|Research type||Applied Physics|
Field of research
|Address||Hampton Road, Teddington, TW11 0LW, England|
|Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy|
The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the national measurement standards laboratory of the United Kingdom. It is one of the most extensive government laboratories in the UK and has a prestigious reputation for its role in setting and maintaining physical standards for British industry.
Founded in 1900, it is one of the oldest metrology institutes in the world. The former heads of NPL include many individuals who were pillars of the British scientific establishment. Research work at NPL has contributed to the advancement of many disciplines of science, including the development of atomic clocks as well as packet switching, which is today one of the fundamental technologies of the Internet.
NPL is based at Bushy Park in Teddington, England. It is under the management of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
In the early 1850s, the Kew Observatory began testing meteorological instruments and other scientific equipment in return for fees. The observatory was run by self-funded devotees of science. As universities in the United Kingdom created and expanded physics departments, the governing committee of the Observatory became increasingly dominated by paid university physicists in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, by which time instrument-testing was the observatory’s main role. Physicists sought the establishment of a state-funded scientific institution for testing electrical standards.
The National Physical Laboratory was established in 1900 at Bushy House in Teddington on the site of the Kew Observatory. Its purpose was "for standardising and verifying instruments, for testing materials, and for the determination of physical constants". It grew to fill a large selection of buildings on the Teddington site.
Late 20th century
The laboratory was initially run by the UK government, with members of staff being part of the civil service. Administration of NPL was contracted out in 1995 under a Government Owned Contractor Operated model, with Serco winning the bid and all staff transferred to their employ. Under this regime, overhead costs halved, third party revenues grew by 16% per annum, and the number of peer-reviewed research papers published doubled.
It was decided in 2012 to change the operating model for NPL from 2014 onward to include academic partners and to establish a postgraduate teaching institute on site. The date of the changeover was later postponed for up to a year. The candidates for lead academic partner were the Universities of Edinburgh, Southampton, Strathclyde and Surrey with an alliance of the Universities of Strathclyde and Surrey chosen as preferred partners.
The operation of the laboratory transferred back to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) ownership on 1 January 2015.
Researchers who have worked at NPL include: D. W. Dye who did important work in developing the technology of quartz clocks. The inventor Sir Barnes Wallis did early development work on the "Bouncing Bomb" used in the "Dam Busters" wartime raids. H.J. Gough, one of the pioneers of research into metal fatigue, worked at NPL for 19 years from 1914 to 1938. Sydney Goldstein and Sir James Lighthill worked in NPL's aerodynamics division during World War II researching boundary layer theory and supersonic aerodynamics respectively.
Alan Turing, known for his work at the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park during the Second World War to decipher German encrypted messages, worked at the National Physical Laboratory from 1945 to 1947. He designed there the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), which was one of the first designs for a stored-program computer. Dr Clifford Hodge also worked there and was engaged in research on semiconductors. Others who have spent time at NPL include Robert Watson-Watt, generally considered the inventor of radar, Oswald Kubaschewski, the father of computational materials thermodynamics and the numerical analyst James Wilkinson.
NPL research has contributed to physical science, materials science, computing, and bioscience. Applications have been found in ship design, aircraft development, radar, computer networking, and global positioning.
The first accurate atomic clock, a caesium standard based on a certain transition of the caesium-133 atom, was built by Louis Essen and Jack Parry in 1955 at NPL. Calibration of the caesium standard atomic clock was carried out by the use of the astronomical time scale ephemeris time (ET). This led to the internationally agreed definition of the latest SI second being based on atomic time.
NPL has undertaken computer research since the mid-1940s. From 1945, Alan Turing led the design of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) computer. The ACE project was overambitious and floundered, leading to Turing's departure. Donald Davies took the project over and concentrated on delivering the less ambitious Pilot ACE computer, which first worked in May 1950. Among those who worked on the project was American computer pioneer Harry Huskey. A commercial spin-off, DEUCE was manufactured by English Electric Computers and became one of the best-selling machines of the 1950s.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Donald Davies and his team at the NPL pioneered packet switching, now the dominant basis for data communications in computer networks worldwide. Davies designed and proposed a national data network based on packet switching in his 1965 Proposal for the Development of a National Communications Service for On-line Data Processing. Subsequently, the NPL team (Davies, Derek Barber, Roger Scantlebury, Peter Wilkinson, Keith Bartlett, and Brian Aldous) developed the concept into a local area network which operated from 1969 to 1986, and carried out work to analyse and simulate the performance of packet-switched networks, including datagram networks. Their research and practice influenced the ARPANET in the United States, the forerunner of the Internet, and other researchers in the UK and Europe.
NPL was involved in internetworking research. Davies, Scantlebury and Barber were members of the International Networking Working Group (INWG) which developed a protocol for internetworking. Connecting existing networks creates a "basic dilemma" since a common host protocol would require restructuring the existing networks. NPL connected with the European Informatics Network (Barber directed the project and Scantlebury led the UK technical contribution) by translating between two different host protocols; that is, using a gateway. Concurrently, the NPL connection to the Post Office Experimental Packet Switched Service used a common host protocol in both networks. NPL research confirmed establishing a common host protocol would be more reliable and efficient. The EIN protocol helped to launch the proposed INWG standard.
Scrapbook was an information storage and retrieval system that went live in mid-1971. It included what would now be called word processing, e-mail and hypertext. In this it anticipated many elements of the World Wide Web. The project was managed by David Yates who said of it "We had a community of bright people that were interested in new things, they were good fodder for a system like Scrapbook" and "When we had more than one Scrapbook system, hyperlinks could go across the network without the user knowing what was happening". It was decided that any commercial development of Scrapbook should be left to industry and it was licensed to Triad and then to BT who marketed it as Milepost and developed a transaction processor as an additional feature. Various implementations were marketed on DEC, IBM and ITL machines. All NPL Scrapbooks were closed down in 1984.
In the early 1990s, the NPL developed three formal specifications of the MAA: one in Z, one in LOTOS, and one in VDM. The VDM specification became part of the 1992 revision of the International Standard 8731-2, and three implementations in C, Miranda, and Modula-2.
NPL provides accurate and repeatable measurements of electromagnetic parameters across the entire spectrum, from DC up to optical frequencies, which can be traced back to the SI system. Many new technologies like 5G, and the use cases they enable, like smart cities, Industry 4.0, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) and precision farming, rely on accurate and traceable measurements at RF, microwave and millimetre-wave frequencies. NPL’s work helps to test and validate new technology innovations and bring them to market. A 2020 study by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and NPL successfully used microwaves to measure blood-based molecules known to be influenced by dehydration.
The National Physical Laboratory is involved with new developments in metrology, such as researching metrology for, and standardising, nanotechnology. It is mainly based at the Teddington site, but also has a site in Huddersfield for dimensional metrology and an underwater acoustics facility at Wraysbury Reservoir.
Directors of NPL
Directors of NPL include a number of notable individuals.
- Sir Richard Tetley Glazebrook, 1900–1919
- Sir Joseph Ernest Petavel, 1919–1936
- Sir Frank Edward Smith, 1936–1937 (acting)
- Sir William Lawrence Bragg, 1937–1938
- Sir Charles Galton Darwin, 1938–1949
- Sir Edward Victor Appleton, 1941 (acting)
- Sir Edward Crisp Bullard, 1948–1955
- Dr Reginald Leslie Smith-Rose, 1955–1956 (acting)
- Sir Gordon Brims Black McIvor Sutherland, 1956–1964
- Dr John Vernon Dunworth, 1964–1977
- Dr Paul Dean, 1977–1990
- Dr Peter Clapham, 1990–1995
- Dr John Rae, 1995–2000
- Dr Bob McGuiness, 2000–2005
- Steve McQuillan, 2005–2008
- Dr Martyn Sené, 2008–2009, 2015 (acting)
- Dr Brian Bowsher, 2009–2015
Chief Executive Officers
- Dr Peter Thompson, 2015–present
- List of UK government scientific research institutes
- National Institute of Standards and Technology in the United States
- National Physical Laboratory of India
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This was the start of 10 years of pioneering work at the NPL in packet switching. ... At that lecture he first became aware that Paul Baran, of the RAND Corporation, had proposed a similar system in the context of military communication. His report was not as detailed as Davies’s design and had not been acted on.
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Donald W. Davies, who proposed a method for transmitting data that made the Internet possible
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