National Geographic : 1951 Dec
Uncle Sam's House of 1,000 Wonders All Americans Benefit from the National Bureau of Standards, Where Science Has Served the Citizen for 50 Years BY LYMAN J. BRIGGS * AND F. BARROWS COLTON ATE one night in Washington, D. C., a startled motorist suddenly saw a fire blazing up in a patch of woods just off busy Connecticut Avenue. Speeding to the nearest alarm box, he put in a hurry call for the engines. When the firemen reached the scene, they found a group of men calmly watching the blaze roar through the interior of a small brick structure, but making no effort to check the flames. Instead, they were reading instru ments attached to wires that led inside the burning building. "We're burning it on purpose to test some new 'fireproof' construction materials," they explained to the amazed fire fighters. "These wires lead to thermocouples that show how hot it is inside. We're from the National Bureau of Standards." Dividends for the Taxpayer Testing and setting standards for just about everything under the sun is the regular job of this great research center run by Uncle Sam, though usually it isn't done in quite so spectacular a way. Few Federal Government agencies pay big ger dividends on the taxpayer's dollar than the National Bureau of Standards. Here science is constantly being put to work to make life easier, safer, simpler, and cheaper for the American public in a thousand dif ferent ways.t Here one can get a preview of an amazing new world of tomorrow that is already being born in the Bureau's versatile laboratories. In this new world we will not measure length and time with yardsticks and clocks, but with vibrations coming from inside atoms, having an accuracy undreamed of until now. Much tedious routine office work will be done by almost-human computing machines that can add up figures in 50 one-millionths of a second. People may carry individual radios that fit in the vest pocket. And cloth ing moths will die of starvation because a new treatment for wool will give them indigestion! Already the National Bureau of Standards has the know-how for all these things, and many more (pages 772-773). Interests of the 1,600 NBS scientists cover the universe. They regularly listen for faint radio "broadcasts" from distant stars that interfere with earthly radio communication. They have weighed the earth, but also can measure how much a steel bar is bent when a fly alights on one end! Almost everyone living in the United States today has benefited somehow from work done at the Bureau, an important part of the U. S. Department of Commerce. Look at a few examples: Safer Airplanes and Elevators Bureau men have made airplane travel safer by finding hidden causes of wrecks; found shades of red and green for traffic lights that won't deceive drivers who are partially color blind; tested elevator door interlocks 5,000 times to make sure people can't open the door and fall down the shaft when the car is not there. Their coldly scientific tests have forced off the market some really harmful automobile antifreeze compounds, dangerous "gas-sav ing" attachments for stoves, and children's inflammable Indian suits. They've tracked down criminals with scientific detective work; invented gadgets to help doctors save lives; and have saved millions of dollars for Uncle Sam by testing nearly everything he buys, from carpets for Congress to cement for the Panama Canal. This year the Bureau is celebrating its first 50 years of service to the American public. In that time its scientists have played a major role in the vast changes that have taken place in everyday life since 1901. What the Bureau Does As one Bureau official puts it: "The National Bureau of Standards pro vides, with improved techniques, the basis of precise measurement on which all progress in science and industry ultimately depends. "This is by no means a cut-and-dried task. For example, with the expanded use of micro waves in radar a whole new field of electrical measurements had to be explored. "With the increasing development of jet propelled aircraft, we must have exact methods of measuring engine temperatures so that they can be operated at maximum efficiency." The NBS has three main jobs. As its name * Dr. Briggs is Director Emeritus of the National Bureau of Standards, a Trustee of the National Geo graphic Society, and chairman of its Research Com mittee. t See "Washington-Storehouse of Knowledge," by Albert W. Atwood, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1942.