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World War II: Overview

Science and technology assumed paramount importance during World War II, as illustrated most dramatically by the development of the atomic bomb.

Just before the war, scientists found that, by bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons, they could split the nucleus, releasing huge amounts of energy. Fearing that the Germans would be the first to discover how to put nuclear fission to practical use, Albert Einstein, along with Leo Szilard of Columbia University, sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, explaining the significance of the experiments and the need to be first in overcoming this challenge. The letter was transmitted shortly after Germany started the war by invading Poland.

President Roosevelt consulted NIST Director Lyman J. Briggs, his principal official counselor on scientific matters, and then appointed an advisory committee chaired by Briggs to look into the question of uranium fission. The committee reported that the energy produced might be useful for a new explosive as well as a new power source for submarines. In early 1940, the first funds were made available for research on what became the atomic bomb.

While many university scientists studied different aspects of the problem, dozens of NIST staff members carried out important initial research. The Institute 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.

The bomb work was classified. By 1940—before the United States officially entered the war—NIST had so many confidential projects under way that Briggs obtained authority to close the street running through the campus, and fences went up around the grounds. By 1943, the entire staff was engaged in war work. They calibrated gage blocks; tested quartz crystals used in radio equipment; made effective coatings for everything from munitions to matches; developed new metal alloys; designed carbon monoxide indicators for fighter plane cockpits; and tested new plastic products and textiles. In addition, researchers developed a method for making special paper for war maps that was used extensively, one of many NIST achievements over the years in paper research (including techniques for making durable U.S. currency).

The war also drew NIST into the increasingly important field of electronics. NIST weapons research led to a contractor's development of printed circuits, which substituted printed wiring, resistors, and coils for the conventional discrete components in electronic devices. This technology contributed to a new field of electronic miniaturization for which the Institute provided useful engineering data and components. Among its contributions, NIST built a rotary printer that applied printed circuits on either flat or cylindrical surfaces

During and after the war, federal officials came to recognize the importance of supporting the basic research that made useful applications of science and technology possible. At the same time, research costs became so great that government support was critical to the nation. NIST was thus a key player in the scientific revolution, along with new federal institutions such as the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.


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