Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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National Physical Laboratory

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1921. An aerial view showing the Laboratory buildings in the foreground with Teddington and Kingston in the background

Based at Teddington, developed and maintained the primary national measurement standards.

1899 The campaign for a National Physical Laboratory was successful; NPL was created under the control of the Royal Society, supported financially by a Treasury grant in aid. Richard Tetley Glazebrook was appointed director[1]

Initially NPL was to be based at Kew Observatory but public opposition to an extension of that site led to a search for an alternative.

1900 Selection of Bushy House, Bushy Park in Teddington, as the site for NPL.

1902 Formally opened on 19 March by the Prince of Wales who said: "I believe that in the National Physical Laboratory we have the first instance of the State taking part in scientific research. The object of the scheme is, I understand, to bring scientific knowledge to bear practically upon our everyday industrial and commercial life, to break down the barrier between theory and practice, to effect a union between science and commerce...... Does it not show in a very practical way that the nation is beginning to realise that if its commercial supremacy is to be maintained, greater facilities must be given for furthering the application of science to commerce and industry?"

1906 Walter Rosenhain joined NPL in 1906 and during the next 25 years held the position of Superintendent of the Department of Metallurgy and Metallurgical Chemistry. [2]

1907 NPL began testing taximeters - at its peak about 10,000 were tested each year.

1908 Early research on wind forces on structures such as bridges and roofs was applied to the study of flight leading to rapid advances in the efficiency and safety of the aeroplane.

1909 The Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established by the Government to supervise aeronautical work at the Laboratory.

1910 The first ship tank was completed, funded by Alfred Yarrow; it held 5000 tonnes of water with a centre depth of 3.75 m.

1911 Start of research into vehicles and transport, including road surface testing, impact of motor vehicles, loudness of car horns, and the effect of skidding. NPL developed a machine for testing the endurance and wear of road surfaces.

1912 Opening of the William Froude National Tank (see below).

WWI The source of financial support for the NPL was changed to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR).

1916 J. J. Thomson took over from William Crookes as President.[3]

1919 Pioneer of wind tunnel testing - a wind tunnel was built in 1919.

1920 Routine testing of engineering materials covered many properties

1923 Worked on improving the ventilation in the chamber of the House of Commons.

1933 Vehicle and transport research moved out of NPL

1933 Staff working on radio research who were directly controlled by DSIR (employed principally at Teddington and Slough) were united administratively to form a new Radio Department (later Division) of the National Physical Laboratory.

1935 Robert Watson-Watt produced his famous paper which led to the development of radar; Watson-Watt was the Superintendent of the new Radio Department at NPL.

1946 Development of the first Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) began. Alan Turing was part of a group formed for the design, construction and use of a large automatic computing engine. During his time at NPL, Turing planned ACE and carried out a great deal of pioneering work in the design of subroutines.

1946 the Radio Research Board drew up a research programme and recommended that a new and separate radio research station be created to carry it out, and that a director of radio research should be appointed. It was decided to create a separate Radio Research Organisation to absorb and develop the work of the National Physical Laboratory's Radio Division, and the superintendent of the division was appointed director of radio research.

1955 NPL developed an accurate caesium atomic clock, which led to the internationally agreed definition of the second being based on atomic time.

1970s Developed "packet switching", a technique for transmitting long messages by splitting the data into parts and temporarily storing them at computer nodes - this is the basis of the internet.

William Froude National Tank[4]

1908 The Royal Society decided to establish a laboratory for the practical study of hydrodynamics as applied to merchant ships. Sir Alfred Yarrow provided funds for a large ship model experiment tank that was constructed at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington.

1910 Mr. George Stephen Baker was selected to supervise the construction of this new laboratory and to superintend its work.

The new laboratory would be named in honour of William Froude

1911 The William Froude Laboratory, consisting of one large and one small tank, started work.

1932 A second large tank was constructed

1935 Sir James Lithgow gave the laboratory a propeller tunnel.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Biography of Sir Richard Glazebrook, ODNB
  3. The Engineer 1916/07/21
  4. Obituary of George Stephen Baker
  • History of NPL [1]