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Postwar Years: Overview

After the war ended in 1945, Americans confronted price inflation, labor strikes, and shortages of food, cars, and homes. But the situation improved rapidly, as the shortages were remedied by expanding industries. Veterans received low-interest home loans and a building (and baby) boom began. New technologies, such as jet aircraft and the transistor, entered the marketplace, transforming the U.S. economy and way of life.

The next external threat was seen in Communism. The phrase "Cold War" was coined in 1947; two years later, an atomic device was detonated by the USSR. In 1950, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea. The U.S. participation in these conflicts sustained public funding of science. For national defense projects, NIST acquired many new tools, including an early electron microscope for research in metallurgy and electron optics; a mass spectrometer for measuring nuclear masses; and an ultrasonic laboratory for using sound waves to study the properties of gases and liquids.

NIST was a natural leader in the new science of instrumentation. An underwater velocimeter developed with the Navy became the standard instrument for recording speed-of-sound profiles in the ocean; it had many tactical uses, such as in sonar, and also was used by oceanographic institutions. In addition to inventing research instruments, the Institute served as a corporate lab for the government by developing practical tools such as a physiological monitor that sensed blood pressure, heart, and respiration; free-floating weather buoys that broadcast data on wind, pressure, and temperature and were operable in hurricanes; and an electronic currency counter, estimated to save the government almost a quarter of a million dollars annually.

Samuel Alexander and Ralph Slutz
Two of SEAC's inventors, Samuel Alexander (left) and Ralph Slutz, look over one of SEAC’s early outputs written on ticker tape.

Perhaps the most important new tool was the computer. An automated electronic computing project was established at NIST in 1946, about the time that the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer (ENIAC), the first all-purpose electronic computer, began operating at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1947, NIST began building computers for other government agencies; these machines would be used for tasks such as predicting radioactive fallout after a nuclear explosion. The Institute also began building an "interim computer" for itself. This machine, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer, was successful enough to become a full-scale machine and one of NIST's major achievements in computing. NIST staff members also developed a mathematical algorithm, used to solve very large systems of linear equations, that nearly 50 years later would be named one of the top 10 algorithms of the century by a computing trade journal.

In 1950, NIST still was based in the District of Columbia, but it also had work under way at 23 other locations. For example, it operated four stations for cement testing in Pennsylvania, Washington, Colorado, and California; two proving grounds for weapons testing in Maryland and New Jersey; a railway scale test car based in Illinois; a station to certify government purchases in Massachusetts; and nine field stations for studying radio wave propagation spanning the northern hemisphere, from Alaska to Hawaii. The need for additional laboratory space led to the establishment of a cryogenic engineering laboratory and radio facilities in Boulder, Colo., on an 89 hectare (220 acre) tract donated by citizens.

NIST research was equally far flung. Continuing its early studies of underground corrosion, NIST exposed specimens of materials in 128 test sites around the nation, representing all major types of U.S. soils. Metal samples were buried, periodically unearthed, and assessed. By the 1950s, these studies had extended to other types of environmental corrosion. In 1957, a report was published on the underground sites that became virtually indispensable to the corrosion engineer. In the following years, NIST continued to help American consumers and industry combat corrosion, estimated to be a problem costing $70 billion annually by the early 1970s. Internationally renowned for its expertise in this field, NIST has worked on corrosion projects of all types and scales, from helping the nation of Kuwait understand and eliminate the development of holes in its water pipes to suggesting alternative materials to solve corrosion problems at the White House.

As new industries evolved in the post-war era, innovative measurement techniques were needed. In 1955, an Institute electronics scientist was assigned a $10,000 project to determine what support could be provided to the transistor industry. An early problem was the measurement of silicon resistivity, a key property of semiconductors governing device design and manufacturing. Measurement discrepancies within and between companies were too great for acceptable quality control, so NIST developed a non-destructive measurement method that was an order of magnitude better than existing practice. This work provided the basis for five industrial standards and produced economic benefits to industry exceeding 100 times the cost of the research; it also established a NIST partnership with the semiconductor industry that continues to this day.

The new age of science and technology challenged the Institute to provide a host of new fundamental physical standards, physical constants, and standard reference data. A standard was developed to measure the emission rate and flux associated with neutron sources, greatly improving accuracy and making interlaboratory comparisons possible. This standard proved valuable in the operation of nuclear reactors and in conducting neutron irradiation research, such as that later performed at NIST. A small device called an omegatron was developed, enabling scientists to determine the value of the Faraday constant—which is basic to the definition of the ampere—using a high-precision physical method instead of electrochemical experiments. And an Institute compilation of accurate values for the thermodynamic properties of many compounds, in a format that allowed prediction of the outcome of thousands of chemical reactions, became immensely important in industry as well as scientific research and education; government efforts to develop high-performance rocket engines, for instance, drew heavily on these data.

The 1950s saw a steady increase in high-rise housing, office buildings, and federal buildings throughout the United States. NIST addressed many aspects of building technology, including new structural designs, structural strength, fire resistance, acoustics and sound insulation, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and building and electrical equipment. Research on thermal insulation led to the evaluation of aluminum foil reflective insulation and was partially responsible for the wide acceptance of glass wool insulation with an aluminum-foil/paper surface.

In 1957, NIST coordinated data collection for the International Geophysical Year, which involved as many as 20,000 scientists from 67 countries in a study of the Earth and its atmosphere. The year was chosen to coincide with a period of maximum sunspot activity. The Institute received visual, optical, photographic, photometric, and radio observations of the solar activity from all over the world and maintained a constant account of the state of the sun. During periods of unusual activity, alerts were sent to scientists across the globe. The Institute also performed scientific studies of the ionosphere and radio propagation as well as satellite observations. Within 12 hours after Russia launched Sputnik I, NIST modified existing equipment to receive signals from the satellite.


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 23, 2013, Updated February 14, 2023