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he retired, former NIST Director Lyman Briggs used a wind
tunnel he designed in 1918 and the pitching staff of the Washington
Senators to settle a long-disputed question: the degree to
which a baseball can be made to curve in the 18 meter (60
foot) throw from the pitcher's box to the plate. He found
that the spin rather than the speed of the ball determined
its break. Briggs described his research-widely reported in
the news media-as a logical development in the field of mechanics
and closely related to NIST work in ballistics and projectiles.
For the better
part of the 20th century, the curve ball was a hotly debated topic
among fans and players. Many dismissed the ball's sideward movement
as an illusion. But Dizzy Dean, the
legendary St. Louis Cardinal pitching ace during the 1930s, knew
better. "Ball can't curve?" countered Dean, leader of
the Cards' famed Gashouse Gang. "Shucks, get behind a tree
and I'll hit you with an optical illusion."
In 1959, renowned
scientist Lyman Briggs, who served as the third director of today's
National Institute of Standards and
Technology, vindicated Dean and other masters of the mound.
He did it with the aid of several Washington Senator pitchers and
a wind tunnel he built in 1918 for pioneering research on aviation
aerodynamics. Four decades later, the then-retired Briggs demonstrated
that a thrown ball can curve up to 17 1/2 inches over the 60 feet
6 inches that separate pitcher and batter. The unraveling of the
mystery of the curve--the ball's spin, rather than speed, causes
it to break--captured national interest and was reported in papers
from coast to coast. For posterity, Briggs published the results
of his work in the American Journal of Physics.
Read the original
press release: Eminent Scientist Reports
How Far a Baseball Curves (View pictures)
Rubber Shortage Is a Core Issue for Baseball, War Department
On one occasion
during his official tenure as director of what was then called the
National Bureau of Standards (from 1933 to 1945), Briggs did turn
his attention to a matter of general concern to professional baseball
and of particular concern to batters. The issue stemmed from a wartime
shortage of rubber.
supplies of rubber, the American and National Leagues substituted
balata cork centers for the rubber-cushioned cork centers that had
been used in baseballs before World War II. The impact on the ball's
resiliency was not known. The switch to an all-cork center was a
boon for pitchers, as reported by Briggs in the January 1945 issue
of the Journal of Research. "A hard-hit fly ball with
a 1943 center," he reported, "might be expected to fall
about 30 feet shorter than the prewar ball hit under the same conditions."
who was an outfielder on the Michigan State College baseball team
during the 1890s, the work was a brief diversion from the more serious
matters of wartime research. In fact, Briggs directed much of the
early work that led to the first atomic bomb. But tinkering with
one of the essentials of the great American game also concerned
the War Department, which joined a committee of the American and
National Leagues in requesting the study. A congressional committee,
however, viewed the matter differently. It called on Briggs to account
for the work. The NIST director's explanation satisfied the committee.
Briggs retired shortly thereafter, allowing him to pursue, years
later, his curiosity about the physics of baseball.
the historical account of this episode
how NIST helped to launch the synthetic rubber industry
Shows X-rays Best for Exposing Bat Tampering
Late in the
summer of 1987, Major League Baseball asked NIST to suggest ways
to determine whether bats had been corked to pack more wallop into
a hitter's swing (or so it was hoped). NIST's Materials Reliability
Division evaluated several options for detecting illegally doctored
bats. X-rays, it turned out, were best for spotting bats with barrels
that had been hollowed out and filled with cork, rubber, or other
materials. Click here for more details.
NIST Connections to Baseball
Like a reliable
utility infielder, NIST contributes to the national pasttime in
important, yet inconspicuous ways. Day in and day out, NIST works
in the background, helping to make the game enjoyable and accessible.
Here are a few examples:
in the ol' ballgame. To track the fortunes of their favorite
baseball teams, millions of Americans rely on their radios or
TVs to follow the play-by-play action on the diamond. Thanks to
NIST, these broadcasts are free of interference. Stations tune
their transmissions to the precise frequency signals broadcast
by NIST stations in Colorado and Hawaii. To prevent interference
among stations that veered off assigned frequencies, NIST established
a standard frequency and began
broadcasting precise frequency signals in 1923. These frequency
services continue to serve radio and television stations,
power and telephone companies, and others.
- The Ball
Park. Since 1991, 15 new Major League baseball stadiums have
opened their gates. From steel girders to concrete ramps to heating
and ventilation equipment, many of the materials, components,
and systems that go into modern ball parks are built and assembled
with the aid of measurement standards and quality assurance methods
developed by NIST. For example, NIST began distributing standard
reference samples of iron and steel in 1906, and it developed
the first standard specification for Portland cement in 1912.
Philadelphia's Shibe Park, the first concrete-and-steel stadium
in the Majors, opened in 1909. Learn
about building and fire research
under way today at NIST.
- Wow! Check
out the new scoreboard display. The
newest generation of "instant replay" boards will likely
include full-color LED (light-emitting diode) displays based on
a new materials technology refined and advanced by a small Durham,
North Carolina, manufacturer. Back in 1991, Cree received almost
$2 million in co-funding from NIST's Advanced Technology Program
for a two-year
project to develop a better way to process silicon carbide
into large, high-quality single crystals. Cree's technical success
has led to a variety of products, from 16-million-color, full-motion
video displays to power semiconductors to lasers.
to Other (fun, but mostly science-oriented) Resources on Baseball
Last updated: 5/18/01