National Institute of Standards and Technology

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(PD) Logo: National Institute of Standards and Technology
(PD) Photo: National Institute of Standards and Technology
NIST Gaithersburg administration building

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is a United States federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.[1] The institute was founded in 1901 with the aim of advancing measurement in science, standards, and technology. NIST was known between 1901–1988 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS).

In 2010, NIST had an operating budget of about $1.6 billion[2] and operated in two locations: Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado. At the time, NIST employed a staff of about 2,900 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support and administrative personnel. About 2,600 associates and facility users from academia, industry and other government agencies complemented the staff.[3]


(PD) Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum
Samuel W. Stratton

Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution grants the U.S. Congress the power to "To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures". In June 1836, almost fifty years after the U. S. Constitution was ratified, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a joint resolution establishing a U.S. Office of Weights and Measures within the U.S. Department of the Treasury. From that date until March 1901, the Office of Weights and Measures was administered mostly by the U.S. Coast Survey, later renamed as the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), within the U.S. Department of the Treasury.[4] Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, a professor of mathematics, served as the head of U.S. Coast Survey as well as the Office of Weights and Measures from 1836 to 1843.[5][6]

In 1899, Henry Smith Pritchett (the then head of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey) was determined to bring the Office of Weights and Measures into line with the changing industrial and scientific needs for standards other than simply weights and measures. To that end, he asked Samuel W. Stratton, a physics professor at University of Chicago (later to become president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), to help reorganize the Office of Weights and Measures. Stratton developed a comprehensive report on the need for a well-equipped national bureau of standards and outlined plans for establishing it.[7][8] The U.S. Congress adopted his ideas and enacted the Bureau of Standards Act in March 1901 which abolished the Office of Weights and Measures and created the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) within the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Stratton was appointed as its first director and he remained there for twenty-one years.[9]

In February 1903, the NBS was transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor and renamed as the Bureau of Standards. In 1913, it was transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Then in 1934, the word "National" was again affixed to its name. For more than 50 years, it remained as the National Bureau of Standards. Finally, in 1988, it became the National Institute of Technology, commonly referred to as NIST.[10][11]

Before the move to Gaithersburg, many laboratories were located in what is now the University of the District of Columbia main campus.

NIST laboratories

The NIST laboratories are located in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Boulder, Colorado. The laboratories are:[12]

  • Engineering: Measurement science research, performance metrics, tools and methodologies for engineering applications.
  • Physical Measurement: Fundamental measurement research through provision of measurement services, standards, and data.
  • Information Technology: Advancement of information technology measurement science, standards, and technology.
  • Material Measurement: The national reference laboratory for measurements in the chemical, biological and material sciences.
  • Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology: Providing access to nanoscale measurement and fabrication methods and technology.
  • NIST Center for Neutron Research: Providing neutron measurement capabilities to the U.S. research community.

Major programs

NIST has five main programs:[12]

  1. Smart Grid: To develop interoperable standards for the U.S. power grid.
  2. Baldrige Performance Excellence Program: To educate organizations in performance excellence management.
  3. Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership: To provide innovations developed through research and development, and educational institutions directly to U.S. manufacturers.
  4. Technology Innovation Program: To promote innovation in the United States through high-risk, high-reward research (a program created in 2007 that commenced in 2008).
  5. Law Enforcement Standards Office (OLES): To develop performance standards, measurement tools, operating procedures and equipment guidelines for criminal justice and public safety

Some of these are expanded upon below.

Baldrige National Quality Program

The purpose of this program is to improve the performance of U.S. manufacturers, service companies, educational institutions, and health care providers. An important tool for achieving improvements is the annual Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which is given for performance excellence and quality achievement. This award, the highest honor for organizational performance excellence in the U.S., was created on August 20, 1987 and is named for Malcolm Baldrige, who served as 26th Secretary of Commerce from 1981 until 1987.

Originally, three types of organizations were eligible: manufacturers, service companies and small businesses. This was expanded in 1999 to include education and health care organizations, and again in 2007 to include nonprofit organizations (including charities, trade and professional associations, and government agencies). From 1988 until 2007, 72 organizations have received Baldrige Awards.

Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership

Ernest Frederick Hollings was a U.S. Senator from 1966 until 2005. In 1988 he introduced the Technology Competitiveness Act. This legislation set up the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP). The partnership program was started in 1990. Upon retirement of Senator Hollings, the program was renamed the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership in his honor. MEP is a U.S. network of 350 not-for-profit centers, whose purpose is to provide services to small and medium sized manufacturers. The centers, serving all 50 States and Puerto Rico, are linked together through NIST. Centers are funded by federal, state, local and private resources. The centers provide manufacturers access to technology making it possible for them to compete globally. MEP's operating budget in 2006 was $104.6 million. MEP also received $4.5 million in special funding to support the needs of manufacturers that were directly affected by the 2005 hurricane Katrina.

Technology Innovation Program

On August 9, 2007 a new Technology Innovation Program (TIP) was started at NIST. The program was established "to support, promote, and accelerate innovation in the United States through high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need." The primary mechanism of TIP is to give cost-shared research grants and contracts awarded on the basis of merit competitions.

In June 2008, TIP described its first project – “Advanced Sensing Technologies for the Infrastructure: Roads, Highways, Bridges and Water Systems.”

TIP announced in January 2009 nine projects for award, representing up to $88.2 million in new research, $42.5 million of it funded by TIP. Thirty-five research participants are involved in the nine projects. Nine of those 35 participants are universities with four joint ventures led by universities. Thus, TIP contributes to funding of university-industry research.


The Phyiscal Measurement Laboratory maintains a database of physical reference data[13] in conjunction with the international community, and publishes this data on its website with supporting documents from international metrology organizations, particularly CODATA.[14]

NIST's major data bases include:

  • Atomic and molecular data
  • Atomic properties of the elements (Periodic Table)
  • Atomic spectroscopy data

  • Condensed matter physics data
  • Fundamental physical constants
  • Molecular spectroscopic data

  • Nuclear physics data
  • Radiation dosimetry data
  • X-ray and Gamma-ray data

In addition, an "Elemental Data Index" provides access to all of the NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory's online data organized by element.

Budget funding

The NIST's total budget funding of $1,599,000,000 ($1.6 billion) for 2010 came from various sources: [2]


  1. NIST General Information, from the NIST website.
  2. 2.0 2.1 NIST Resources Fiscal Year 2010, from the NIST website.
  3. Why Work at NIST?, from the NIST website.
  4. There were some time periods during which the U.S. Army and/or the United States Navy administered the USC&GS
  5. Ferdinand Rudolph Hessler
  6. Weights and Measures Standards of the United States: A brief history, from the NIST website.
  7. David F. Noble (1979). America by Design: Science, Technology, and The Rise of Corporate Capitalism. Oxford Press. ISBN 0-19-502618-7. 
  8. Henry Smith Pritchett, A Tale of Two Presidents, "Technology Review: Massachusetts Institute of Technology", Vol. XXV, No. 4, February 1924. Available online at " Google Books ... scroll down to page 199.
  9. Samuel Wesley Stratton, 1861-1931 from the libraries of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  10. Records of the National Institute of Technology from the website of the U.S. National Archives
  11. From NBS to NIST from the NIST website
  12. 12.0 12.1 NIST Laboratories and Major Programs. NIST Website. NIST (December 22, 2010). Retrieved on 9 January 2011.
  13. Physical Reference Data. NIST Website. NIST (November 5, 2010). Retrieved on 9 January 2011.
  14. CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants. BIPM Website. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. Retrieved on 9 January 2011.