It would be hard to imagine a federal agency more absent from mind or more present in daily living.
The National Bureau of Standards (NBS), with headquarters in Gaithersburg, is a small outfit by government standards with a $275 million annual budget and a cozy 3,100 employes. But it has a reputation as one of the more effective agencies, and is a candidate to be the lead agency in a new federal effort to help industries compete in high-tech world markets.
The bureau began with two urgent matters of standards before the nation at the turn of the century. One was to certify American steel as high-quality stuff, equal to the European products of the day.
The other was a reaction to a tragedy in Baltimore. A fire got out of control and burned a large section of the city when firefighters found the hoses did not fit the hydrants.
In its seemingly mundane job of setting standards -- the precise time, the exact length of a meter, the standard proportion of things in metals, crude oil and water -- the bureau also manages to be at the front edge of basic research in several fields.
There are few parts of life that are not affected by the basic standards set at the bureau; it is a kind of floor of orderliness beneath modern industrial life. Because life on earth has become increasingly communal as well as dependent on technology, standards also are a kind of universal pact, a set of common, practical rules.
Most anywhere on earth a meter is a meter and a second is a second. The standards are omnipresent, from the moment a person's day begins.
With the sound of a clock radio in the morning, NBS is there.
The electricity that powers the clock is sent out by the utility company at 60 cycles per second. That rate must be maintained -- at 50 the clock would run slow and at 70 it would run fast. Utilities check against a standard frequency that is broadcast on an NBS radio station, WWVB.
The time displayed by the radio, set from any number of sources, ultimately comes from a battery of atomic clocks humming away in the bureau's Boulder, Colo., branch. Using the regular motion of atoms as the standard -- 9 billion vibrations equal a second -- the clock is correct to about one second in a million years.
Elsewhere in the house, there is more evidence of NBS standards at work. The NBS has "standard water," which can be used to compare local water for contamination. (There is also simulated rainwater -- to check for acidity.)
In the kitchen, NBS standards virtually pour out of every cabinet. There are not only basic standards for the composition of what should be found in foods -- wheat flour, rice flour, nonfat milk, sucrose, dextrose -- there are standards for pesticides contaminating the foods. NBS has worked out the proper composition for five of the most common pesticides.
For manufacturers to know just what mix of metals makes a standard and reliable cast-iron pipe, they must send for a sample from NBS -- $85 for a 150-gram bottle of standard composition cast iron grains. The standard mix graces sewer pipes the world over.
The list continues. There is standard cement, standard petroleum, standard brick, even a standard magnetic tape cassette ($352 in the NBS catalog).
If tiny spheres of a standard size, say to calibrate a microscope, are needed, then NBS has been to space to perfect them. Polystyrene spheres, perfectly round pieces of plastic and exactly 10 micrometers in diameter, were manufactured in weightlessness during a space shuttle mission.
Earth-made polystyrene spheres vary in size and become less spherical as they grow. But the space-made balls are precisely correct at a uniform 10 micrometers each ($126 for a 2-gram sample).
To measure radiation in soil, NBS produces two samples for comparison: Peruvian dirt with almost unmeasurable traces of radiation, and dirt taken from near the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons laboratory in Colorado, laced with plutonium.
To measure radioactivity in humans, there are samples of freeze-dried human lung and liver tissues carrying a carefully measured amount of radiation.
To determine what normally should be in blood so that drugs or other contaminants can be accurately measured, there is standard freeze-dried human blood serum.
All told, the NBS sells more than a thousand of these standard reference materials to help keep the world in order.
And there are the projects. "I love the work here just for the stories of wacky projects you can hear by the coffee machine," said Robert Scace, deputy director of electronics and electrical engineering.
Foreign customers not long ago were worried about just how much liquid natural gas was being carried by American tanker ships. The ship's tanks contain about 125,000 cubic meters, but a 1 percent error would mean a $60,000 loss or gain on every shipment.
The volume could not be measured by putting a flow meter on the pipes when the tanks were being emptied: liquid gas is stored at minus 162 degrees Celsius and there are no flow meters designed to measure the flow of large volumes of such cold material.
Ultimately, the bureau had to place laser targets at different spots inside the ship's tanks and fire pulses to accurately measure the volume.
The tanks, as it turned out, were as advertised: less than one-tenth of 1 percent of error was found.
Electric utility companies also have become concerned about shortchanging. The watt-hour meters that measure electricity coming into a house or business are mostly old mechanical devices, with an error of at least five-hundredths of a percent.
The bureau has devised a new digital calibration method that should reduce the error by fivefold. That difference could mean $30 million worth of potential "inequities" erased. Most errors, Scace said, have been in favor of the customer.
The bureau also has a program to test the potential usefulness of inventions. Those that look good get an NBS recommendation. About 400 have been given recommendations over the past few years, including a self-propelled, portable pothole patcher, a highly flexible and strong form of graphite, a low-pollution method of burning coal, and a mobile air-warmer to prevent frost damage to crops.
Beyond the basic work of the bureau, there are the cutting-edge research projects. One program is working on atomic-level analysis of ceramic materials. What the advent of plastics was to the previous four decades of manufacturing, new ceramic, or "baked clay," materials will be to the next few decades for such things as car and airplane engines.
But fundamental problems to overcome include the extremely high rate of manufacturer rejection -- near 50 percent -- of ceramic parts. In the production process, chemical uniformity is difficult to maintain, often resulting in cracks.
NBS is also a leader in robot manufacturing. In one of the 26 sprawling NBS buildings in Gaithersburg, the bureau has built a small factory floor containing an array of robots and tools to produce machined parts. It is the only one of its kind in the world, a "flexibly automated manufacturing system."
Looking out at the gang of ungainly machines, Dr. Dennis Swyt, deputy director of the NBS Center for Manufacturing Engineering, said, "This is the future. This is the strategic technology."
Manufacturing in the past 75 years has concentrated on setting up plants to make hundreds of thousands units, all identical. It was the method that made products cheap by making them in large quanties.
But with the new industrial revolution, with computer-based machinery that is far more flexible and even intelligent, mass production will no longer be profitable. It will be disastrously slow and unresponsive to consumer desires, Swyt said.
This means that companies will be competing by making a continuous stream of new, better models.
When IBM began making a large volume of monitors for personal computers four years ago, he said, the company built up a high volume of production and expected the monitors to have up to five years of competitive life before becoming obsolete.
Now, he said, product lifetime has dropped to 18 months or less as newer, better products have leap-frogged each other in the market.
But industry, neither in Japan nor the United States, is ready for such a future, Swyt said. Industry does not have the manufacturing capability to retool continuously to upgrade and alter products.
To do that, machinery is needed that is not single-product, single-style assembly-line variety. Rather, the equipment must be flexible enough to make many different kinds of parts simply by being fed new commands.
NBS now has a robot machine shop that can do just that, make machined parts of many sizes and shapes on command. But to do it, NBS researchers had to take the industrial tools and robots on the market and overhaul them completely. None would work with each other; the ones that find and ferry parts in the workshop, the ones that pick up and manipulate parts, the ones that do the machining. At NBS now they are well coordinated.
There was also no computer control that could operate them as a single system. NBS built a computer system to operate the whole workshop as a unit.
Bills pending in Congress would rename the bureau "The National Institute of Technology."