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    Milestones in NRL History

    (July 2, 1923 - July 2, 2023)


Since its commissioning in 1923, NRL scientists and engineers have produced more than 5,000 U.S. Patents in basic and applied research across a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines for both immediate and long-range national defense needs. NRL’s research is funded through a Working Capital Fund and is primarily sponsored by government agencies including the Office of Naval Research, Naval Systems Commands and Warfare Centers, Air Force, Army, DARPA, Department of Energy, and NASA.

NRL’s technical leadership is recognized worldwide, with numerous award-winning scientists, including the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1985, awarded to Dr. Jerome Karle; The Medal of Technology and Innovation awarded to Dr. George Carruthers; and the National Medal of Technology awarded to Roger L. Easton. 

Today, NRL continues to extend its legacy of innovation and discovery with cutting-edge science and transition of capabilities to the Naval Services and constituents.


    A Vision Realized


      Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels seized the opportunity created by Edison's public comments to enlist Edison's support. He agreed to serve as the head of a new body of civilian experts—the Naval Consulting Board—to advise the Navy on science and technology.

      The Board's most ambitious plan was the creation of a modern research facility for the Navy. Congress allocated $1.5 million for the institution in 1916, but wartime delays and disagreements within the Naval Consulting Board postponed construction until 1920. On December 6, 1920, Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Josephus Daniels, broke ground for NRL's Building 1.

    1920s – 1940s

Radio Detection and Ranging
September 1922
 Phased Radar Antenna


NRL invented and developed the first modern U.S. radar. Researchers Albert Hoyt Taylor and Leo Clifford Young first surmised the principles behind it in September 1922 upon observing “phase distortion” in radio waves reflected from the wooden steamer Dorchester on the Potomac. Further research revealed their device was as capable of detecting moving craft not only on water, but in the air, and eventually on ground. On September 27, 1922, Taylor drafted a memorandum to the Bureau of Engineering suggesting possible military uses of the device.

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NRL Commissioning Ceremony
July 2, 1923 

 NRL Commissioning Ceremony


The Naval Experimental & Research Laboratory (shortened to NRL in 1926) was formally commissioned on July 2, 1923, by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (seated fourth from the left). The Laboratory's Director, Capt. Edward L. Bennett, USN (standing), is shown accepting the completed Laboratory. The commissioning ceremonies were held in front of Bldg. 1.

Pilotless Flight
First Unmanned Radio Controlled Flight
September 15, 1924
 Pilotless Flight


On September 15, 1924, following two flawless radio-controlled 'safety pilot' flights, the modified Curtiss N-9H floatplane was beached, allowing naval aviator Lieutenant John J. Ballentin to exit. With a bag of sand for weight distribution in his place, the single engine N-9H was started and the pilotless plane taxied onto the Potomac for its maiden unmanned flight.

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First U.S. radio recognition Identification Friend-or-Foe
(c. 1938)


The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory developed the first U.S. radio recognition Identification Friend-or-Foe, or IFF system, the Model XAE, in 1937. This system provided coded transmissions from aircraft, which were received for identification aboard ship, and transmitted back to aircraft for verification. As part of this system, NRL’s Robert M. Page developed the first U.S. pulse transponder, basic to pulse IFF systems and pulse beacon system to identify enemy, versus ally targets.

First Operational RADAR Installed for Active Duty
December 1938


In 1938, NRL installed the first operational radar aboard the battleship USS New York, in time for radar to contribute to the victories of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal during World War II.

Plan Position Indicator
(c. 1939)
 Plan Position Indicator (PPI)


The plan position indicator provides a polar-coordinate map-like display of targets, NRL originated the radar plan-position indicator (PPl) - the well-known radar scope with the round face and the sweeping hand - between 1939 and 1940. The PPI is now universally used by military and commercial interests around the world.

Liquid Thermal Diffusion
Naval Research Enters the Atomic Age
June 1941
 Liquid Thermal Diffusion


The basic idea of liquid thermal diffusion is to dissolve UF6 crystals into a column whose ends are kept at very different temperatures. Since those uranium hexafluoride molecules harboring the lighter U-235 atoms diffuse slightly faster to the warmer side of the column than do those molecules with heavier uranium isotopes, mainly U-238, the lighter molecules collect at the warm side of the column. This U-235 enriched solution then becomes the starting fluid for the next iteration in a diffusion tube and so on.

Synthetic Oil
Hydrocarbon Ester Lubricants
(c. 1947) 

 Synthetic Oil


Soon after the introduction of gas turbine-powered aircraft in World War II, it became evident that new and better lubricants were required to take advantage of the potential capabilities of these engines. As a result, NRL chemist William A. Zisman and colleagues from NRL's Chemistry Division developed the first hydrocarbon ester fluids as lubricants that would perform acceptably at the high bearing operating temperatures in jet engines. By the early 1950s, diester lubricants developed at NRL were in use in Navy turbine engine aircraft and soon were used by nearly all military and civilian turbine-powered aircraft.

    1950s – 1970s

Nuclear Propulsion
USS Nautilus 
January 21, 1954
 Nuclear Propulsion

Soon after the discovery of atomic fission, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi addressed a meeting of Navy officials and civilian scientists. While other meeting participants dreamed of nuclear weapons, NRL’s Ross Gunn envisioned using nuclear power for submarine propulsion. His efforts would make NRL the first to conceive, propose, and investigate this revolutionary concept. The atomic powered submarine would become one of the most formidable weapons systems ever devised.


Vanguard I Satellite
First Solar Powered - Longest Remaining Man-made Object in Space
March 17, 1958
 Vanguard I

Launched March 17, 1958, Vanguard I, a component of the Vanguard Project, is a small aluminum sphere (16.5 cm in diameter) that was designed to partake in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) — a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena during solar maximum, spanning July 1957 through December 1958. With the launch of Vanguard I, the NRL Vanguard Project had finally begun to see many of the mission goals come to fruition, to include testing of three-stage launch vehicles, establishing a network of terrestrial tracking stations known as ‘Minitrack,’ and measuring the effects of the space environment on an Earth-orbiting satellite.

Satellite Tracking
MINITRACK (c. 1960)

The Vanguard-1 satellite was launched into orbit on March 17, 1958. To provide a means for determining the space satellite's orbit, NRL physicist Roger Easton and his colleagues proposed, designed and built the first satellite tracking system known as MINITRACK. Construction of the U.S. Navy Space Surveillance System began in 1958 under the sponsorship of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). Initial operational capability was achieved in 1960, and the system was declared operational in 1966. This system was the first to detect, track, and determine the orbits of all types of earth-orbiting satellites, space vehicles, and other orbiting objects.


Galactic Radiation and Background
GRAB - First U.S. Reconnaissance Satellite
June 22, 1960
 Vanguard I

Launched, June 22, 1960, SOLRAD-I was the first orbiting astronomical observatory in the world to study the Sun's effects on the Earth. Shrouded in secrecy for nearly 40 years, the SOLRAD payload also encapsulated the world’s first electronic intelligence (ELINT) instrumentation for Cold War reconnaissance. Originally named Tattletale, the program became operationally referred to as GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background) after public disclosure of the project.

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Over-The-Horizon RADAR
OTH - Magnetic Drum Radar Equipment (MADRE)
(c. 1961)


The Magnetic Drum Radar Equipment, called MADRE, began operation in 1961 on the shores of NRL's Chesapeake Bay Detachment. MADRE, a high-power, high antenna-gain over-the-horizon (OTH) radar, was able to detect and track aircraft as they traveled cross the Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. George Carruthers
Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph
April 1972
 Vanguard I

Dr. George Carruthers stands to the right of his invention, the gold-plated ultraviolet camera/spectrograph. The first Moon-based observatory, which obtained images of electromagnetic radiation in short wavelengths. Apollo 16 astronauts placed the observatory on the Moon in April 1972, where it sits today on the Moon’s Descartes highland region.

    1980s – Present

Molecular Structure Analysis 
Nobel Prize for Chemistry
December 10, 1985
 Molecular Structure Analysis and the Nobel Prize

NRL’s Jerome Karle and Herbert Hauptman were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1985 for devising direct methods of determining complex crystal structures by using X-ray diffraction analysis. Karle, building on this work, developed methods that led to the analysis and publication of the molecular structures of many thousands of complicated molecules annually. This methodology has enabled the characterization of potent toxins, antitoxins, heart drugs, antibiotics, anti-addictive substances, anticarcinogens, anti-malarials, and explosives and propellants.


Deep Space Program Science Experiment
January 25, 1994

Clementine was a fast-paced technology demonstration mission jointly sponsored by the DOD and NASA that launched January 25, 1994. The design, development, and operation of the Clementine spacecraft and ground system were performed by NRL and comprised an amazing feat of science and engineering. Developed in less than two years, it had a profound e¬ ect on space missions and lunar science.


Large Angle Spectrometric Coronagraph
December 2, 1995

NRL's Large Angle Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO) instrument on board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite launched December 2, 1995. LASCO is made up of three coronagraphs (C1, C2, and C3) and observes the corona of the Sun from SOHO. The instrument saw first light on December 29, 1995, and has been taking coronal data all day, every day since May 15, 1996, when it reached stable orbit.


Coriolis Mission
January 6, 2003
 NRL WinSat Satellite

Launched January 6, 2003, the Navy’s Windsat radiometer on the U.S. Air Force's Coriolis mission opened the door to a new future in metrological observations and forecasting in support of civil and military weather science. Windsat supports a broad range of Naval missions including ship movement and positioning, aircraft carrier operations, aircraft deployment, effective weapons use, underway replenishment, and littoral operations. Windsat also aids with forecasting short-term weather phenomenon for issuing timely weather warnings and gathering general climate data. WindSat has far exceeded its projected life span and continues to remain operational.

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Contaminant Transport Analyst
(c. 2004)

CT-Analyst, short for Contaminant Transport Analyst, is an NRL-developed tool that provides accurate, instantaneous, 3D predictions of chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) agent transport in urban settings. CT-Analyst uses the best computations possible prepared well ahead of time and captures their salient results in a highly compressed database to be manipulated and displayed instantly. The accuracy of full 3D fluid dynamics simulations with meter-scale resolution is placed at the fingertips of first-responders and emergency managers, in a visual, easy-to-comprehend form with zero time delay.


Electromagnetic Railgun 
March 6, 2007
 Electromagnetic Railgun

First fired March 6, 2007 at a magnitude of 0.5 megajoules NRL's Materials Testing Facility demonstrated, Oct.31, 2011, the one-thousandth successful firing of its Electromagnetic Railgun. A railgun is a form of single turn linear motor. Magnetic fields generated by high currents driven in parallel conductors — rails — accelerate a sliding conductor, known as an armature, between the rails. A megajoule is a measurement of kinetic energy associated with a mass traveling at a certain velocity. In simple terms, a one-ton vehicle moving at 100 mph has approximately one megajoule of kinetic energy.

Coupled Oceanographic and Atmospheric Mesoscale Prediction System-Tropical Cyclone
June 6, 2013
 Vanguard I

Developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Marine Meteorology Division located in Monterey, California, the Navy's Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC) entered the Coupled Oceanographic and Atmospheric Mesoscale Prediction System-Tropical Cyclone (COAMPS-TC) into full-scale operations, June 6, 2013.

Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe
WISPR - The only imaging instrument aboard NASA's Parker Solar Probe
August 2018
 Vanguard I

Launched August 2018, NRL’s Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe, or WISPR, is the only imaging instrument aboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission to make observations of the outer corona of the Sun. By the end of its seven-year-long mission, the spacecraft will have circled the Sun a total of 24 times.