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John Minck, November 2013


At the beginning of the 1960s, HP reorganized into product divisions, each with its own R&D, Manufacturing and Marketing departments. This key move assigned new product responsibility to teams of engineers who were specialized in specific measurement technologies and products. Those four "charter" divisions were: Microwave, Frequency & Time (Santa Clara), Oscilloscopes (Colorado Springs), and Audio-Video (Loveland). By pushing the new product innovations to lower management levels, a version of Dave and Bill's "Management by Objective," this unleashed the creative horsepower of many more people, rather than just the upper management levels. It worked exceedingly well.

Another major cause of this explosion of product innovation was driven by the electronics industry technology of the time. Recall that the Russian Sputnik flew overhead in October, 1957, causing an upheaval in the U.S. national security and defense community. That led to a piercing self-examination of the entire national technical system infrastructure. The U.S. was "behind" in missile technology, which inferred that there was a serious lagging technology overall. Clearly wrong as shown later, when it was primarily the Russian rocketry technology that was about the only place they were ahead.

Certainly President Kennedy's response in his 1961 message to Congress, which was his visionary call to send a man to the moon and back, and launched the nation on a dramatic quest that would require the finest and highest precision measurements known to man. Likewise, the computer power needed in all aspects of the massive undertaking would tax every technology we knew and could rapidly invent. These tasks involved program scheduling, contract management, all the technical development of everything from the Saturn motors to communications to navigation. In the end, in 1969, a rocket ship 63 feet higher than a football field, went to the moon multiple times to the joy of the world. Well, it took 6.5 million pounds of Saturn rocket to land the relatively tiny lunar module onto the moon itself. It is hard for us now accustomed to fantastic technology we hold in our hand, to imagine attempting this massive program, considering that integrated circuits were just being invented in 1959. Hardly any flew in 1969, although in later flights, the HP-35 became an astronaut-allowed personal baggage.

As the space program began its decade-long development, another technology driver was boiling up. Following the remarkable military technical inventions that came out of WWII research, the military was embarking on new capabilities in many areas, aircraft and ship technologies, radar and electronic countermeasures, communications and ultimately satellite technology to support future command and control. All of these capabilities were unimagined in the complexity of managing WWII and the Korean war. But things weren't going well.

In so many places, stories of military system failures kept popping up, both strategic and tactical missile launch disasters were the order of the day. I recall a humorous report of continued program failures of the USAF "Snark" cruise missile, from its launch site in Florida. The actual news report termed the badly managed program as snark-infested waters off Florida.

But, luckily, far-sighted managers were sounding the alarm. Over and over, failures could be laid to the problem of faulty measurements. One example would be that a complex missile would be completely checked out before shipment from the factory. But upon arrival at the military receiving facility, the same incoming test routines would FAIL the same missile. In essence, one volt measured at one place would not equal one volt measured at another place. That's just the simple example, but when you multiply such a test by the HUNDREDS and thousands of measurements on a complex system, with no TRACEABILITY of measurement precision or comparability, it was bound to happen. Even when common test equipment by the same manufacturer was used at both places, errors existed.

It's hard to define just when and where this lack of standardization became visible, but I like to credit the Metrology sector of the Measurements Industry for stating the problem. Back in the 1950s, the ultimate location of U.S. Measurement standards was the National Bureau of Standards (later the National Institute of Standards and Technology--NIST) in Washington. Although they established and maintained the highest precision standards in their labs, there was no serious dissemination of those accuracies to manufacturers or users, such as the military standards labs. There was no MEASUREMENT SYSTEM, which contractually demanded the dissemination.

In those years, the measurement industry did support annual technical conferences, such as the IEEE and Wescon which were general purpose trade shows. But there were also specialized conferences for precision measurements, such as the annual gathering of the IEEE Professional Group on Instrumentation and Measurements.

The Establishment of NCSLI

The first reference to the formation of a standards laboratory organization was made by Harvey Lance, of NBS, Boulder, CO, on June 22, 1960, at the Conference on Standards and Electronic Measurements, held at Boulder during June 22-24, 1960.

In his paper titled, "The Nation's Electronic Standards Program: Where Do We Now Stand?" Harvey posed six problems concerning standards laboratories operations and concluded by suggesting the need for some sort of association of standards laboratories to help solve these problems.

The 2001 NCSLI Commemorative Newsletter

In the discussion which followed, several people requested a meeting to consider Harvey’s suggestion. This meeting was held at 8:00 am in the Boulder Laboratories Auditorium the next day, with Harvey Lance presiding and Wilbur F. Snyder of NBS, Boulder as Secretary Pro Tem.

Attendance was 132 and the meeting concluded with the motion by Bill Wildhack, also of NBS, “that the General Conference Committee appoint a steering committee to investigate the possible organization, scope, and objectives appropriate for an organization of standards laboratories.” The result was the establishment of a Trade Association of companies and government organizations with an interest in measurements and traceability of such activities. The name was chosen to indicate its purpose; National Conference of Standards Labs, International--NCSLI.

The entire story of the establishment of the concept of Measurement Assurance as a national goal is told in this 40th year Commemorative issue of the NCSLI Newsletter. There are three main articles,

1) a Narrative History of the entire life of the organization, p. 5,

2) a memoir of John Van de Houton, one of the original founders of NCSLI, p. 14, and

3) a history of the U.S. Navy metrology program, written by Jerry Hayes, who was Director of the Navy Standards Program in Corona, CA in the 1950s, p. 16.

Out of these humble beginnings came a cooperative national and ultimately international effort which tied together the precision measurement leadership of NIST, with all the Government Agencies and Military. It provided for obligating the contracting companies to establish standards laboratories and stringent procedures for traceability of the production line measurements up through the hierarchy of calibration labs and primary standards labs, all the way to NIST. So it was not only the increase in measurement precision that happened over those years, but the procedural discipline of Measurement Assurance principles that got everyone measuring a common volt or Hz or gram or microinch.

One of our industry's proudest periods.

John Minck,
November 2013


John Minck



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