For over a century NPL has contributed scientific and technological leadership in the physical sciences, as well as in materials science, computing, and bioscience.
Many landmark scientific breakthroughs have occurred at NPL that we now take for granted: in ship design, aircraft development, radar, computing, communications, electronic networking and global positioning.
Click below to see some of the science carried out at NPL since 1900.
1911 – No.1 Ship Tank opened
The first ship tank was completed and filled during September of 1910, and officially opened by Lord Rayleigh on 5 July 1911. It was 150 m by 9 m wide and held 5000 tonnes of water with a centre depth of 3.75 m.
1919 - Duplex Wind Tunnel built
The Duplex wind tunnel was completed in 1919. It had a cross-section of 2 m by 4 m.
During the first world war, activity in aerodynamics expanded dramatically and NPL made major contributions to advances in theoretical and practical aspects of the stability of aeroplanes, airships, kite balloons and parachutes. Techniques had been developed for testing scale models of wings, ailerons, propellers and of complete models of aeroplanes in wind tunnels.
1920 – Introducing materials testing
The Engineering Department acquired many new state of- the-art machines to test engineering materials.
By this time, routine test work amounted to around 1000 to 1500 items per year and covered a wide range: strength of materials, tests of the efficiency of engines and gears, testing of agricultural tractors and implements, of steam pipe coverings, pressure gauges, lubricants, bearing materials, chains, fans, etc.
1923 – Ventilation of the House of Commons
In the early 1920s the Engineering Department was asked to improve the ventilation in the debating chamber of the House of Commons.
Experiments were carried out at NPL on a 1/8 scale model - the direction of air flow in the Chamber was demonstrated by observing smoke produced by a special firework.
1932 - High precision balance installed
In 1932 a new precision balance of NPL design came into service. It was installed in a closely controlled temperature environment in the basement of Bushy House, where it remains to this day.
1935 – Radar is invented at NPL
In February 1935, Robert Watson-Watt presented his report titled ‘The Detection of Aircraft by Radio Methods’ to the newly formed committee for the scientific survey of air defence. Robert Watson-Watt was the Superintendent of a new radio department at NPL.
A trial followed using the BBC’s short-wave (about 50 metres wavelength) radio transmitter at Daventry against a Heyford Bomber.
The trial was a success and resulted in the design and installation of a chain of radar stations along the East and South coast of England in time for the outbreak of war in 1939.
1946 - Work began on the worlds first Automatic Computing Engine (ACE)
Work begins on the worlds first Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) with the final improved version going into service in 1958. The total cost of developing the ACE was £250,000.
Alan Turing was part of a group being formed for the design, construction and use of a large automatic computing engine.
During his time at NPL, he made the first plan of the ACE and carried out a great deal of pioneering work in the design of subroutines.
1946 - A scale model of the proposed Severn Bridge was tested at NPL
1947 - NPL mobile acoustical laboratory launched
The measurement of noise was greatly assisted by the arrival of a new mobile laboratory - the first of its kind in the UK.
1953 – Filming of The Dam Busters movie
Part of The Dam Busters movie was filmed at NPL.
Early tests of the bouncing bomb were undertaken at NPL in the ship tanks in 1942.
The bombs were successful deployed in May 1943.
1955 – First accurate caesium atomic clock
Louis Essen developed the first accurate caesium atomic clock at NPL in 1955, which led to the internationally agreed definition of the second being based on atomic time.
Following a trip to America to see early versions atomic clocks, he designed and built one that delivered much greater accuracy and stability, based on the transition of the caesium-133 atom.
This remains the fundamental standard today.
1962 - 3.5 MV Van de Graaff accelerator installed
The Van de Graaff is used to accelerate beams of protons or deuterons that are directed on to selected target materials on the end of an evacuated flight tube, thereby producing neutron fields by nuclear reactions.
Voltages of up to 3.5 MV are generated, providing beam energies of up to 3.5 MeV (mega electron volts). A 3.5 MeV proton has a velocity of about a tenth of the velocity of light.
The neutron fields, which have energies from a few keV to 20 MeV according to which nuclear reaction is utilized, are used mainly to calibrate monitors used for radiological protection.
1966 – Packet-switching developed at NPL
NPL begins development of a technique for transmitting long messages of data by splitting them into chucks and temporarily storing them at computer nodes, and still form the basis of the worldwide complex of computer communications systems today.
The technique, called packet-switching, was developed by Donald Davies. The first practical networks using packet-switching were introduced to the NPL local network, by the early 1970s this was providing a range of on-line services to some 200 users. This demonstration provided a much needed steer to the development of the Arpanet, which would evolve into the Internet we know today.
1976 – Fail-safe brakes for Big Ben
NPL designed and fitted fail-safe brakes for the chiming mechanism of Big Ben.
In 1976, the chiming mechanism of the Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster (Big Ben) disintegrated after almost continuous service since 1854.
The shaft of the fly-governor failed and the driving weights fell 50m to ground level, accelerating the chiming mechanism. NPL identified the cause of the failure and designed a fail-safe device to prevent similar disasters in the future.
1979 – NPL weighs Concorde
NPL took on the challenge of weighing Concorde to enable it to pass air safety certificates before going into public service.
1984 – Environmental measurement
NPL’s mobile laboratories for environmental testing took to the road in 1984.
They were capable of remote, range-resolved or integrated-path measurements of a wide range of trace gases at distances of up to several kilometres.
1989 - NPL colour standards receive Queens Award for Technological Achievement
The Ceramic Colour Standards were first produced in 1969 in collaboration with industry, trade associations and academic partners to check instrumental accuracy of colour measuring instruments.
By 1983 over 1,000 sets had been issued worldwide and improvements to the standard results in the Queens Award in 1989.
1992 – 1.2MN deadweight force testing machine
In 1992, the 1.2 MN deadweight force standard machine was installed at NPL and was one of the largest such machines in the world.
NPL’s facilities were significantly improved by its larger capacity, ability to perform hysteresis testing, and uncertainty of applied force of only +/- 0.001 % Features of this machine include its 55 stainless steel weights, split scalepan, and the ability to be computer controlled.
The photograph shows only the very top of the machine - it is more than 3 stories high.
1998 – Work starts on NPL’s new laboratory
In 1998 the foundations were laid for the world’s largest and most sophisticated measurement facility.
Almost 100 years of sporadic growth and demolitions had resulted in a mixture of buildings spread over much of NPL’s existing 82 acre site.
The new scheme was an opportunity to consolidate the laboratory and provide more up-to-date, efficient facilities whilst greatly improving the setting of the laboratory.
2000 – NPL starts biotechnology research
Responding the changing demands on measurement, NPL opens a new biotechnology laboratory to support measurement challenges experienced in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries.
2002 – NPL helps Formula One Racing
NPL provides materials expertise to the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) to ensure teams respect the rules of F1 racing without compromising the safety and competitiveness of the sport.
2007 – NPL time signal moves
The antenna that broadcasts the time throughout the UK on the behalf of NPL is moved from Rugby to Cumbria in a change of contract.
2010 - Graphene and the Nobel Prize for Physics
The Nobel Committee cited NPL's pioneering work in the metrology of graphene to illustrate the scientific background for the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics.
2011 - The world's most accurate clock
NPL's caesium fountain atomic clock, known as NPL-CsF2, is revealed to be the most accurate long-term timekeeper in the world as it would lose or gain only one second over 138 million years.
The clock is used as the primary frequency standard for the measurement of time in the UK and contributes to the worldwide timescales used for global communications, satellite navigation and time stamping of financial transactions.
2012 - Launch of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at NPL
The Centre for Carbon Measurement is launched to reduce uncertainties in climate data, provide the robust measurement required to account for, price and trade carbon emissions, and help accelerate the development of low carbon technologies.
The Centre brings together academic and business partners with government and builds on NPL's capabilities in environmental measurement and low carbon projects.
2012 - World's first room-temperature maser
Scientists from NPL demonstrate, for the first time, a solid-state 'MASER' capable of operating at room temperature, paving the way for its widespread adoption. The team from NPL and Imperial have demonstrated masing in a solid-state device working in air at room temperature with no applied magnetic field. This breakthrough means that the cost to manufacture and operate MASERs could be dramatically reduced, which could lead to them becoming as widely used as LASER technology.
A short history of NPL
Highlights some of the amazing things that have happened at NPL since opening in 1900.
A short history of Bushy House
Provides historical information about Bushy House, which is set in the grounds of Bushy Park and where NPL began in 1900.
A Century of Measurement: An Illustrated History of the National Physical Laboratory
An illustrated history of the National Physical Laboratory available to purchase.
A Century of Measurement [External Site]