From wooden heads to boxes with dials, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is trying to identify old measuring devices stored in its basement. What the sometimes home-made instruments tells us about how ‘precision measurement’ evolved and may be still evolving.


  • Regina Avila Digital Services Librarian
  • Jim Schooley Retired NIST scientist; president, Standards Alumni Association

All images courtesy of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Digital Collections, Gaithersburg, MD 20899


  • 13:34:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMaybe you know how scientists at the National Institute of National of Standards and Technology use the reflecting galvanometer in days of old or the wooden resistance box with four metal dials. In a major crowd sourcing effort, NIST, as the Institute is called, is trying to figure out the provenance and purpose of a basement full of instruments used in its labs over the last century. By enlisting the help of public, NIST research librarians are hoping former employees or partners in industry will recognize these mystery devices and remember who used them and why.

  • 13:35:17

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe treasure hunt is intended not only to help catalog the equipment but to chronicle the evolution of precision measurement at the governments keeper of standards. Joining me in studio is Regina Avila, digital services librarian at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST. Regina Avila, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:35:36

    MS. REGINA AVILAThank you for having me.

  • 13:35:37

    NNAMDIAlso with us is retired NIST scientist, President standards -- and President of the Standards Alumni association, Jim Schooley. Jim Schooley, thank you so much for joining us also.

  • 13:35:48

    MR. JIM SCHOOLEYThank you for having me too.

  • 13:35:49

    NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850 or send e-mail to Regina, you've launched an online project asking the public's help in identifying hundreds of artifacts that were used in NIST labs at one time and then stored for decades in a basement. What prompted the move to do this now?

  • 13:36:10

    AVILAWell, actually we were relocating the objects from one building to within the library and so we decided to photograph them and put them online, make them available. And as part of that project, we realized there were some things that we couldn't label and thought, well, we've got this online vehicle, why don't we use that and ask for help.

  • 13:36:30

    NNAMDIWell, your original intent, apparently, was just to ask around among in-house scientists. But when you went public with the request for help, you got, apparently, a huge response.

  • 13:36:40

    AVILAWe did.

  • 13:36:41

    NNAMDIWho did you hear from?

  • 13:36:42

    AVILAWho did we hear from?

  • 13:36:43


  • 13:36:43

    AVILAWe heard from people all over the world. I actually looked at the web statistics and we got people, according to the web statistics, from about 30 different countries outside the U.S. and people who used to work in laboratories and -- wrote in saying things like, ah, I had that instrument in the '50s in college. And I used to work in the Navy, it looks like it could've been one of these. A lot of different anecdotes about similar instruments that were used.

  • 13:37:12

    NNAMDIThere are a thousand items that apparently have been in storage for decades, correct?

  • 13:37:16


  • 13:37:17

    NNAMDIJim, many of these instruments are probably homemade, dating back to an era when scientists couldn’t find commercially produced devices to meet their needs. In your early days at the institute, how did you and your colleagues sometimes make your own equipment?

  • 13:37:33

    SCHOOLEYWell, the actual fact is, that there was not so much equipment available commercially. And so, from the time that the NIST was founded, in 1901, the people made their own. I even made a couple myself. And...

  • 13:37:54

    NNAMDIYeah, it's my understanding that you made an instrument using a soda straw. Tell me what instrument was that, pray tell?

  • 13:38:00

    SCHOOLEYOkay. Well, my general area, when I came to the -- to NIST, was cryogenics. And I like to do experiments very near the absolute of zero. And to do this, you have to get the sample cold, compared to room temperature. And so the soda straw is a very bad conductor of heat, but strong. And so I would mount my sample on the soda straw, sweetheart sanitary soda sipper from the cafeteria. And I would tie it on there with nylon tooth wax, string. And off we go, it's just great.

  • 13:38:49

    NNAMDICardboard and plastic included?

  • 13:38:52

    SCHOOLEYWell, we, you know, we just made whatever was needed to get the job done, really.

  • 13:38:58

    NNAMDIYou mentioned tooth wax, dental floss is what we're talking about here, you often used it in your lab to hold and apparatus together. Why dental floss, what did...

  • 13:39:07

    SCHOOLEYWell, it has nearly no heat capacity. So it doesn't take much energy to cool it down. It's non magnetic, it's very flexible and retains its strength at low temperatures. What else do you want of a tie down?

  • 13:39:24

    NNAMDIWell, we'd like to be able to use it as dental floss too, but that's another story. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. Regina, could you describe a couple of the artifacts for us. You've got a set of wooden heads and a lot of wooden boxes with dials. What are these things? Well, I guess we're trying to find out exactly what they are, but I'm looking at a bust in front of me made out of wood. It's a wooden head.

  • 13:39:48

    AVILARight. It's a wooden head and we weren't exactly sure what it was. If you -- it's about a foot tall and it's supposedly -- well, we don't know what it was. Originally, we thought it might've been used for hearing aids, but the -- the ear doesn't have enough detail to look like you could fit a hearing aid into it. And when we put it online, someone wrote in saying that it might have been used as a model by the Navy to design face masks, or masks for pilots.

  • 13:40:17

    AVILASomeone else suggested it might be a different type of mask for maybe a respirator. But we actually can see on it there's some residue going -- it looks like some rubber reside going up the side of it along the ear. So it could have been a strap from a mask. So we're thinking we're getting closer to what it might have been.

  • 13:40:38

    NNAMDIDo you do work that relies on exact measurement? Call us, 800-433-8850 What else have your brought with you there, Regina?

  • 13:40:46

    AVILAOh, we brought something, it was a -- it's actually called the frequency analysis recording of the 17-year cicada. And it kind of looks like -- I'm rolling it out.

  • 13:40:56


  • 13:40:56

    AVILAIt's a really long piece of paper that was probably that was probably -- had something to do with our radio studies man years ago. This is from 1936. And it kind of looks like something you'd see on television as a EEG reading...

  • 13:41:10

    NNAMDIExactly. Yes.

  • 13:41:10

    AVILA...or a lie detector test.

  • 13:41:12

    NNAMDIYeah. It looks like my EEG reading.

  • 13:41:16

    AVILAAnd we know there --we don't know much about it except that there -- there are some indications of time stamps of when things changed on -- on the reading. But there is an obituary inside the tube that we found it in for someone named Hyslop (sp?) , and he was an entomologist in the '30s and '40s with the Department of Agriculture.

  • 13:41:38

    AVILASo we're trying to determine whether or not he came to NIST to do some studies using maybe the radio instruments that we had there.

  • 13:41:44

    NNAMDIIf you go to our website,, you will find a link to the archives, and maybe you can look at some of those items and identify them for us, and give us a call at 800-433-8850, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can also send e-mail to Regina, why is it important to you to identify these things?

  • 13:42:06

    AVILAWell, we -- part of the mission in the library where I work is to document the history of NIST, and we want to be able to point out when important things were discovered there, important information, and if we've got an artifact from something that we want to share with people then we want to be able to document it well.

  • 13:42:23

    NNAMDIRegina Avila is digital services librarian at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She joins us in studio along with Jim Schooley who is a retired NIST scientist and president of Standards Alumni Association. Do you remember the first time you became aware of standardized measurement? Share your story. Call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 13:42:45

    NNAMDIJim, as president of the NIST Alumni Association, you speak to incoming NIST employees. What are some of the biggest changes in the work culture since your days there?

  • 13:42:56

    SCHOOLEYWell, the truth is that when I came in 1960, fresh from the University of California, there was one intake interview with a wonderful lady called Theresa Chambers. And the only thing that stopped her from filling out the three pieces of paper that were necessary for me to take up my job as a scientist was did I have a copy of my thesis signed by the people at the University of California. And I didn't. It was still in the process, and my life hung in the balance for...

  • 13:43:36

    NNAMDISo you were asking her to accept you bona fide as a scientist on trust?

  • 13:43:41

    SCHOOLEYWe ended up getting on the telephone and calling my thesis advisor.

  • 13:43:46

    NNAMDITrust but verify, yes.

  • 13:43:48

    SCHOOLEYAnd he said, he's okay.

  • 13:43:51

    NNAMDIThat's amazing how things have changed over time.

  • 13:43:54

    AVILAActually, that happened to me. My transcript wouldn't arrive when I was hired and they were actually quite adamant. Well, we can't really hire you until your transcript arrives, so...

  • 13:44:05

    NNAMDIJim, tell….

  • 13:44:05

    AVILA...that's the difference.

  • 13:44:06

    NNAMDI...tell us who makes up NIST and how the detailed scientific work that's done at NIST ends up affecting all of us.

  • 13:44:14

    SCHOOLEYWell, NIST is really scientists, engineers, and administrators very much like any research lab. There's a big difference in that the goal of the guys at NIST, and the girls I should say, is measurement accuracy. People making a new product for industry may need to make a new length measurement. There's such a thing now as nanotubes, which are nanometer-size tubes.

  • 13:44:47

    SCHOOLEYI don't know what they do, but they need a measurement at an unusually small distance. And at NIST we have had a lot of success with making measurements of single atoms on a surface. So we can do that. We had another measurement which was interesting developed by a guy at the Boulder lab which involved what looked a muffin tin.

  • 13:45:20

    SCHOOLEYLots of -- lots of cavities in about a one meter by one meter board, which the scientists gave to the NASA boys. And when they went to the moon they propped this muffin board up so that it faced the earth, and each of the muffin holes was really a retro reflector. It's like the corner you would cut out of a cube, and all -- all silvered on the inside so it would reflect light back no matter where it came from, as long as it could see the muffin tin. And that enabled the NASA boys to measure the distance between the moon and the source of the laser light within like a centimeter.

  • 13:46:10

    NNAMDIJim Schooley is a retired scientist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He's president of the Standards Alumni Association. He joins us in studio, along with Regina Avila, digital services librarian with the National Institutes of Standard and Technology. We're gonna take a short break. You can call us at 800-433-8850, or send e-mail to

  • 13:46:33

    NNAMDIDo you remember the first time you became aware of standardized measurement? You can call us and share your story. You can also go to our website where you will find a link to the archives. See if you can identify any of the items there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:48:32

    NNAMDIWe're discussing a history of measuring devices, artifacts at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and whether you can help to identify what some of those artifacts are. You can go to our website,, you'll find a link to the archives. And joining in studio is Jim Schooley. He's a retired scientist with the National Institute and president of the Standards Alumni Association.

  • 13:48:55

    NNAMDIRegina Avila is digital services librarian with the Institute, and how has the transition from homemade instruments to commercially-produced instruments increased the precision of measurements and of standards?

  • 13:49:14

    SCHOOLEYWell, the main change has been from the early 1900s when for example in the basement of the museum at NIST is what's called a one ohm resistance standard made by a guy named James Thomas in about 1905. And the measurement of resistance -- electrical resistance, was not very good, and part of it was because it was very awkward to use. Well, James Thomas manufactured using a resistance wire and a hermetic seal technique to make a one ohm standard which became the world standard for resistance.

  • 13:50:05

    SCHOOLEYWell, now the instruments that you buy commercially have resistance -- resistors that are just as accurate as that one ohm standard which, by itself, was the about the size of a shoebox. And now there's included on a chip. And so what's happened is that experiments done at NIST now incorporate dozens of commercial instruments, volt meters, potentiometers, computer chips and frequency measurements and all that that are in boxes that you can buy.

  • 13:50:46

    SCHOOLEYAnd the contribution of staff at NIST is to take all these devices and put them together in an experiment which makes use of these things, and so the creativity which formerly went into the basic measurements, length, time, frequency, etc., temperature...

  • 13:51:09


  • 13:51:09 specialty, has changed over to a whole experimental apparatus which itself might be the size of this room, and contain lasers and what not, and the creativity assumes the collection of data by computers, the analysis of that data real time instead of doing it months later on a hand calculator. And so it's been quite a change in that respect.

  • 13:51:44

    NNAMDIRegina, a one meter bar used to be the standard for measuring length. Now the standard for a meter is apparently the distance light travels in a certain amount of time.

  • 13:51:55


  • 13:51:56

    NNAMDIWhy the change?

  • 13:51:58

    AVILAWell, a meter bar is something that's physical that can actually physically degrade, or it can get bent, and it's not necessary to have a meter bar if you're doing something really tiny like nanotechnology, you want to have something much more precise. So now NIST uses constants of nature, like you said the distance that light can travel in a certain amount of time, that's what defines a meter now.

  • 13:52:31

    AVILAAnd currently NIST is working on replacing the kilogram. There is actually a kilogram that's in a vault in France and we're trying to -- and I obviously am not the expert on this, but from what I understand it's going to be the amount of electromagnetic force that can balance a kilogram. That will be a different way to measure a kilogram so that you don't have to rely on something that sits in a vault and make replicas of that item that can lose mass over time.

  • 13:53:04

    NNAMDIA completely new standard. Do you remember unique ways you or your grandparents measured things, you know, a pinch of that a bit of that? Care to call us and share that with us? Here's what we got from Ken in Bowie, Md. "My parents' first car was an Oldsmobile Jetstar '88. It was like 19-and-a-half feet long, and my mom hated it because it was so long we couldn't close our garage door.

  • 13:53:28

    NNAMDIAfter that, everything in our house became bigger than a Jetstar or smaller than a Jetstar. And to this day, my husband and kids use it to reference things like as far away at a Jetstar." So that's a standard of measurement that people use. Jim, you wrote a history of NIST in celebration of its centennial in 2001. What kinds of standard did the Institute help create at the turn of the last century, and what kinds of standards is it working on today?

  • 13:53:56

    SCHOOLEYWell, the whole reason that NIST was created, and it was called the National Bureau of Standards at that time, was that the standards at the beginning of the 1900s was pretty bad. A country mile was a distance, a peck was an amount.

  • 13:54:16

    NNAMDIA bushel and a peck, yeah.

  • 13:54:17

    SCHOOLEYA bushel and a peck. And there was even a perch which is one of my favorites, because a perch was defined as the distance when you put 16 left feet in a way furnished by the first 16 guys to come out of church on Sunday morning. It's so cute.

  • 13:54:45

    NNAMDIIt certainly is.

  • 13:54:46

    SCHOOLEYYou can envision the -- the guy who's wanting to build a home or something, lining up his perch of guys and being told, sorry, you can't build today, it's Sunday. And he has to say well, go on home, fellows, any of you guys going to church tomorrow? And so these old standards and not to mention the thumb on the scale...

  • 13:55:14

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 13:55:16

    SCHOOLEY...led to the desire expressed by Congress to have a bureau where measurements would become more exact, and from there it's history.

  • 13:55:28

    NNAMDIOnto Marilyn in Gaithersburg, Md. Marilyn, you're on the air. You have to put on your headphones, Jim and Regina, to hear Marilyn. But Marilyn, we are now headphone ready. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:39

    MARILYNOkay, hi. I just had a question. I'm just sort of a general, I guess, Joe Q. public type of user, and I was sort of interested in what the general purpose of the archive was. It's something different. I didn't realize that scientific agencies like yours actually did things like digital archives and that sort of thing. Can you explain that more, or is it something that I can actually...

  • 13:56:03

    NNAMDIThe purpose of the archive, Regina Avila?

  • 13:56:06

    AVILAThe purpose of the archive is to basically preserve the objects and make them accessible to people. NIST is a closed campus, and of course we have lots and lots of objects that we have -- people have never seen before. We've got about 1600, 600 of them are on display, but there are another 1000 that are not. So we spent about six months photographing all of them, and continued to edit those photographs and put them online so that's one of the main things that we're doing is making them accessible.

  • 13:56:40

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Marilyn. We got a call from Maryanne in D.C. "I'm curious. Do you guests have a favorite story they tell about the challenge of measuring something?" Jim?

  • 13:56:52

    SCHOOLEYWell, there...

  • 13:56:52

    NNAMDIWhat measurement has evaded you?

  • 13:56:55

    SCHOOLEYWell, one that evaded me, I was in charge for ten years of the thermometry group at NIST, and the NASA guys wanted to measure the temperature of a ball bearing in a gyroscope that was going to go into space.

  • 13:57:12


  • 13:57:13

    SCHOOLEYAnd as far as I know, they're still looking.

  • 13:57:16

    NNAMDIThey're still trying to figure out how to measure that one. We got an e-mail from Julie saying, "I want to thank your guests. Daily use of NIST tissue and sediment standard reference materials, SRMs, help us confirm the accuracy of environmental measurements. Years ago I actually helped NIST staff collect the mussel and oyster SRM standards, but that would be showing my age." I think you just did, Julie.

  • 13:57:40

    NNAMDIThank you so much for your e-mail. Regina Avila, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:44

    AVILAThank you.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIRegina Avila is digital services librarian with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST. Jim Schooley is a retired NIST scientist and president of the Standards Alumni Association. Jim Schooley, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:59

    SCHOOLEYIt was a pleasure.

  • 13:58:00

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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