National Physical Laboratory (United Kingdom)

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National Physical Laboratory
National Physical Laboratory - - 16240.jpg
NPL's main entrance on Hampton Road
Established1900 (1900)
Research typeApplied Physics
Budget£3 million[1]
Field of research
DirectorPeter Thompson
AddressHampton Road, Teddington, TW11 0LW, England
Location51°25′35″N 0°20′37″W / 51.42639°N 0.34361°W / 51.42639; -0.34361Coordinates: 51°25′35″N 0°20′37″W / 51.42639°N 0.34361°W / 51.42639; -0.34361
Operating agency
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the national measurement standards laboratory for the United Kingdom. Founded in 1900, it is one of the oldest standardising laboratories in the world.

Today, 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. The heads of NPL have included many individuals who were pillars of the British scientific establishment.[2][3] 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.[4][5][6]

NPL is based at Bushy Park in Teddington, England. It comes under the management of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.


The Electricity Division of the National Physical Laboratory in 1944

The National Physical Laboratory was established in 1900 at Bushy House "to bring scientific knowledge to bear practically upon our everyday industrial and commercial life".[7] It grew to fill a large selection of buildings on the Teddington site.[8] NPL procured a large state-of-the-art laboratory under a Private Finance Initiative contract in 1998. The construction, which was being undertaken by John Laing, and the maintenance of this new building, which was being undertaken by Serco, was transferred back to the DTI in 2004 after the private sector companies involved made losses of over £100m.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] The date of the changeover was later postponed for up to a year.[12] The candidates for lead academic partner were the Universities of Edinburgh, Southampton, Strathclyde and Surrey[13] with an alliance of the Universities of Strathclyde and Surrey chosen as preferred partners.[14]

In January 2013 funding for a new £25m Advanced Metrology Laboratory was announced that will be built on the footprint of an existing unused building.[15][16]

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.[17]

Notable researchers[edit]

Researchers who have worked at NPL include:[18] D. W. Dye who did important work in developing the technology of quartz clocks. The inventor Sir Barnes Wallis did early development work there on the "Bouncing Bomb" used in the "Dam Busters" wartime raids.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]


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.[23]

Atomic clocks[edit]

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.[24][25] Calibration of the caesium standard atomic clock was carried out by the use of the astronomical time scale ephemeris time (ET).[26] This led to the internationally agreed definition of the latest SI second being based on atomic time.[27]


NPL has undertaken computer research since the mid-1940s.[28] 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.[29] 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.[29]


The National Physical Laboratory is involved with new developments in metrology, such as researching metrology for, and standardising, nanotechnology.[30] It is mainly based at the Teddington site, but also has a site in Huddersfield for dimensional metrology[31] and an underwater acoustics facility at Wraysbury Reservoir.[32]

Packet switching[edit]

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.[33] Subsequently, the NPL team (Davies, Derek Barber, Roger Scantlebury, Peter Wilkinson, Keith Bartlett, and Brian Aldous)[34] 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.[35][36][37][38]

NPL was also involved in internetworking research. Davies, Scantlebury and Barber were members of the International Networking Working Group (INWG) which developed a protocol for internetworking.[39][40][41] 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)[42][43][44] 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.[45] The EIN protocol helped to launch the proposed INWG standard.[46]

NPL sponsors a gallery, opened in 2009, about the development of packet switching and "Technology of the Internet" at The National Museum of Computing.[47]

Directors of NPL[edit]

Directors of NPL include a number of notable individuals.[48]

Managing Directors

Chief Executive Officers

  • Dr Peter Thompson, 2015–present[49]

NPL buildings[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Framework". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 3 July 2020.
  2. ^ Naughton, John (24 September 2015). A Brief History of the Future. Orion. ISBN 978-1-4746-0277-8.
  3. ^ Russell, Andrew L. (28 April 2014). Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-91661-5.
  4. ^ Needham, Roger M. (2002). "Donald Watts Davies, C.B.E. 7 June 1924 – 28 May 2000". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 48: 87–96. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2002.0006. ISSN 0080-4606. S2CID 72835589. 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.
  5. ^ Feder, Barnaby J. (4 June 2000). "Donald W. Davies, 75, Dies; Helped Refine Data Networks". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 10 January 2020. Donald W. Davies, who proposed a method for transmitting data that made the Internet possible
  6. ^ Harris, Trevor, Who is the Father of the Internet? The case for Donald Watts Davies, retrieved 10 July 2013
  7. ^ "history" (PDF). National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  8. ^ "Development of the NPL Site 1900-1970.pdf" (PDF). 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  9. ^ "The Termination of the PFI Contract for the National Physical Laboratory |National Audit Office". 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  10. ^ Labs under the microscope – Ethos. (2 February 2012). Retrieved on 12 April 2014.
  11. ^ "Microsoft Word - Briefing document 26 March 2013_final - establishing-a-new-partnership-for-the-npl-briefing-note.pdf" (PDF). 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  12. ^ "NPL contract with Serco extended : News : News + Events : National Physical Laboratory". 2014. Retrieved 3 April 2014.
  13. ^ "Future operation of the National Physical Laboratory | National Measurement System | BIS". 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  14. ^ "Press Release – Universities of Surrey and Strathclyde selected as strategic partners in the future operation of the National Physical Laboratory" (PDF). NPL. 10 July 2014. p. 5. Retrieved 11 July 2014.
  15. ^ Willetts, David (2013). "Announcement of £25 million Advanced Metrology Laboratory at NPL". (Press release). Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  16. ^ "National Physical Laboratory, Hampton Road, Teddington, Middlesex, United Kingdom, TW11 0LW - aml-letter-july2013.pdf" (PDF). 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  17. ^ Future operation of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Retrieved 24 March 2015
  18. ^ "Notable Individuals". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  19. ^ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society
  20. ^ "Professor Sir James Lighthill FRS". Imperial College London. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  21. ^ Copeland, B. Jack (2006). Colossus: The secrets of Bletchley Park's code-breaking computers. Oxford University Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0-19-284055-4.
  22. ^ "James (Jim) Hardy Wilkinson". IEEE Computer Society. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  23. ^ "Research". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  24. ^ Essen, L.; Parry, J. V. L. (1955). "An Atomic Standard of Frequency and Time Interval: A Cæsium Resonator". Nature. 176 (4476): 280–282. Bibcode:1955Natur.176..280E. doi:10.1038/176280a0. S2CID 4191481.
  25. ^ "60 years of the Atomic Clock". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  26. ^ W. Markowitz; R.G. Hall; L. Essen; J.V.L. Parry (1958). "Frequency of cesium in terms of ephemeris time". Physical Review Letters. 1 (3): 105–107. Bibcode:1958PhRvL...1..105M. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.1.105.
  27. ^ "What Is International Atomic Time (TAI)?". Time and Date. Retrieved 6 May 2018.
  28. ^ "History of NPL Computing". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  29. ^ a b Cambell-Kelly, Martin (Autumn 2008). "Pioneer Profiles: Donald Davies". Computer Resurrection (44). ISSN 0958-7403.
  30. ^ Minelli, C. & Clifford, C.A. (2012). "The role of metrology and the UK National Physical Laboratory in Nanotechnology". Nanotechnology Perceptions. 8: 59–75.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  31. ^ "Dimensional Specialist Inspection and Measurement Services : Measurement Services : Commercial Services : National Physical Laboratory". 2013. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  32. ^ "Calibration and characterisation of sonar transducers and systems : Products & Services : Underwater Acoustics : Acoustics : Science + Technology : National Physical Laboratory". 2013. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2013.
  33. ^ Davies, D. W. (1966), Proposal for a Digital Communication Network (PDF), National Physical Laboratory
  34. ^ "Technology of the Internet". The National Museum of Computing. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  35. ^ Gillies, James; Cailliau, Robert (2000). How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web. Oxford University Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0192862075.
  36. ^ Isaacson, Walter (2014). The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon & Schuster. p. 237. ISBN 9781476708690.
  37. ^ C. Hempstead; W. Worthington (2005). Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology. Routledge. ISBN 9781135455514.
  38. ^ Stewart, Bill (7 January 2000). "UK National Physical Laboratory (NPL) & Donald Davies". Living Internet. Retrieved 12 May 2008.
  39. ^ McKenzie, Alexander (2011). "INWG and the Conception of the Internet: An Eyewitness Account". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 33 (1): 66–71. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2011.9. ISSN 1934-1547. S2CID 206443072.
  40. ^ Scantlebury, Roger (25 June 2013). "Internet pioneers airbrushed from history". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  41. ^ "How we nearly invented the internet in the UK | New Scientist". Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  42. ^ A, BarberD L. (1 July 1975). "Cost project 11". ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review. 5 (3): 12–15. doi:10.1145/1015667.1015669. S2CID 28994436.
  43. ^ Communications Standards: State of the Art Report 14:3
  44. ^ "EIN (European Informatics Network) - CHM Revolution". Retrieved 5 February 2020.
  45. ^ Abbate, Janet (2000). Inventing the Internet. MIT Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-262-51115-5.
  46. ^ Hardy, Daniel; Malleus, Guy (2002). Networks: Internet, Telephony, Multimedia: Convergences and Complementarities. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 505. ISBN 978-3-540-00559-9.
  47. ^ "Technology of the Internet". The National Museum of Computing. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  48. ^ "Directors". National Physical Laboratory. Retrieved 17 October 2017.
  49. ^ "New CEO for National Physical Laboratory : News : News + Events : National Physical Laboratory". 2015. Retrieved 1 September 2015.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]