United States emerged from the Great War as a rich and powerful
nation. American life changed dramatically in the 1920s, which saw
the first trans-Atlantic phone call, the first movie with sound,
the first enclosed car at popular prices, and the discovery of penicillin.
car, rigged with two pistols, was used to measure a motorist's
reaction time in applying the brakes.
everyone seemed to have a radio. Radio had been a topic of research
interest at NIST since its early years, when both the Army and Navy
set up separate research facilities at its site to study wireless
telegraphy. By the late 1920s there were hundreds of broadcasting
stations and nearly 10 million privately owned radio sets in the
United States, including quite a few that were handmade using instructions
published by NIST. The Institute built the first alternating-current
(ac) radio set in 1922, years before commercial firms offered ac-powered
radios for the home (earlier models were battery powered). The Institute
also helped train radio technicians, published early reference works,
and coordinated the writing of an academic textbook that was admired
by Thomas Edison as "the greatest book on this subject that I have
in the 1920s were the building and construction and automobile industries,
both of which received support from the nation's principal physical
science research laboratory. NIST recommended revisions aimed at
achieving greater uniformity in local building and plumbing codes
and zoning regulations and published a popular handbook for prospective
home buyers. NIST staff, in partnership with Underwriters Laboratories
and the National Fire Protection Association, began developing methods
to test the fire endurance of building structures; this work led
to test procedures that became ubiquitous throughout the world.
focused on two issues that would come to dominate the history of
this technology-fuel econ-omy and safety. Amid warnings that the
nation's known petroleum reserves would be depleted in as little
as 10 years, the Institute helped conserve gasoline by identifying
the characteristics of engines, fuels, and oils that enhanced operating
efficiency. To help establish safe driving speeds, it also investigated
brakes, the braking ability of cars, and the reaction time of drivers
in applying brakes.
became internationally known for its technical prowess. Radium,
a radioactive element used in medical treatments, became so expensive
that its discoverer, Marie Curie, had a difficult time obtaining
enough for her own studies. American women raised money to buy some
for her and, in 1921, Madame Curie visited the United States to
receive a gram of radium from President Warren Harding. It came
with a certificate from the Institute attesting to the purity and
radioactivity of the sample.
to enhance the quality of commercial products, the Institute also
helped create new industries. After German sources of cane and beet
sugar (sucrose) were cut off, for example, NIST scientists recreated
the manufacturing processes to prepare small samples of corn sugar
(dextrose) and other rare sugars for standardization and testing
purposes. They also looked for ways to reduce costs, eventually
developing a process for large-scale manufacturing of almost chemically
pure, low-cost dextrose, which then became an industry unto itself.
A spinoff of sugar research was the discovery of practical uses
for process wastes. NIST developed products such as wall and insulating
boards made from cornstalks, an early example of recycling.
of making the most of American products was standards. High quality
made a difference, too. In the 1920s, NIST standards became official
federal standards, unifying the specifications of some 40 government
purchasing agencies and achieving greater economies in supplies.
The Institute quickly prepared specifications for items such as
fire hoses, pneumatic tires, and shoe sole leather and recommended
simplified practices, such as reducing the number of milk bottle
designs from 49 to nine. American industry saved tens of millions
of dollars through simplification. Standards also reduced the price
of incandescent lamps from $1.30 to 16 cents. Then came the stock
market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression, ending the crusade
for a time.
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