More Than a Century of Innovation at Work
Previously, we’ve talked a little about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and how NIST traceable standards are an important part of our QMS standards. But NIST traceability is not just a cornerstone of our industry, setting the standards for inches, grams, and other measurements. NIST traceable standards come into play in many wonderfully weird, wacky, and interesting ways.
A Lot of Bread for NIST Traceable Peanut Butter
A case in point: Just a few years ago, there was a big stir when a photo of a $761 jar of peanut butter started making the rounds on the Internet. What made this jar of golden goo so special and its price so remarkable? Designed to aid in the calibration of machines in food science labs, this product is one of more than 1,300 standard reference materials (SRMs) created by NIST. SRMs are used by scientists and researchers, regulatory agencies, and manufacturers the world over, serving as the basis for NIST traceable calibration and as reference points for quality control.
The NIST traceable SRM menu isn’t limited to peanut butter. There are similarly pricey standards for everything from baking chocolate to slurried spinach to “meat homogenate” — a familiar yet somewhat mysterious product designed to last on the shelf for a very long time. And of course, NIST traceable standards extend beyond food chemistry, with SRMs for materials such as the organics in whale blubber, lake sediment powder, and nicotine metabolites in frozen human urine. In fact, NIST has had an impact on a wide range of products and applications throughout the organization’s remarkable history and continuing to the present day.
A Brief History Of NIST
NIST was founded in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Samuel Wesley Stratton, who served as its first director (until 1923) and convinced the U.S. Congress how important it was to establish a national standards laboratory. The utter lack of standards at that time meant, for example, there were at least eight different versions of gallons and four different feet in use; product inspectors were often poorly trained, and inaccurate or outright fraudulent measuring devices made products inconsistent or left consumers open to deceptive practices.
In 1905, NIST convened the first National Conference on Weights and Measures (NCWM) to write laws, distribute uniform standards, and provide training for inspectors. The first official NIST traceable standardized material (SRM 1) was argillaceous limestone, launched in 1910 for use by the limestone industry to measure the composition of trace chemicals. The collection of NIST traceable standards grew from there, eventually encompassing food manufacturing standards, bodily health markers, and tools for measuring environmental pollutants.
These days, a NIST traceable certificate indicates that a product has been tested against a NIST SRM and meets strict requirements for that product. Each year, NIST ships about 14,500 SRM units and develops 5 to 10 new SRMs, often for regulatory agencies such as the CDC or EPA.
Some Other NIST Milestones
In addition to maintaining and developing NIST traceable standards for the SRM program, NIST has been responsible for some fascinating developments. For instance, at the storied 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, NIST physicist Perley G. Nutting demonstrated what were arguably the first signs illuminated by electrified gasses. Developed from the gas spectrometry work Nutting was doing at NIST, the signs were nothing more than a novelty at the time, but two decades later the technology would have a huge commercial impact with the advent of neon signs. Times Square would never be the same again.
In 1916, NIST’s improvements to radio direction finder (RDF) technology resulted in a new design that served as a prototype for the U.S. Navy and was used to pinpoint the position of enemy forces during World War I. Speaking of radio: Six months before the first commercial radio station was launched in 1920, NIST was experimenting with broadcasting music and speech in order to study the technical problems being experienced in early radio. By 1923, NIST was broadcasting standard frequencies from its own station, helping commercial radio stations avoid interfering with each other’s signals.
Happily for a lot of industries, in 1926 NIST staffers invented the proving ring, a spring scale-like device used to measure applied forces. While the design has evolved some over time, proving rings are still in wide use today — and they are still manufactured according to NIST traceable standards.
In 1928, NIST intentionally burned down two condemned buildings in Washington, D.C., in what was probably the first full-scale fire test. Monitoring actual conditions as they occurred and comparing them the theoretical time-temperature curves of the time, the team gathered data that eventually became part of NIST traceable standards for fire resistance in buildings.
In the summer of 1936, NIST partnered with the National Geographic Society to send an expedition to Kazakhstan to observe a solar eclipse. Using a special 14-foot camera and 9-inch lens designed and built by NIST, the team took the first natural color photographs of a solar eclipse.
NIST even built the world’s first atomic clock, in 1949. While the clock was not accurate enough to be used as a time standard, it did prove the concept and led to the eventual development of the first atomic clock accurate enough to be a time standard, built at the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K. in 1955. (Note that today, NIST maintains the world’s official atomic clock.)
By 1953, NIST had teamed up with the American Dental Association to invent the panoramic X-ray machine — making it possible to create an image of the entire mouth with only one exposure, helping to minimize radiation exposure. Earlier, NIST and the ADA had contributed to the invention of the high-speed dental drill.
Looking ahead to the 1960 U.S. Census, in 1954 NIST and the Census Bureau developed the Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers. “FOSDIC,” as it was known, allowed hand-marked forms to be scanned to microfilm and then converted into computer code. The device, which was capable of reading 10 million answers per hour, was updated and used to process census data until 1990.
In other digital news, in 1957 a first-generation computer designed and built at NIST was used to produced the first digital image. NIST engineer Russell Kirsch and his colleagues created a scanned image of Kirsch’s three-month-old son, Walden, while working on a method for the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) to recognize numbers and letters. Kirsch’s legacy lives on: Little Walden grew up to work at Intel, and in 2003 Life magazine named the image one of the “100 Photographs That Changed the World” due to its impact on the development of digital photography.
In 1967, the first SRM for clinical applications was a lifesaver: a NIST traceable standard for testing human cholesterol. Prior to that, cholesterol tests were notoriously unreliable; off by as much as 23%, they had often resulted in either unnecessary treatment or undetected risks that put patients in danger.
With the oil crisis of the early 1970s leading to the development of oil reserves and environmental risks to the Alaskan coast, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration asked NIST to gather baseline data on the marine environment. Much later — in 1989 — the 700 samples of sediment, water, and marine life that NIST collected would prove critical to assessing the impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
In partnership with NASA, a NIST traceable standard was also the first product made in space. In 1983, during the first flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger, NIST SRM 1960 was created in the shuttle’s microgravity environment. Consisting of perfectly spherical, stable polystyrene beads, the product is designed to aid in consistent measurement of small particles such as those found in medicines, cosmetics, food products, paints, cements, and pollutants.
At the request of the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, NIST produced the world’s first DNA profiling standard, in 1992. Developed over the course of two years, SRM 2390 is designed to test every step of the complex analysis method for identifying people using DNA.
Over time, NIST has continued to development new and more accurate ways to tell time. The year 1993 saw the introduction of NIST Internet Time Service, which allows people to set their computer clock to match Universal Coordinated Time (UTC), which is to this day accepted as the time standard around the globe. And in 2010, NIST’s experimental quantum logic clock was thought to be the world’s most precise clock; it is projected it will not gain or lose a second in 4 billion years.
What Does The NIST Traceable Future Hold?
Clearly, what NIST has done is not only important but also far reaching — and there is still more work to be done. For example, here at Metal Cutting Corporation, our use of NIST traceable calibration along with our other QMS standards helps us deliver high-quality parts that meet customer specifications. However, we are still waiting for a NIST traceable standard for the eddy current testing method we often use to inspect refractory metals for surface flaws such as cracks. (People from NIST, are you reading this?) You can read more about the lack of an ECT standard and other issues related to calibration in our blog The Quandaries of Calibration Standards.
Adherence to NIST traceable standards, ISO 9001:2015 certification, and a proven QMS are only some of the qualities to look for in a metal cutting partner. Learn more by downloading our free guide, 7 Secrets to Choosing a New Contract Partner: Technical Guide to Outsourcing Your Precision Metal Fabrication.
This week’s blogger, Joshua Jablons, is the President of Metal Cutting Corporation.