National Physical Laboratory, UK
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National Physical Laboratory, UK

National Physical Laboratory
National Physical Laboratory (United Kingdom) Logo.png
National Physical Laboratory - - 16240.jpg
NPL's main entrance on Hampton Road
Established1900 (1900)
Research typeApplied Physics
Field of research
Chief Executive Officer
Peter Thompson
Staffc. 1000[1]
AddressHampton Road, Teddington, TW11 0LW, England, UK
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 of the United Kingdom. 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.

Founded in 1900, it is one of the oldest metrology institutes in the world. Research and development work at NPL has contributed to the advancement of many disciplines of science, including the development early computers in the late 1940s and 1950s, construction of the first accurate atomic clock in 1955, and the invention and pioneering implementation of packet switching in the 1960s, which is today one of the fundamental technologies of the Internet.[2][3][4] The former heads of NPL include many individuals who were pillars of the British scientific establishment.[5][6]

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



In the 19th century, the Kew Observatory was run by self-funded devotees of science. In the early 1850s, the observatory began charging fees for testing meteorological instruments and other scientific equipment. As universities in the United Kingdom created and expanded physics departments, the governing committee of the Observatory became increasingly dominated by paid university physicists in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. By this time, instrument-testing was the observatory's main role. Physicists sought the establishment of a state-funded scientific institution for testing electrical standards.[7]

The Electricity Division of the National Physical Laboratory in 1944


The National Physical Laboratory was established in 1900 at Bushy House in Teddington on the site of the Kew Observatory. Its purpose was "for standardising and verifying instruments, for testing materials, and for the determination of physical constants".[8] The laboratory was run by the UK government, with members of staff being part of the civil service. It grew to fill a large selection of buildings on the Teddington site.[9]

Late 20th century

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 employment. 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]

NPL procured a large state-of-the-art laboratory under a Private Finance Initiative contract in 1998. The construction was undertaken by John Laing.[11]

21st century

The maintenance of the new laboratory 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.[11]

It was decided in 2012 to change the operating model for NPL from 2014 onwards to include academic partners and to establish a postgraduate teaching institute on site.[12] The date of the changeover was later postponed for a year.[13] The candidates for lead academic partner were the Universities of Edinburgh, Southampton, Strathclyde and Surrey[14] with an alliance of the Universities of Strathclyde and Surrey chosen as preferred partners.[15]

Funding was announced in January 2013 for a new £25m Advanced Metrology Laboratory that will be built on the footprint of an existing unused building.[16][17]

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.[18]

Notable researchers

Researchers who have worked at NPL include:[19] D. W. Dye who did important work in developing the technology of quartz clocks; the inventor Sir Barnes Wallis who did early development work on the "Bouncing Bomb" used in the "Dam Busters" wartime raids;[20] H.J. Gough, one of the pioneers of research into metal fatigue, who worked at NPL for 19 years from 1914 to 1938; and Sydney Goldstein and Sir James Lighthill who worked in NPL's aerodynamics division during World War II researching boundary layer theory and supersonic aerodynamics respectively.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

Metallurgist Walter Rosenhain appointed the NPL's first female scientific staff members in 1915, Marie Laura Violet Gayler and Isabel Hadfield.[24]


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.[25]

Atomic clocks

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.[26][27] Calibration of the caesium standard atomic clock was carried out by the use of the astronomical time scale ephemeris time (ET).[28] This led to the internationally agreed definition of the latest SI second being based on atomic time.[29]


Early computers

NPL has undertaken computer research since the mid-1940s.[30] 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.[31] 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.[31]

Packet switching

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 commercial national data network based on packet switching in his 1965 Proposal for the Development of a National Communications Service for On-line Data Processing.[32] Subsequently, the NPL team (Davies, Derek Barber, Roger Scantlebury, Peter Wilkinson, Keith Bartlett, and Brian Aldous)[33] 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, including Louis Pouzin.[34][35][36][37]

NPL sponsors a gallery, opened in 2009, about the development of packet switching and "Technology of the Internet" at The National Museum of Computing.[38]


NPL internetworking research was led by Davies, Barber and Scantlebury, who were members of the International Networking Working Group (INWG).[39][40][41] Connecting heterogeneous computer 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] Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf acknowledged Davies and Scantlebury in their 1974 paper "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication".[47]


Scrapbook was an information storage and retrieval system that went live in mid-1971. It included what would now be called word processing, e-mail and hypertext. In this it anticipated many elements of the World Wide Web. The project was managed by David Yates who said of it "We had a community of bright people that were interested in new things, they were good fodder for a system like Scrapbook" and "When we had more than one Scrapbook system, hyperlinks could go across the network without the user knowing what was happening".[48][49] It was decided that any commercial development of Scrapbook should be left to industry and it was licensed to Triad and then to BT who marketed it as Milepost and developed a transaction processor as an additional feature. Various implementations were marketed on DEC, IBM and ITL machines. All NPL implementations of Scrapbook were closed down in 1984.[50]

Network security

In the early 1990s, the NPL developed three formal specifications of the MAA: one in Z,[51] one in LOTOS,[52] and one in VDM.[53][54] The VDM specification became part of the 1992 revision of the International Standard 8731-2, and three implementations in C, Miranda, and Modula-2.[55]


NPL provides accurate and repeatable measurements of electromagnetic parameters across the entire spectrum, from DC up to optical frequencies, which can be traced back to the SI system. Many new technologies like 5G, and the use cases they enable, like smart cities, Industry 4.0, connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) and precision farming, rely on accurate and traceable measurements at radio frequency, microwave and millimetre-wave frequencies. NPL's work helps to test and validate new technology innovations and bring them to market. A 2020 study by researchers from Queen Mary University of London and NPL successfully used microwaves to measure blood-based molecules known to be influenced by dehydration.[56]


The National Physical Laboratory is involved with new developments in metrology, such as researching metrology for, and standardising, nanotechnology.[57] It is mainly based at the Teddington site, but also has a site in Huddersfield for dimensional metrology[58] and an underwater acoustics facility at Wraysbury Reservoir near Heathrow Airport.[59]

Directors of NPL

Directors of NPL include a number of notable individuals:[60]

Managing Directors

Chief Executive Officers

  • Dr Peter Thompson, 2015-present[61]

NPL buildings

See also


  1. ^ "About us". NPLWebsite. Archived from the original on 23 July 2020. Retrieved 2021.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Feder, Barnaby J. (4 June 2000). "Donald W. Davies, 75, Dies; Helped Refine Data Networks". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 6 April 2019. Retrieved 2020. Donald W. Davies, who proposed a method for transmitting data that made the Internet possible
  4. ^ Harris, Trevor, Who is the Father of the Internet? The case for Donald Watts Davies, archived from the original on 10 October 2021, retrieved 2013
  5. ^ Naughton, John (24 September 2015). A Brief History of the Future. Orion. ISBN 978-1-4746-0277-8. Archived from the original on 18 August 2020. Retrieved 2020.
  6. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 10 October 2021. Retrieved 2020.
  7. ^ Macdonald, Lee T. (26 November 2018). "University physicists and the origins of the National Physical Laboratory, 1830-1900". History of Science. 59 (1): 73-92. doi:10.1177/0073275318811445. PMID 30474405. S2CID 53792127. Archived from the original on 16 November 2020. Retrieved 2021.
  8. ^ "history". National Physical Laboratory. Archived from the original on 26 June 2019. Retrieved 2018.
  9. ^ "Development of the NPL Site 1900-1970.pdf" (PDF). 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  10. ^ Labs under the microscope - Ethos Archived 18 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. (2 February 2012). Retrieved on 12 April 2014.
  11. ^ a b "The Termination of the PFI Contract for the National Physical Laboratory |National Audit Office". 2013. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  12. ^ "Microsoft Word - Briefing document 26 March 2013_final - establishing-a-new-partnership-for-the-npl-briefing-note.pdf" (PDF). 2013. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  13. ^ Escape, The. "Serco". Serco. Archived from the original on 24 January 2021. Retrieved 2021.
  14. ^ "Future operation of the National Physical Laboratory | National Measurement System | BIS". 2013. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  15. ^ "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. Archived (PDF) from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 2014.
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  19. ^ "Notable Individuals". National Physical Laboratory. Archived from the original on 17 October 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  20. ^ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society
  21. ^ "Professor Sir James Lighthill FRS". Imperial College London. Archived from the original on 30 September 2020. Retrieved 2020.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ "James (Jim) Hardy Wilkinson". IEEE Computer Society. Archived from the original on 6 May 2018. Retrieved 2018.
  24. ^ Murphy, A. J. (1976). "Marie Laura Violet Gayler". Nature. 263 (5577): 535-536. Bibcode:1976Natur.263..535M. doi:10.1038/263535b0. ISSN 1476-4687.
  25. ^ "Research". National Physical Laboratory. Archived from the original on 17 October 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ "60 years of the Atomic Clock". National Physical Laboratory. Archived from the original on 17 October 2017. Retrieved 2017.
  28. ^ Markowitz, W; Hall, R G; Essen, L; Parry, J V L (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.
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  53. ^ Parkin, Graeme I.; O'Neill, G. (1990). Specification of the MAA Standard in VDM (NPL Report DITC 160/90). National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Middlesex, UK.
  54. ^ Parkin, Graeme I.; O'Neill, G. (1991). Prehn, Søren; Toetenel, W. J. (eds.). Specification of the MAA Standard in VDM. Formal Software Development - Proceedings (Volume 1) of the 4th International Symposium of VDM Europe (VDM'91), Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 551. Springer. pp. 526-544. doi:10.1007/3-540-54834-3_31.
  55. ^ Lampard, R. P. (1991). An Implementation of MAA from a VDM Specification (NPL Technical Memorandum DITC 50/91). Teddington, Middlesex, UK: National Physical Laboratory.
  56. ^ Researchers use microwaves to measure signs of dehydration, 2020, retrieved 2021
  57. ^ Minelli, C. & Clifford, C.A. (2012). "The role of metrology and the UK National Physical Laboratory in Nanotechnology". Nanotechnology Perceptions. 8: 59-75.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  58. ^ "Dimensional Specialist Inspection and Measurement Services : Measurement Services : Commercial Services : National Physical Laboratory". 2013. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 2013.
  59. ^ "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 2013.
  60. ^ "Directors". National Physical Laboratory. Archived from the original on 6 March 2019. Retrieved 2017.
  61. ^ "New CEO for National Physical Laboratory : News : News + Events : National Physical Laboratory". 2015. Archived from the original on 6 September 2015. Retrieved 2015.

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External links

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