by Glenn Ellmers
Long-time readers of the Forest Hills Connection may remember an article from 2015 that opened with an interesting question: “Why is there a curb cut and a gate to nowhere on Connecticut Avenue between Tilden and Van Ness Streets?”
As a long-resident of Van Ness Street, I had often wondered that myself, since it just leads into a small park outside the old Intelsat building, and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere for vehicles to go.
The answer, as the article explains, is that “It’s an entrance gate to what was once ‘one of the country’s most sophisticated scientific laboratory complexes,’ the National Bureau of Standards.” The article links to a wonderful, detailed history of the old Bureau of Standards complex, with several fine photographs.
Just recently, a commemorative plaque was installed next to that curb cut memorializing one of the most notable achievements to have occurred in our neighborhood. On August 8th, a ceremony was held there to honor Bureau of Standards scientist Harold Lyons and his colleagues for pioneering the atomic clock, which “fundamentally altered the way that time is measured and kept.” The ceremony was hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and attended by several senior IEEE officials, including Kent Rochford, acting Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology – the successor to the old Bureau of Standards.
The plaque reads: “The first atomic clock, developed near this site by Harold Lyons at the National Bureau of Standards, revolutionized timekeeping by using transitions of the ammonia molecule as its source of frequency. Far more accurate than previous clocks, atomic clocks quickly replaced the Earth’s rotational rate as the reference for world time. Atomic clock accuracy made possible many new technologies including the Global Positioning System (GPS).”
Work on the atomic clock began in 1947, and it was revealed to the public in 1949. More information on the ceremony, and the amazing technology behind the atomic clock, can be found in the IEEE’s newsletter.