By 1932, U.S. unemployment reached almost 25 percent of the labor force. Car sales slumped, nightclubs closed, and hobbies boomed. NIST incurred substantial cuts in research funding and staff. Some professional staff refused their imposed furloughs, preferring to work without pay. Because industry called on NIST (and national laboratories abroad) less often than before, the Depression years were a time of international conferences, interlaboratory comparisons, and ex-changes of data and equipment looking to develop new or improved international standards. For instance, NIST and an industry standards association agreed on a new ratio between the inch and the millimeter so that precision measurement would be on the same basis in England and the United States, an aid to American exporters.
Despite cutbacks in industrial research, many fundamental studies, such as the development of photometric units (for measuring visible light according to the sensitivity of the human eye) and research on radiation and spectroanalysis, advanced during these years. This work was useful to both science and industry and won wide acknowledgment. Some NIST research in applied technology was terminated; there was a continuing debate over how far the Institute should venture into these areas.
NIST began a tradition of contributing to Nobel Prize-winning research by other scientists when its cryogenics lab was used to confirm the existence of deuterium, or "heavy hydrogen." This isotope of hydrogen was discovered by a guest researcher, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. A NIST scientist separated the isotope. These scientists expected that deuterium would be useful for research or practical devices such as neon signs; they had no idea that it would later become a vital ingredient in the making of nuclear bombs.
In work of interest to the general public, NIST supported the consumers' movement of the 1930s by advising consumer labs on test instruments and equipment and devising new ones. Following magazine articles and publicity about its work, NIST was deluged with letters from the public asking for assistance on all types of problems, from increasing the birth rate of pigs to obtaining devices to locate buried treasure. In a single three-day period in 1939, almost 800 letters arrived requesting technical information, along with a similar number of telephone calls, 459 letters asking for publications, and 429 visitors asking for scientific or technical information.
|Notice of Online Archive: This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of 2001. For questions about page contents, please contact us.|