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December 17, 2001
Volume 79, Number 51
CENEAR 79 51 pp. 63-64
ISSN 0009-2347
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ACS recognizes contributions of 100-year-old federal agency with landmark status


At ceremonies held on Dec. 5, the American Chemical Society designated the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Arden L. Bement Jr. accepted the honor as his first public duty after being confirmed as 12th NIST director. Bement was most recently the David A. Ross Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and head of the School of Nuclear Engineering at Purdue University. The landmark was nominated by the Chemical Society of Washington, the ACS Washington (D.C.) Section.


LANDMARK NIST Director Bement and ACS Board Chair McClelland unveil the commemorative plaque.

A plaque commemorating the event was presented by ACS Board Chair Nina I. McClelland, who said, "Few Americans appreciate all the ways the National Institute of Standards & Technology has made our lives richer, easier, and safer--from preserving national treasures such as the Declaration of Independence, to developing air traffic control systems that enable pilots to land planes in poor visibility, to setting national standards for radiation doses used in medical diagnosis and cancer therapy."

McClelland and Bement then unveiled the plaque, which reads: "For 100 years, scientists and engineers at the National Institute of Standards & Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards, have made broad-based and comprehensive contributions to chemical science and technology and to the economic strength and competitiveness of the United States. Through internationally recognized programs in materials characterization and standards, measurement, and calibration--and in areas as diverse as cryogenics, weather prediction, solid-state devices, and synthetic rubber--the National Institute of Standards & Technology continues to demonstrate that the intelligent application of research in physical sciences to a wide range of societal challenges contributes to a higher quality of life for everyone."

Hratch G. Semerjian, director of the Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory at NIST gave a brief talk on the history of the institute. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. was poised to compete in the dawning technology age, but it had few national standards for measuring, comparing, and evaluating its products. One foot in Illinois was longer than 1 foot in Virginia. Eight different values defined a gallon. Timekeeping was local. Electric power lacked defined electrical units.

Congress chartered the federal government's first physical science research laboratory on March 3, 1901, to develop measurements and standards that strengthen the economy and improve quality of life. Originally named the National Bureau of Standards, the laboratory became the National Institute of Standards & Technology in 1988.

Samuel W. Stratton, a well-regarded physicist, became the new national laboratory's first director. The initial challenge for the staff of 12 was to establish standards for electricity, length, temperature, and time. This nucleus grew steadily to today's 3,300 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support personnel.

The Chemistry Division was among the first programs. Today, the Chemical Science & Technology Laboratory--one of NIST's seven measurement and standards laboratories--offers the most comprehensive range of chemical, physical, and engineering measurement capabilities in its field.

Over the past century, NIST has made broad contributions to science, both basic and applied. Some of its newer cutting-edge research includes the following:

  • In 1984, NIST scientists discovered quasicrystals and subsequently developed models that enhanced understanding of crystallography of those materials.
  • In 1995, pushing the limits of technology, scientists at NIST and the University of Colorado created an entirely new state of matter predicted decades ago by Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose. A Bose-Einstein condensate forms when atoms condense at ultralow temperatures into a "superatom" that behaves as a single entity. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this year for the discovery.
  • The 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for work done by a NIST scientist for the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with lasers.

Among NIST's applied contributions are many more familiar developments:

  • Hoses and hydrants--A raging fire in Baltimore in 1904 drew firefighters from as far away as New York, only to stand by helplessly. The couplings of their hoses would not fit the hydrants, leading NIST to help develop national standards for hose couplings.
  • Early aviation--During the years following the Wright brothers' flight in 1903 through the U.S. involvement in World War I, America's military forces sent their instruments to NIST to be tested. NIST also produced the first quantitative data ever on the power-producing qualities of fuels, as well as the first U.S. study of the aerodynamics of flight.
  • The front lines--During World War I, NIST developed a radio detection finder antenna that became a prototype in pinpointing positions of enemy forces. The military requested the manufacture of optical glass; America's only supply, from Germany, had been cut off. NIST was the country's only producer of optical glass during WWI and produced about half of the country's supply during World War II.
  • Radiation standards--NIST provided physical measurement standards to ensure the safety of radium and X-rays, which helped bring about the 1931 X-ray safety codes.
  • The nation's clock--NIST has maintained the nation's primary time standards from the pendulum to the quartz clock to the first atomic clock, developed in 1949. The current accuracy standard is one second in 20 million years.
  • Smoke detectors--NIST helped develop the first standards for smoke detectors in 1974. Extensive work in fire research also includes standards on children's sleepwear and mattresses. In 1997, NIST produced the only validated method for quantifying the lethality of smoke, a method now routinely used in fire-hazard analysis.

ACS established its landmarks program in 1992 to commemorate and preserve landmarks in the history of chemistry and to heighten public awareness of the key role chemistry has played in the history of the U.S. and nations around the world. Nearly 40 places, discoveries, and devices have achieved landmark status since the program's inception.

The landmarks program website-- chemical landmarks, historic photographs, and interactive elements for teachers, students, and the general public.

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Chinese-American Chemical Society celebrates 20th anniversary

HONORED ACS President Attila E. Pavlath (right) makes a presentation to Chinese-American Chemical Society President Huang commemorating CACS's 20th anniversary.
The Chinese-American Chemical Society (CACS) is wrapping up its celebration of its 20th-anniversary year. CACS was formally established at an inauguration banquet held on April 1, 1981, in Atlanta. At the banquet, the founding members received congratulatory telegrams from the Chemical Industry & Engineering Society of China, Beijing; the Chinese Chemical Society, Taiwan; the Chinese Institute of Engineers USA; and the Overseas Chinese Environmental Engineers & Scientists Association. And, also at that banquet, Jesse J. C. Hwa, who has retired from Rohm and Haas, was elected the first president. This year, the president is Yinlun Huang, professor of chemical engineering at Wayne State University.

Three local chapters were subsequently established. These were the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut Tristate Chapter and the Southern California Chapter, in the fall of 1981, and the Northern California Chapter in 1983. There are now five sections. Also in 1983, a board of directors was established; five years later, Nobel Laureate Y. T. Lee joined the board. Today, the board consists of nine directors--four chemists and five engineers.

Many of the anniversary activities were held at ACS and American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) national meetings. On April 2, CACS met at the ACS meeting in San Diego. After a well-attended social hour, a 10-course banquet attracted 98 diners. After the dinner, Jane P. Chang, professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, gave a talk on inorganic membranes with applications in the semiconductor manufacturing industry.

At the AIChE Houston meeting in April, Haitao Zhang, vice chief engineer from Maoming Petrochemical Co., briefly talked about the Chinese petrochemical industry and professor Yue Kuo of Texas A&M University gave the after-dinner talk at the CACS banquet, focusing on challenges and opportunities for chemical engineers in the semiconductor industry.

At the ACS meeting in Chicago, CACS sponsored a symposium, "Perspectives on Chemical Research in the 21st Century," with the ACS Divisions of Professional Relations and of the History of Chemistry. The symposium was followed by a celebration banquet. CACS also met during the AIChE national meeting in Reno, Nev., last month. The keynote speech of this meeting was given by W. S. Winston Ho of the department of chemical and materials engineering, Center for Applied Energy Research, at the University of Kentucky. His speech was titled "Fuel-Cell and Membrane Technology: An Overview."

For more information on the organization, go to its website at The Great Lakes Section of CACS also maintains an extensive website at

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2001 American Chemical Society

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