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National Security Impacts

The modern era of U.S. aviation was launched with NIST's help. Before World War I, U.S. military forces had only several dozen aircraft, all obsolete by European standards. Aviation instruments were sent to NIST for testing, and many were modified or overhauled before being adopted by the military. NIST also produced the first quantitative data on the power-producing qualities of fuels and the first serious U.S. studies of the aerodynamics of flight.

Important initial research on the atomic bomb was carried out by NIST, which served as a central control lab for determination of the properties of uranium. The staff also found a way to remove virtually all impurities from uranium oxide and developed analytical procedures for controlling the purity of critical materials used in nuclear reactors and bombs. Eventually, development and engineering tasks were transferred to the military's Manhattan Project.

NIST researchers patented a radio direction finder, a special antenna that determined the direction of radio transmissions, which served as a prototype for the U.S. Navy and was used widely to pinpoint the positions of enemy forces during World War I. NIST also disproved the then-common notion that radio communication was impossible under water and built a simple but effective radio apparatus for submarines.

The trend toward miniaturization of electronics was advanced by NIST weapons research, which led to a contractor's development of printed circuits. This technology substituted printed wiring, resistors, and coils for the conventional discrete components in electronic devices. NIST provided useful engineering data and components, including a rotary printer that applied printed circuits on either flat or cylindrical surfaces.

The U.S. synthetic rubber industry was created with NIST's help during World War II, when imports of natural rubber from the Far East were cut off. Prewar NIST work on the thermodynamics of rubber suggested which types of synthetics to use and how to test them. NIST helped standardize both physical and chemical testing, thereby improving accuracy in rubber testing, and helped develop tests and improve instruments later used in synthetic rubber plants.

NIST contributed to the design of two early "smart" weapons systems used in World War II. One was a "radio proximity fuse" that exploded a projectile when directly over its target, rather than on impact, making the weapon five to 20 times more effective. NIST also helped design and construct the Bat, the first fully automated guided missile ever used successfully in combat.

The military and other users have saved millions of dollars thanks to NIST's contributions to the testing of antennas used for communications to and from satellites. NIST developed a theory that made it practical for researchers to compute an antenna's complex outdoor radiation pattern using data collected entirely indoors near a test antenna, as well as software for using the data to compute field performance.

The voltmeters used to make products such as missile guidance systems commonly are calibrated using standards based on NIST technology. In the 1980s, NIST developed a volt standard that was more accurate, more stable, and much easier to use than its predecessors.

Commercial machines influenced by NIST's real-time control system, a concept for controlling automation, are improving the precision of shipbuilding and keeping U.S. troops out of harm's way by clearing land mines in Bosnia. The RCS was among the influential technologies to emerge from NIST's Automated Manufacturing Research Facility, which was co-sponsored by the U.S. Navy.


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 inquiries [at] (contact us).
Created July 22, 2013, Updated February 14, 2023