacturing extension centers.

Commemorative Events

Planned centennial events at NIST's Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters, and its Boulder, Colo., facility include open houses; a "History and Reunion Day"; special symposia and meetings; a new interactive lobby exhibit; the sealing of centennial time capsules; and tours for industry leaders, government officials and students.

In addition, the Smithsonian Institution is building a showcase-sized exhibit to illustrate how NIST supports a wide range of technological pursuits and everyday activities. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, and other technical and industrial organizations among the thousands with which NIST has worked are hosting special sessions with NIST-related themes at professional meetings. Appropriately, some of these same organizations led the ground swell of support that finally convinced Congress to establish a "national standardizing bureau."

America's Measurement Lab

In the final hours of its final session, the 56th Congress of 1901 voted overwhelmingly to tackle a pervasive national need by creating the forerunner of NIST. The problem of divergent measurements and standards (for example, eight different definitions of the gallon existed at the time) had been simmering for years. But in an economy at the start of an industrial growth spurt, measurement-related confusion threatened to boil over at home and to handicap U.S. businesses in competition with trade rivals that already had established national measurement laboratories.

Modern technologies as diverse as smoke detectors, dental drills, machine tools, integrated circuits, highway bridges, DNA 'fingerprints,' and computer encryption software embody NIST's technical handiwork. Activities as routine as time-stamping stock trades, buying macaroni at the local deli, metering electrical power usage, or filling milk cartons rely on NIST tools for ensuring accuracy and equity in the marketplace. And pioneering endeavors such as "freezing" atoms, quantum computing and even automated driving benefit from NIST contributions.

On the threshold of its second century, NIST is committed to building the advanced science and technology infrastructure needed to ensure future prosperity and the global competitiveness of U.S. industry.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST strengthens the U.S. economy and improves the quality of life by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the NIST Laboratories, the Baldrige National Quality Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Advanced Technology Program.

To explore a century of NIST partnerships with U.S. industry, benefits to the public and impacts on economic growth, go to the NIST centennial (1901-2001) web site.

Released February 15, 2001, Updated January 31, 2023