Crowdsourcing Science History: NIST digital archives seeks help in identifying mystery artifacts

Apr 13, 2011 By Ben Stein
Project Tinkertoy Wafer Tube Amplifier. Credit: NIST Digital Archives

Do you hold the key to solving some gadget mysteries from the last century of U.S. science and technology? In its 110 years, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has made many innovations in the way we measure things, from basic quantities like the volt and nanometer to specialized questions like the purity of sugar.

A new website, the NIST Digital Archives (http://nistdigitalarchives.contentdm.oclc.org/), is exhibiting images of historically significant used to obtain these measures, in addition to providing access to full-text publications from the agency's history. (To end the suspense, you measure sugar with a saccharimeter.) NIST is inviting enthusiasts to participate in describing some of the hundreds of historical objects collected through the decades. Some of the are unidentified or need more descriptive information. Visitors to the site can view the items and offer clues about the history and origins of some of these important artifacts.

The artifacts are in the collection of scientific instruments in the NIST Museum, located on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Md., and can be viewed on the NIST Museum Artifacts portion of the new Website. Most of the artifacts are well-documented, such as a 1950s creation known as the Project Tinkertoy Wafer Tube Amplifier. It is a 45 rpm record player built as a part of Project Tinkertoy, an endeavor to develop mechanical production methods for electronic equipment using standardized components. However, some artifacts remain a mystery, such as the enigmatic brass-colored, crank-like Metal Instrument in Wood Case.

"We have some artifacts in our collection we want to identify, so we thought we could exhibit them online and ask for help," says NIST Digital Services Librarian Regina Avila. "It was fun to photograph them, but challenging. Some artifacts were broken, others had missing pieces. Some were heavy and others were fragile." Currently, 137 artifacts are on the site, and hundreds more will be added in the coming months.

Metal Instrument in Wood Case. Credit: NIST Digital Archives

The digital archive also contains some NIST publications, including the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which covers the broad range of research undertaken by NIST research staff, focusing on measurement methodology. Visitors can access full-text papers from the journal dating from 1981 to the present. Pre-1981 papers are being added to the collection on an ongoing basis with the goal of making available all papers back to 1904.

NIST's Information Services Office (ISO), which has won several awards including Federal Library of the Year in 2003 and 2008, is responsible for creating, maintaining and disseminating NIST's knowledge base, including its history. The NIST Digital Archives is part of the ISO's Museum and History Program, which collects, conserves and exhibits significant NIST artifacts and records to provide institutional memory and demonstrate NIST's contributions to the development of standards, technology and science. This digital archive is the realization of an effort to provide better access to our historical assets. "We were looking for a mechanism for making the information about NIST's scientific contributions more widely available to the public," says Barbara Silcox, the NIST Program Manager for Digital Information Services. Future collections in the NIST Digital Archives will include images of historical photographs from NIST, items from the NIST Oral History collection and video recordings of selected NIST Colloquia.

Explore further: Christian Bale to play Apple's Steve Jobs

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NIST debuts online museum of quantum voltage standards

Mar 31, 2011

On April 8, 2011, the scientific community will celebrate the centennial of the discovery of superconductivity—the ability of certain materials to conduct electricity without resistance when cooled below ...

Tips Can Help Consumers Choose Flat-Panel Displays

Apr 13, 2007

Choosing a flat-panel display for a television or video screen can be more complicated that you might think. Did you know, for instance, that the lighting in your living room can make a particular type of display look much ...

How Long Should Digital Storage Media Last?

Mar 24, 2005

Knowing that CDs and DVDs will last for a certain number of years is critical to many government agencies, as well as to hospitals, banks and other organizations that store massive amounts of vital data on optical disks. ...

New Web site 'drills down' into government standards

Mar 10, 2005

Protracted and, sometimes, fruitless searches for government-applied technical standards may soon be a thing of the past. A new Web site, Standards.Gov, provides businesses, other organizations and interested citizens with ...

Recommended for you

Christian Bale to play Apple's Steve Jobs

Oct 23, 2014

Oscar-winner Christian Bale—best known for his star turn as Batman in the blockbuster "Dark Knight" films—will play Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in an upcoming biopic.

How to find a submarine

Oct 23, 2014

Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October, The Bedford Incident, We Dive At Dawn: films based on submariners' experience reflect the tense and unusual nature of undersea warfare – where it is often not how well ...

Government ups air bag warning to 7.8M vehicles (Update)

Oct 22, 2014

The U.S. government is now urging owners of nearly 8 million cars and trucks to have the air bags repaired because of potential danger to drivers and passengers. But the effort is being complicated by confusing ...

HP supercomputer at NREL garners top honor

Oct 21, 2014

A supercomputer created by Hewlett-Packard (HP) and the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that uses warm water to cool its servers, and then re-uses that water to heat its building, has been ...

User comments : 0