From the Sea Floor to the Outer Reaches of Space
The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) celebrates its 100th anniversary on July 2, 2023. Since opening its doors in 1923, NRL has served as the cornerstone of science and technology discovery and innovation for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.
Throughout its rich history, NRL has literally tipped the balance of power in favor of our Armed Forces on numerous occasion. Examples include NRL's invention and development of the first U.S. radar prior to World War II; NRL's development and launching of the world's first reconnaissance satellite, GRAB I; and NRL's TIMATION concept in the 1960s that led to the laboratory's invention and development of the first satellite prototypes of the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1970s.
During the years since World War II, the laboratory has conducted basic and applied research to support the Navy’s superiority in mission environments of Earth, sea, sky, space, and cyberspace. Investigations have ranged widely — from monitoring the sun’s behavior, to analyzing marine atmospheric conditions, to measuring parameters of the deep oceans.
Today, NRL is the Navy’s premiere laboratory in space systems research, quantum computing development, fire research, tactical electronic warfare, microelectronic devices, and artificial intelligence.
NRL focuses its research efforts on naval strategic priorities declared by Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro, which includes information and cyberspace superiority, climate research with Arctic Region preparation, and AI with manned-and-unmanned teaming.
The interdisciplinary and wide-ranging nature of NRL’s work keeps this “great research laboratory” at the forefront of discovery and innovation, solving naval challenges and benefiting the nation as a whole.
A Century of Discovery and Innovation
The Naval Experimental and Research Laboratory, later shortened to the Naval Research Laboratory (c.1926), was the first modern research institution created within the U.S. Navy. It began operations at 11:00 a.m. on July 2, 1923 and is the U.S. Navy’s first science and technology research facility. Its founding was revolutionary in that it incorporated civilian scientists and military leadership in order to meet the current and future battlespace challenges experienced in World War I.
Thomas Edison's Vision
In May 1915, a New York Times correspondent asked Thomas Edison to comment on the great European war, which had recently ensnared Americans with the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. 123 Americans perished in the attack by the German submarine (U-boat) U-20, and Edison argued that the nation should look to science for maintaining national security and wartime superiority.
"The Government,'' he proposed, "should maintain a great research laboratory … In this could be developed … all the technique of military and naval progression without any vast expense."
Secretary of the Navy the Honorable Josephus Daniels read the New York Times interview with Thomas Edison in which Edison suggested the government should establish an innovative research facility, and seized the opportunity created by Edison's public comments to enlist Edison's support at the time.
Edison agreed to serve as the head of a new body of civilian experts — the Naval Consulting Board — made up of scientists and administrators to evaluate public ideas for innovations. This forged an innovative collaboration between the U.S. Navy and academia.
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.
1923 and Beyond
The laboratory’s two original divisions — Radio and Sound — pioneered in the fields of high-frequency radio and underwater sound propagation. They produced communications equipment, direction-finding devices, sonar sets, and perhaps most significant of all, the first practical radar equipment built in the U.S.
During WWII, scientific activities necessarily were concentrated almost entirely on applied research. New electronics equipment — radio, radar, sonar — was developed. Countermeasures were devised. New lubricants were produced, as were antifouling paints, luminous identification tapes, and a sea marker to help save survivors of disasters at sea. A thermal diffusion process was conceived and used to supply some of the 235U isotope needed for one of the first atomic bombs.
During the years since World War II, the laboratory has conducted basic and applied research pertaining to the Navy’s environments of earth, sea, sky, space, and cyberspace. Investigations have ranged widely — from monitoring the sun’s behavior, to analyzing marine atmospheric conditions, to measuring parameters of the deep oceans.
Laboratory researchers also performed basic research, participating, for example, in the discovery and early exploration of the ionosphere. Moreover, the laboratory was able to work gradually toward its goal of becoming a broadly based research facility. By the beginning of World War II, five new divisions had been added: Physical Optics, Chemistry, Metallurgy, Mechanics and Electricity, and Internal Communications.
Detection and communication capabilities have benefited by research that has exploited new portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, extended ranges to outer space, and provided a means of transferring information reliably and securely, even through massive jamming.
Submarine habitability, lubricants, shipbuilding materials, firefighting, and the study of sound in the sea have remained steadfast concerns, to which have been added recent explorations within the fields of virtual reality, superconductivity, biomolecular science and engineering, and nanotechnology.
The laboratory has pioneered naval research into space — from atmospheric probes with captured V-2 rockets, through direction of the Vanguard project (America’s first satellite program), to inventing and developing the first satellite prototypes of the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The Naval Research Enterprise
Because of the major scientific accomplishments of the war years, the United States emerged into the post-war era determined to consolidate its wartime gains in science and technology and to preserve the working relationship between its armed forces and the scientific community.
While the Navy was establishing its Office of Naval Research (ONR) as a liaison with and supporter of basic applied scientific research, it was also encouraging NRL to broaden its scope and become, in effect, the Navy’s corporate research laboratory.
Commissioned August 1, 1946, there was a transfer of NRL to the administrative oversight of ONR and a parallel shift of the laboratory's research emphasis to one of long-range basic and applied investigation in a broad range of the physical sciences. However, rapid expansion during the war had left NRL improperly structured to address long-term Navy requirements.
One major task — neither easily nor rapidly accomplished — was that of reshaping and coordinating research. This was achieved by transforming a group of largely autonomous scientific divisions into a unified institution with a clear mission and a fully coordinated research program.
The first attempt at reorganization vested power in an executive committee composed of all the division superintendents. This committee was impracticably large, so in 1949 a civilian Director of Research was named and given full authority over the program. Positions for associate directors were added in 1954.
Advancing Research Further Than You Can Imagine®
Today, NRL is the Navy’s lead laboratory in space systems research, as well as in fire research, tactical electronic warfare, microelectronic devices, and artificial intelligence. The laboratory is now focusing its research efforts on new Navy strategic interests in the 21st century, a period marked by global terrorism, shifting power balances, and irregular and asymmetric warfare.
NRL scientists and engineers are working to give the Navy the special knowledge, capabilities, and flexibility to succeed in this dynamic environment. While continuing its programs of basic research that help the Navy anticipate and meet future needs, to include innovations in hypersonic technologies and Quantum Information Science, NRL also moves technology rapidly from concept to operational use when high-priority, short-term needs arise for pathogen detection, lightweight body armor, contaminant transport modeling, and communications interoperability, for example.
The interdisciplinary and wide-ranging nature of NRL’s work keeps this “great research laboratory” at the forefront of discovery and innovation, solving naval challenges, benefiting the nation as a whole.
More About NRL's Centennial Celebration and Heritage