Browsing: Electronics

Two years ago, I had never heard of the WWVB radio station. Today, it’s one of my favorites, but that’s not because it broadcasts a pleasant mix of Top 40 hits. (It doesn’t.) WWVB is a low-frequency station, operated by NIST, that provides precise time information to radio-controlled clocks across North America. The WWVB signal is sent from a transmitter in Fort Collins, Colorado, on a carrier frequency of 60 kilohertz (kHz). The devices that use WWVB interpret the digital time code transmitted by the station to stay in sync with NIST’s atomic clocks in Boulder, Colorado. While atomic clocks are fascinating, and WWVB provides a vital service, I’m only interested in the amplitude, or strength, of its signal. You…

First, let me say that I’m totally energized by the good press my dear acquaintance Wonder Woman has been receiving lately. It’s absolutely electrifying to see a strong woman get good publicity! And she has done some wonderful things, what with defending the world from evil-doers and all. Maybe with her around, superheroes like me will get a little more recognition. For those of you who haven’t heard of me, I’m Ms. Ampere of the Measurement League. My fellow superheroes and I make sure that the basic measurements that make modern life possible—time, temperature, length, amount of substance, mass, brightness, and electric current—are as accurate and precise as they can be. Without us, you’d have a tough time describing the…

Right now, the NIST museum in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is displaying a glass globe the size of a large beach ball. When visitors first come upon it, they’re not sure what to make of it. Is it a giant lightbulb? A highly impractical fishbowl? Thankfully, they can quickly quench their curiosity by reading the identifying sign that accompanies the object. (This particular artifact is actually for collecting gas samples.) NIST’s museum collection includes hundreds of artifacts that tell the story of NIST, and its predecessor NBS, that reflect the larger history of American scientific research. But not every item in our collection has been identified. In fact, we’re in the possession of quite a few … thingamajigs. Knowledge of these things’…

The creation of a new material has long been either an accident or a matter of trial and error. Steel, for instance, was developed over hundreds of years by people who didn’t know why what they were doing worked (or didn’t work). Generations of blacksmiths observed that iron forged in charcoal was stronger than iron that wasn’t, and iron that was forged in a very high-temperature, charcoal-fired furnace and rapidly cooled was even stronger, and so on. While we’re still learning things about steel, we now have all kinds of recipes that we can use to make steels with different properties depending on the application, but those recipes took a lot of time, sweat and toil to develop. Wouldn’t it…

As a professional reference librarian and amateur history buff at NIST, I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with all kinds of extraordinary individuals. In particular, I have been struck by the number of women who made important contributions to the development of the earliest electronic computers. One of my favorites is Ida Rhodes. Rhodes, a NIST mathematician and computer expert from 1940-1975, designed the C-10 language used by one of the earliest computers, the UNIVAC 1. She also worked on computer translation of Russian, gave lectures to government agencies and private firms to promote the computers’ ability to make their work more efficient, and taught computer coding to people with physical disabilities. In 1977, she developed an algorithm…