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NEWS | June 29, 2012

NRL Celebrates Its 89th Birthday

By Donna McKinney

On July 2, the Naval Research Laboratory celebrates its 89th birthday. NRL was the first modern research institution created within the U.S. Navy.

NRL opened for business on July 2, 1923. But the idea for NRL began at an earlier time. The first step came in May 1915, a time when Americans were deeply worried about the great European war.

Thomas Edison, when asked by a New York Times correspondent to comment on the conflict, argued that the Nation should look to science. The Government, he proposed in a published interview, 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 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. And so it was that NRL began operations at 11:00 a.m. on July 2, 1923.

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 this country. They 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.

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. Detection and communication capabilities have benefitted 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). 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, 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 and benefiting the nation as a whole.

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