The United States Naval Research Laboratory—a cluster of unremarkable, low-slung buildings around a pier in Southwest DC—recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. It’s hardly one of Washington’s best-known institutions, but the place has a fascinating history. Here are three things to know.
Thomas Edison Sparked Its Creation
Reacting to the horrific loss of life during World War I, the inventor suggested in a 1915 interview that the military should fund a lab to develop new ideas and technologies. The Navy soon took up his idea, and a year later Congress funded it. Edison later joined the NRL’s civilian board.
It Produced the Country’s First Working Radar
Two Navy radio engineers at the laboratory made an accidental discovery when a steamship leaving from Alexandria interfered with their radio communications across the Potomac. By 1934, the lab’s scientists had patented a “System for Detecting Objects by Radio,” better known as radar.
GPS Got Its Start There
Search “ice cream near me” on Google Maps and you’re relying on technology that was cooked up in the 1970s at the NRL. After World War II, the lab broadened its research into fields like aerospace and developed the nation’s first satellite program. The resulting NAVSTAR system is now better known as GPS.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Washingtonian.