Why Did the Standards Bureau Need These Heads?

The NIST Museum has placed images of several items on the website of its Digital Archives and is asking the public for help

Wood models of human heads in the NIST Museum collection (courtesy of National Institute of Standards and Technology Digital Collections, Information Services Division)

At the Smithsonian Institution and Smithsonian.com, we love collections of stuff. The Institution is, after all, the owner of what is probably the world’s largest collection of stuff—137 million artifacts, specimens and works of art. And so how could we resist helping another collecting institution, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Museum, identify some of its stuff?

Take these heads, for instance, some of the items for which the NIST Museum has only minimal information and for which they are searching for more. NIST has placed images of several of these items, with more to come, on the website of its Digital Archives and is asking the public for help.

“We have some artifacts in our collection we want to identify, so we thought we could exhibit them online and ask for help,” NIST Digital Services Librarian Regina Avila told GovCon Executive. “It was fun to photograph them, but challenging. Some artifacts were broken, others had missing pieces. Some were heavy and others were fragile.”

In addition to the heads, there are stamp dies, a frequency-analysis recording of a cicada, a motor, a drafting set—all objects that someone sometime in NIST’s history used to carry out its mission of advancing the science of measurement and American technologies and setting the standards to make that all possible. A clue to the extensiveness of that mission is held in the brief description of those heads:

Wood models of human heads. Inscription on bottom of models reads “National Bureau of Standards 6-1-1946. Size 7″. Some heads are also inscribed “Size 7.5″. These model heads may be a “95% profile model”. The contours of this type of model human head were said to be common to 95% of the population, and could thus be used to design respirator masks and other equipment that were required to seal firmly against the face.

But who used them and to design exactly what kind of masks remains unknown. Perhaps you know. If you do, send an e-mail to library@nist.gov.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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