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  • Writer's pictureHarry Law

A short history of the National Institute for Standards and Technology (Part One)

The first in a two part series looking at the history of NIST. It includes a survey of the organisation’s work today and its early years as the National Bureau of Standards from 1901-1950. Note: NIST was founded as the National Bureau of Standards in 1901 and was renamed Bureau of Standards in 1903. In 1934, the word "national" was once again added to its name. This post refers to the organisation as ‘Bureau’ throughout.

Rose Pilkington, Visualising AI by DeepMind

The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) produces a dizzying array of datasets, software, measures, frameworks, and standards. Part of the United States Department of Commerce, the organisation’s self-described mission is to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology. It is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of Galileo’s famous maxim: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not.”

NIST’s ‘standard reference materials’, reviewed on an annual basis and published in a catalogue of over 1,200 individual entries, are designed to act as physical benchmarks for industry, government, and academia. With detailed information about chemical composition and material properties such as size and weight, the reference materials are employed to calibrate instruments, verify test results, and develop new measurement methods. They are also used to connect U.S. materials to the International Systems of Units, the modern form of the metric system and the world's most widely used system of measurement.

Standard reference materials are a varied bunch. Information about wild and aquacultured shrimp––including an analysis of genetic composition to determine their place of origin-–enable the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Customs and Border Protection agencies to assess whether imported shrimp are authentic. Bullets and cartridge cases are produced to act as reference standards for crime laboratories to help verify the proper functioning of optical-imaging equipment and to facilitate laboratory accreditation. And a standard cigarette provides firms producing fire-resistant furniture with a benchmark against which to determine how successful they have been in building safe products. These and hundreds of others are grouped into categories encompassing food and agriculture, nanomaterials, clinical hygiene, engineering materials amongst several others.

Alongside the extensive catalogue of materials sits NIST’s trove of standard reference data, which generally takes the form of information about the properties of a substance or system, measurable characteristics of a physical artefact, performance characteristics of a system or what NIST terms digital data objects. The generation of standard reference data can be traced back to 1968 when the U.S. congress passed the Standard Reference Data Act, which stated that “reliable standardized scientific and technical reference data are of vital importance to the progress of the Nation's science and technology.”

Since then, NIST has developed and distributed standard reference data in chemistry, engineering, fluids and condensed phases, material sciences, mathematical and computer sciences, and physics. It produces a range of software from programs designed to automate the counting of bacteria colonies to those designed to help manufacturers assess the readiness of budding smart factories. The organisation has a GitHub presence including datasets containing excerpts from demographic data from U.S. households used to assess the performance of privacy-enhancing technologies, and a repository for the Face Recognition Vendor Test, an initiative that aims to improve the accuracy, speed, and resilience of facial recognition technologies.

Facial recognition is just one area of AI that NIST is sizing up. The organisation conducts research into the core building blocks of the technology: it creates new system architectures, studies chip design, and sketches different approaches to red-teaming powerful models. Its scientists and engineers use AI to improve the measurement process itself by, for example, developing deep learning methods to improve the fidelity of nanoscale microscopy techniques. NIST’s staff work on data characterisation, practices for the documentation of datasets, and the construction and maintenance of datasets that can be used to test or train AI systems.

The organisation has conducted hundreds of evaluations across thousands of AI systems. It notes that “while these activities typically have focused on measures of accuracy and robustness, other types of AI-related measurements and evaluations under investigation include bias, interpretability, and transparency.” In January 2023, after a period of consultation, NIST released its AI Risk Management Framework, which seeks to help developers, users, and evaluators of AI systems manage harms posed by AI at the individual, organisational, and societal level.

There are few other organisations, public sector or otherwise, concerned with AI and aquaculture shrimp both. Understanding how such an institution came to be––the drivers, contingencies, and dependencies behind NIST as we know it––is a useful exercise for those grappling with the governance of AI.

Early years: 1901-1950

When does the story of NIST begin? The U.S. National Archives’ account starts in 1830 with the establishment of the Office of Standard Weights and Measures, which was tasked with––perhaps unsurprisingly––overseeing the standardisation of weights and measures in the country. According to the historian Louis A. Fischer, the genesis of the Office of Standard Weights and Measures could be found in wider effort to minimise “large discrepancies among the weights and measures in use at the different ports.”

Elio Passaglia, a former NIST researcher and author of A Unique Institution: The National Bureau of Standards 1950-1969, made the case that we ought to start in 1900 with the establishment of the General Electric Research Laboratory. Passaglia proposes that the laboratory, which was the corporate innovation hub of industrial giant General Electric and the first industrial research facility in the United States, was “the catalyst that forced the formation of the Bureau [the precursor agency to NIST].” The founding of General Electric Research Laboratory, he argues, marked the beginning of a ten year period in which U.S. firms (including DuPont and Westinghouse) built dedicated physical science laboratories. Perhaps equally important, though, is that following the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago the U.S. agreed on definitions for electrical units but had no way to measure them. In this version of events, it was downward pressure to measure electric units from lawmakers and upwards pressure from powerful firms that spurred the creation of a new agency.

The most commonly provided date, however, is the point at which the federal government established the organisation that would eventually become NIST: the National Bureau of Standards. Superseding the Office of Standard Weights and Measures, the new Bureau was tasked with the custody of existing national standards, the comparison of U.S. standards with their international counterparts, the introduction of new standards, the testing of apparatus used to measure standards, and the determination of physical constants in materials deemed to be important for science and manufacturing efforts.

Led by Samuel W. Stratton, the first decade of the Bureau saw it take on the difficult challenge of making progress in each of these domains from what was effectively a standard start. In 1904, it began to test lightbulbs for agencies within the government to ensure their effectiveness, and in keeping with the focus on illumination, displayed the first "neon" signs lit by electrified gases at the St. Louis World's Fair in the same year. In 1905, the organisation convened the first National Conference on Weights and Measures to write model laws, distribute uniform standards, and provide training for inspectors. The first standard reference material was issued in 1906: a standardised sample of iron designed in response to a request from the American Foundrymen’s Association.

Seattle weights and measures inspectors with confiscated fraudulent measuring devices. Source: NIST

In the second decade of the 20th century, the organisation continued its push for standardisation, built new technologies, and cultivated ties with the U.S. military. In 1913, the Bureau designed unique railcars to test large capacity scales used on the railway. The programme found that 80 per cent of the rail scales were off by almost 4 per cent, a twenty-fold increase on the tolerable margin for error of 0.2 per cent. Two years later in 1915, the organisation published the nation’s first model electrical safety code in response to a request for help from the coal mining industry six years earlier. It was during this period that the Bureau’s researchers first turned their attention to the military in the development of the radio direction finder, an antenna that determined the direction of radio transmissions deployed by the U.S. Navy to find the positions of enemy forces during the First World War.

In 1921, Herbert Hoover became Secretary of Commerce. In response to a short but intense recession between 1920 and 1921, Hoover thought that recovery could be achieved through "the elimination of waste and increasing the efficiency of the commercial and industrial systems.” As part of this process––which some accounts have connected to Hoover’s interest in conversationism––the Bureau was directed to intensify its programme of standard setting and simplification.

The drive for efficiency collided with its programme of scientific research when the Bureau launched its own radio station six months before Pittsburgh’s KDKA, the first American commercial radio station, came on the air one Tuesday morning on 2 November in 1920. Its purpose was to study the technical problems related to early radio, and was followed by a 1923 effort to broadcast standard frequencies to help stations avoid interfering with each other’s signals. A year later, it developed an ‘earth-current meter’ whose goal was to enable measurement of the amount of current leaking into the ground and corroding nearby pipes (a common problem caused by the laying of over 40,000 miles of streetcar tracks). A 1928 effort saw the organisation burn down two condemned brick buildings in Washington D.C. to aid in the design of uniform fire resistance standards for buildings.

As the U.S. economy reeled from the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Bureau’s staff dropped from around 1,100 people in 1931 to fewer than 700 by mid-decade. Only by 1939 did it again approach the level of the 1920s. But despite pressure on its resources, the 1930s were a decade in which the organisation consolidated its reputation as a respected practitioner of science. In 1931, for example, the Bureau built a chamber that produced highly precise amounts of radiation to enable scientists to test exposure detectors to ensure their proper functioning. According to NIST, “these comparisons harmonized international measurements of radiation and were used when drafting an X-ray safety code.” It invented in 1931 the ‘visual type’ beacon for an aeroplane landing system, which enabled the pilots to locate and land on a runway in poor visibility, and began a programme of building atmospheric measurement instruments known as radiosondes to improve weather forecasting. The final major contribution of the decade came in 1936, when the Bureau sponsored an expedition to Kazakhstan to observe a solar eclipse. Using a Bureau-designed and constructed 14-foot camera and 9-inch lens, the expedition is credited with taking the first natural colour photographs of a solar eclipse.

For the Bureau, the 1940s were a decade dominated by conflict. With the nation’s attention firmly fixed on the Second World War, the organisation helped to design, create and test the radio proximity fuze and automated guided missile system known as the Bat. Perhaps its most influential contribution, however, was the 1939 appointment of Bureau Director Lyman J. Briggs as the chair of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, which ultimately became the Manhattan Project when it was taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942. In Passaglia’s account, the Bureau did important work for the atomic bomb project focused on the purification of graphite and uranium, and in the development of analytical methods. But Briggs’ conduct was criticised. The nuclear physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi is quoted by John Newhouse in War and Peace in the Nuclear Age saying that Briggs “was out of his depth…and that held things up for a year.”

After the conflict’s conclusion, the organisation returned to its focus on scientific practice by building the world’s first atomic clock in 1949. The clock, built on the microwave frequency of ammonia, wasn't precise enough for timekeeping standards (though it did validate the idea). Only later in 1955 did Louis Essen at the U.K.'s National Physical Laboratory build the first accurate atomic clock, which measured time through the change of state in atoms of caesium. It was in many ways fitting. The speed of technological change would see the Bureau shift its focus towards computing during the middle years of the 20th century. And amidst major interventions from the federal government to consolidate and reorganise, the breakneck pace of digitisation in the decade that followed proved that time was not to be taken for granted.

This is the first half of a two post series about the origins of NIST. Next week, I’ll look at the period 1950-present and connect a historical perspective with today’s large models.


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