Founding the National Physical Laboratory

In 1897 John Wolfe Barry was appointed, in his role as ICE President, to serve on a UK Treasury Committee to “consider and report upon the desirability of establishing a National Physical Laboratory”. This would lead to the establishment in 1900 of a government-subsidised laboratory for the exact determination of physical standards.

The rationale for such an establishment had come from concerns about growing American and German leadership in this key area of science and technology and the potential threat to British Imperial interests. It was a similar argument to that used for establishing national industrial standards, with which John Wolfe Barry was also involved.

Barry served on the National Physical Laboratory’s (NPL) Board and Executive Committee as a representative of the ICE and the Royal Society where he was a Fellow. This would involve him in ongoing negotiations with the Treasury about the amount of Government funding permissible within a prevailing sentiment of private research.

Ultimately the NPL became absorbed within Government as a vital arm of state-funded research, leading to the development of its famous atomic clock as well as packet-switching, a precursor to internet-based data exchange which is now commonplace.

BSI: the road to the Kitemark (final section)