By 1900, only 124 years after declaring independence, the United States had grown and expanded into one of the most prosperous and influential countries in the world. The economy was strong, driven by the power of steel locomotives, steam engines, electricity, and the beginning of automated manufacturing. But the burgeoning economic productivity, along with the complexity of 20th century machinery, created problems when different manufacturers had to work together. Disagreements arose over the units of measurement and how to apply them. For example, one company's "gallon" might not be the same as another company's. Without standards, the parts or containers made by one company did not fit another company's items, resulting in chaos.
On March 3, 1901, the U.S. government chartered the National Bureau of Standards to remedy this problem. Beginning with a staff of 1 2, the new bureau quickly went to work, improving the standards of length and mass measurements, and establishing new standards of temperature, time, and light. Time was especially important, as it synchronizes the activities of so many people. How do railroads, radio and television networks, and other time-conscious organizations know what time it is - and keep the same time? The bureau has provided time signals from a radio station, WWV, since 1 923. Governing this timekeeping is an atomic clock so precise that it will not gain or lose a second in 60 million years!
The National Bureau of Standards changed its name to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988. Today, the NIST has facilities in Gaitherburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, and employs about 2,800 scientists, engineers, and staff. The NIST continues to improve measurement technology and standards, helping promote economic and technological progress. Laboratories at the NIST include the Building and Fire Research Laboratory, the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, the Information Technology Laboratory, the Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory, the Physics Laboratory, and others.