The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was founded in 1900 as a government-funded institution to carry out scientific research for the benefit of British industry.
Its formation followed calls throughout the second half of the 19th century for increased government involvement in scientific and industrial research. At the time, the government’s laissez-faire view was that scientific research worth doing would pay for itself and could therefore be left to private industry.
This view was not borne out, however, as British industry became increasingly unable to compete with competitors, particularly those from Germany. The German government played a much more active role in the fields of science and education, making grants for industrial research. In 1887, it set up the Physikalisch Technische Reichsanstalt, a state testing and research institute in Berlin.
Eventually, the UK agreed the NPL could be founded with state funding, under the control of the Royal Society. Richard Tetley Glazebrook was appointed director on 1 January 1900. His first task was to find a suitable site. He eventually settled on Bushy House and its 30-acre site in south-west London. The house was converted and additional buildings, including a specially designed engineering block, were constructed in the grounds.
During the organisation’s first few years, the role of the NPL crystallised into four main functions: assistance to industry on immediate problems by experimentation and advice; long-range research to open new areas to industry; testing and calibration of instruments; and maintenance of fundamental standards of length, mass, temperature and so on.
When the First World War broke out, the inadequate nature of scientific and industrial research in Britain quickly became apparent. Since the mid-19th century, Britain had depended on imports from Germany in several important areas, such as optical glass.
In 1912, a report had been circulated to government officials warning that war with Germany would result in serious shortages of optical glass, which was vital for many instruments used by the armed services.
Britain imported 50% of its optical glass and had neglected to invest in research and development in this field. Other areas where Britain was heavily reliant on imports were dyestuffs, necessary for uniforms; magnetos; acetone for explosives; and chemicals needed for a variety of drugs.
During the First World War, the NPL had to take on much more routine testing work, particularly the calibration of gauges required for the manufacture of munitions. Its staff almost tripled during the war, with many of the additional staff being women. The first female worker was appointed in July 1915, and from the start Glazebrook insisted on equal wages for women workers. As well as increasing its testing work, the NPL also carried out research of great importance to the war effort, particularly in wide-ranging aeronautical issues.
In the inter-war period, the NPL continued to build on its good work, adding new areas of investigation, including X-rays and radioactivity, wireless telegraphy, optics and acoustics and noise.
Many important developments occurred during this time, including the development of materials testing, extensive development of the forerunners of the Spitfire, and the discovery of radar in 1935. In 1936, it was estimated that refinements in ship design, due to assessments carried out in the NPL’s ship tank, had led to the saving of coal worth £4.5 million.
By 1939, science and industry in Britain were on a much stronger footing than in 1914. The NPL, while continuing to carry out a great deal of routine testing work, again played an important role in the war effort with original research. The continuing development of radar was particularly important, but NPL investigations in many other areas were also key, including the exploitation of the energy released in nuclear fission, and the early testing of the bouncing bomb.
The NPL continued to do important research throughout the 20th century. In the immediate post-war period, Alan Turing was among those working on computers, eventually leading to the development of the world’s first automatic computing engine.
In 1955, the first accurate caesium atomic clock was developed, leading to the international agreed definition of the second being based on atomic time. In 1966, the NPL developed packet-switching as a technique for transmitting long messages of data – a technique that has been important in the development of the internet.
Today, the NPL continues to serve as the UK’s National Measurement Institute, and is one of its leading scientific research centres.