Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 162,878 pages of information and 245,382 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

National Physical Laboratory

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

Based at Teddington, NPL developed and maintained the primary national measurement standards as well as working in many other fields relevant to industry.

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.

1901-30 Sir Thomas Stanton was superintendent of the engineering department.

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 Richard Glazebrook retired from the directorship. Professor Joseph Ernest Petavel was appointed as the new director.[4]

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.

1928 A new high voltage laboratory, capable to testing up to 1 million volts, was completed[5]

1930 Dr Herbert John Gough was appointed superintendent of the engineering department.

1931 New physics laboratories and a compressed air tunnel for aerodynamical research were opened.

1932 A second ship tank was opened for use

1933 A modern building for work on acoustics was opened.

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.

1933-4 Two open-jet wind tunnels were commissioned

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.

1936 A new photometry building was completed

1936 Sir Joseph Petavel died in office.

1937-8 Lawrence Bragg was Director.

1938 Sir Ralph Howard Fowler was appointed as director but had a heart attack before he could take up the position. Dr C. G. Darwin was appointed director, with Sir Frank Edward Smith standing in as acting director until Dr Darwin could take up his duties[6]

1946 Two new divisions were created, mathematics and electronics, in anticipation of the potential for electronic computers. Alan Turing was part of a group formed for the design, construction and use of a large automatic computing engine. The successful collaboration of these divisions produced Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), the first electronic digital computer available to British industry. 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.

1949 Sir Charles Galton Darwin retired from the directorship

1950 Professor Edward Crisp Bullard became director[7]

The Ship Division set up the N.P.L. Ship Hydrodynamics Laboratory at Feltham.

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

1955 Professor Bullard returned to academia; Dr R. L. Smith-Rose became acting director[8]

1956 Professor Gordon Brims Black McIvor Sutherland was appointed as Director.[9]

Both staff numbers and facilities increased; the Electricity, Metrology and Physics Divisions were reorganised into Standards, Applied Physics and Basic Physics Divisions, in order raise the calibre of fundamental research work and attract staff of a higher quality.

1964 Sutherland resigned as director and returned to academia. Dr J. V. Dunworth became acting director.

1965 Dr J. V. Dunworth was appointed director[10]

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[11]

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. The Times Sept. 2, 1919
  5. The Times Apr. 1, 1936
  6. The Times Oct. 7, 1938
  7. The Times June 23, 1949
  8. The Times Feb. 6, 1956
  9. [1] National Archives
  10. The Times Oct. 22, 1965
  11. Obituary of George Stephen Baker
  • History of NPL [2]