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NPL’s digital story

A timeline of digital milestones

Throughout its history NPL has provided the measurement expertise needed to enable digital technologies to succeed. From the proposal for the first computer and the development of packet switching, NPL enables the UK to provide international leadership in digital technologies, ensuring the global comparability of data and digital services. This is key to ensuring robust services, safety and reliability. 

This timeline showcases NPL’s extensive contribution to modern computing, data science and digital innovation.  

Take part in our digital timeline quiz here


NPL is founded as a ‘union between science and commerce’

The National Physical Laboratory officially opens in 1902. HRH The Prince of Wales describes the purpose of NPL as "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”.

Today we are a world-class centre of excellence in measurement science, developing and maintaining the nation’s primary standards of measurement for the physical and digital worlds.



Radar is invented at NPL

NPL creates the first radar technology which uses radio waves reflected off surfaces to detect objects. We propose that aircraft could be detected using radar; after a successful trial, a chain of radar stations is established along the east and south coast of England in time for the outbreak of WWII.

Radar sensors are now being used by autonomous vehicles to sense their environment, and NPL is working with the Met Office to ensure that vehicles stay safe despite the signal-scattering effects of rain.



Alan Turing joins NPL to develop the Advanced Computing Engine (ACE) computer

Alan Turing writes his ground-breaking paper on intelligent machinery during his time at NPL. This leads to the development of the ACE computer, which was ahead of all other computer designs in the world at the time. A few years on, a simplified version of Turing’s design, the pilot ACE computer, is used in real world applications for the design of aircraft, ships and electronic apparatus.

The research undertaken by Alan Turing and his colleagues at NPL laid the theoretical foundations for modern-day computing and artificial intelligence.



DEUCE (Digital Electronic Universal Computing Engine) is launched

In 1955, the first commercial version of Alan Turing's Pilot ACE is developed by the English Electric Co Ltd and is one of the earliest available commercial computers, but only 33 were ever sold!

Today, we continue to work in close collaboration with industry to commercialise NPL's science and deliver benefits for the UK.  

Commercialising technology

The first accurate caesium atomic clock is developed

In 1955, scientists at NPL develop the first accurate caesium-based atomic clock, using the quantum nature of atomic particles to provide accurate timing. Twelve years later the astronomical definition of the second, based on the rotation of the Earth, is abolished and the world moves to atomic timekeeping based on the vibrations of an atom. Today, atomic clocks provide the precision timing needed to underpin technology such as the internet, mobile communications and global navigation satellite systems.

NPL operates the national time scale, contributing to global timekeeping, and is pushing the boundaries of timing technology

Atomic timekeeping



The foundations of data science

NPL scientists use the Pilot ACE to carry out numerical linear algebra also known as matrix computations, which allows systems of equations with millions of variables to be solved, generating large amounts of data.

This area of mathematics has enabled the development of climate models, AI, image processing, sensor networks and other forms of scientific computing. 




Packet switching is developed by Donald Davies

Donald Davies and his team at NPL invent the method by which all data is transferred across networks, called packet switching.

Information sent across networks is split into smaller pieces – packets – and recombined by the receiving device. This process allows larger quantities of data to be transmitted over the same infrastructure and underpins the Internet we know today.




The NPL Data Communications Network

NPL develops the world’s first local area network (LAN), using the packet switching technique to provide a range of on-line services to some 200 users. It later becomes one of two interconnected worldwide networks, linking to the ARPANET in the United States. The following year NPL leads the European Informatics Network that links networks in Britain, France, Italy, CERN in Switzerland and EURATOM. This leads to the Transmission Control Protocol and internet protocols which underpin almost all major internet applications.

NPL is now developing new measurement capabilities to accelerate advances future communication networks.



A prototype of the World Wide Web

Sixteen years before Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, NPL develops Scrapbook to provide user-friendly word processing for documents by several authors, including e-mail, hypertext and access to a common database. As an integrated package, Scrapbook is a world leader in computer development. By 1975 Scrapbook is being used by Shell, the Ministry of Defence, British Telecom and the European Commission.



Chip and PIN cards

NPL develops the technology for cards with one or more integrated circuits (chips) which will go on to provide the foundations for chip and PIN payment cards. In 2003 the payments industry launches chip and PIN in the UK to replace magnetic stripe payment cards.



NPL quantifies the usability of computer systems

NPL develops first-of-a-kind tools and techniques for assessing the usability of interactive computer systems. NPL sets up laboratories to quantify usability, giving an objective comparison between different ways of achieving the same results. This leads to a successful international project and attracts many customers to NPLs usability services, including British Gas, London Electricity, NatWest, Argos, Thames Water and the Inland Revenue.

NPL’s work on usability laid the foundations of the computer systems we use today in which we can achieve goals accurately and quickly. NPL continues to support advances in digital technologies through the development of metrology.



Biometric passports

NPL provides expertise to the Home Office and Passport Service on performance of biometrics for passports and border crossing. Today, we continue to develop standards for performance evaluation of biometric systems.



Improving earth observation data for climate modelling

NPL leads the launch of Quality Assurance for Earth Observation (QA4EO) Framework to increase confidence in the information derived from the rapidly increasing amount of Earth Observation data being used for climate science.

Today, science and engineering conceived at NPL is being utilised in the TRUTHS (Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies) satellite mission. The primary objective of TRUTHS is the creation of a ‘climate and calibration observatory in space’ which will reduce uncertainty in the earth observation data, leading to improved confidence in decision making, particularly related to climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.




Supporting automated manufacturing

NPL develops a new class of self-calibrating coordinate measurement systems, aimed at the next generation of automated manufacturing applications such as metrology-assisted machining and assembly. Future manufacturing requires high accuracy, traceable and digitally enabled measurement systems to increase productivity. Integrating metrology will provide the catalyst for future digital factories, delivering robust data through an independent source of verification.



Quantum Metrology Institute opens

Quantum technologies are set to change the world in many different areas. The unique quantum behaviour of fundamental particles such as atoms, electrons and photons can be exploited to create a new class of powerful computers, novel sensors, secure communications and precision timing and navigation applications. The government is investing in a national quantum technologies programme to develop these opportunities for economic growth and greater security and resilience for the UK.

NPL’s Quantum Metrology Institute plays a key role in the creation of a UK industry based on quantum technologies, bringing together all of NPL's leading quantum science and metrology research and providing the expertise and facilities needed for academia and industry to test, validate and, ultimately, commercialise new quantum  technologies.



A dedicated NPL data science team is established

NPL establish a team to deliver the measurement standards that enable organisations to use data with confidence. Our work allows the combination of different datasets to deliver more powerful information for the next generation of medical imaging, digital supply chains and analysis of climate change.



Building a ‘Google Earth’ of cancer

NPL's Professor Josephine Bunch leads a Cancer Research UK project to develop a reproducible, standardised way to map tumours, revealing how they survive and why they keep growing. For the first time in cancer research a combination of 2D and 3D imaging techniques on the scale of single cells is used, which requires a firm underpinning of metrology to enable the validation, repeatability and future analysis of this vast data set.

The advances achieved through the project are set to transform our understanding of cancer and open the door to new and better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

Google Earth of Cancer

Developing nuclear medicine to improve patient outcomes

NPL supports a move from qualitative to quantitative imaging in nuclear medicine providing data on the actual radiation dose delivered to specific organs by radiopharmaceuticals. This will improve the power of diagnostic nuclear medicine and facilitate novel therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals which target cancer cells.

Nuclear medicine



NPLTime® provides accurate timestamping for financial services

NPLTime® introduces a service providing precise time over optical fibre to enable traceable and accurate time stamping of high-frequency transactions. This reduces risks for financial firms and meets the compliance requirements of international regulations.

NPL Time

Earthquake detection with optical cables

NPL demonstrates that standard optical telecommunication cables can be used as earthquake detectors. Using state-of-the-art frequency metrology techniques, the existing underwater optical fibre infrastructure could be repurposed as a giant array of sensors for the detection of underwater earthquakes and provide early warning of tsunamis.

Earthquake detection



The National Timing Centre Programme 

NPL sets up the National Timing Centre Programme (NTC) which develops the UK’s first nationally distributed time infrastructure. This enables the UK to move away from reliance on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and deliver resilient UK time and frequency that provides confidence to our emergency services, telecoms networks, the energy sector, broadcast and finance institutions.


Looking to the future of digital technologies

As the pace of technological change accelerates, society needs to adapt to realise the full benefits and opportunities. Whether it’s driving the green recovery or ensuring intelligent use of data, the UK’s position as a science superpower, in part, depends on looking to the future and being one step ahead.


Measurement science ensures the safety, reliability and robustness of new technology. Although we are often working behind the scenes, NPL has frequently been ahead of its time, making key contributions to the development of the internet, data security, biometrics, climate modelling, artificial intelligence, image processing, sensor networks and other forms of scientific computing.