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Naval Ordnance Laboratory

The Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL), now disestablished, formerly located in White Oak, Maryland was the site of considerable work that had practical impact upon world technology. The White Oak site of NOL has now been taken over by Food and Drug Administration.


Ancient History

The U.S. Navy Mine Unit, later the Mine Laboratory at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard, was established in 1918, and the first Officer In Charge (OIC) arrived in February 1919, a date that was considered the beginning of the Laboratory. In 1929, the Mine Laboratory was merged with the Experimental Ammunition Station in Indian Head to form the Naval Ordnance Laboratory.

NOL began slowly, and it wasn't until the beginnings of World War II, when Germany's aircraft-laid magnetic mine began to spell big trouble for the Allies. As the importance of NOL's work became apparent, it also became apparent that there wasn't enough space at the Navy Yard to accommodate the necessary research facilities.

White Oak

In 1944, acquisition, planning and construction work began at a 712 acre wooded site located at 10903 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD. Someone remarked to a Navy official during early 1945 that it seemed odd to be building the new laboratory at that time; the war would probably be over before the place could be finished. "That laboratory" remarked the Navy man, "is not being built for this war".

Overall Map

Map Reference Type of Operation
Admin Administration
100 Area Machine Shops and Laboratories
200 Area Magnetic Research Facilities
300 Area Explosives Research and Testing
400 Area Wind Tunnel Research
Underwater Weapons Testing
500 Area Radioactive Dosimeter Testing
600 Area Energetic Material Research and Development
Mid-1960s - 1997

Administration Area

The 100 Area

The 200 Area

The first technical facilities were in the new magnetic area (the 200 area). This area was in the middle of the woods, and remained so up until the Lab's demise in 1994. It is believed that the area was selected because it was magnetically neutral - there was less iron in the earth than in other areas to interfere with sensitive magnetic experiments. The buildings were made of wood, with wooden pegs instead of nails. The buildings had unusual names: Bldg 203 was the "Spherical Field Lab", Building 204, the "Long Field Lab".

The Phoenix/Casino building in the 200 Area was quite unique - in this building, systems and components were subjected to nuclear weapons radiation simulation. "Phoenix" undoubtedly refers to systems "rising from the ashes" after a nuclear explosion. The "Casino" moniker was an apparent reference to the "luck of the draw" on receiving funding for this facility. It was hoped that another military agency would take over the Casino facility after the base closure, but it is believed to have been abandoned.

The 300 Area

The largest area, the 300 area, was the Explosives research area. This area included 50 or more buildings in which a wide range of explosives activities were performed. Some building were large manufacturing facilities while others were very small (< 100 sq ft) housing a single scientist and his or her lab and office space.

The 400 Area

The 400 area was home to a number of wind tunnels. At the end of World War II, the G.I.'s found several large wind tunnels in Peenemunde, Germany, and the Government thought "These are neat, let's take them home with us". So the wind tunnels were disassembled, and brought back to the United States. One went to a sister Laboratory, the David Taylor Model Basin, in Bethesda, Maryland. David Taylor operated that wind tunnel into the 1990s when a major failure occurred, and the price tag for repairs was considered to be exorbitant (not surprising, since it was purchased second-hand, the manuals were in German, and the warranty had run out 50 years ago), and the wind tunnel was abandoned.

White Oak's "Supersonic Wind Tunnel", the larger of the former German wind tunnels, was installed in 1947. There were a number of similar facilities, the Mach 10 Wind Tunnel (1950), Mach 12 Wind Tunnel (1951), the Hypersonic Wind Tunnel (1957), and the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel (1972).

The U.S. Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) currently (in 2007) operates the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel.

The 500 Area

There were a number of unique facilities in this area. The Positive Ion Accelerator Facility was one facility located there, and transferred to the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division aka David Taylor Model Basin, under the Power Systems Branch of the Functional Materials Division. It now has the unlikely name of "Tandem Pelletron Positive - Ion Accelerator Facility", what ever the heck that means.

The 600 Area

This editor has found no publicly available information about this area.

The Beginning of the End

NOL was purposely built in what was then "out in the woods". White Oak was still farmland, and the designers could not have predicted the phenomenal growth of the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. But the relentless spread of civilization brought homes and townhouses right up to the fence surrounding the Lab. Purchasers of houses next to an "Ordnance Laboratory" expected to hear an occasional "boom", and were occasionally rewarded with one.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, sometime during the 1980s, when one of the explosive bunkers decided to explode with a really spectacular "boom", which quite surprised the local inhabitants. The concrete bunker, surrounded by earth, just disappeared. While the locals got over it, this was not a good portent for the future.

Base Realignment and Closure

The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) report of 1991 reduced the scope of NOL and reduced the staff to 650 persons. BRAC '93 recommended dis-establishment, and the move of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) from leased buildings in Crystal City, Virginia to White Oak.

NOL was partitioned between three existing Naval Surface Warfare Center R&D Labs: NSWC Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division retained the weapons systems research and associated personnel. NSWC Indian Head Indian Head Naval Surface Weapons Center received the explosives research, and NSWC Carderock Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division formerly David Taylor Model Basin received the basic research interests.

Ultimately though, NAVSEA had a choice on where to relocate. Choice (A) was White Oak, which boasted a 9-hole Golf Course, hundreds of acres of woods with its abundant flora and fauna (many friendly deer), and a pleasant suburban location with existing buildings, lots of parking, good roads, shopping and housing. Choice (B) was the Washington Navy Yard, in a decaying part of the city, with no available buildings, no golf course, neither fauna (except perhaps seagulls) nor flora, poor housing, etc. The obvious choice was, of course, Choice (B).

The General Services Administration (GSA) then took over the site, which was then available for other Government agencies, and was renamed the Federal Research Center.

Food and Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to consolidate offices from various locations in the suburban Washington DC area and relocate to the White Oak campus. Currently under phased construction, the new FDA Headquarters is scheduled for completion by 2012 and will have more than 8,000 employees.

Unfortunately, the old NOL employee golf course has closed.


  • The World War II artillery fuze.
  • Nitinol, the shape changing nickel-titanium alloy well known to everyone. The NOL at the end of Nitinol refers to Naval Ordnance Laboratory.
  • Hypervelocity wind tunnel testing of Space Shuttle models for NASA.


People who have worked there include:

  • John Bardeen, the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in Physics.
  • John Vincent Atanasoff, inventor of the first electronic computer, Chief of the NOL Acoustics Division.
  • William E. Caswell, physicist and victim of September 11, 2001.
  • Norm Scofield, inventor of the Scofield-Gold neutron unfolding algorithm which is a method of solving a Fredholm integral equation.
  • Sigmund J. Jacobs, inventor of theory for the equation of state of detonation products, the Jacobs-Cowperthwaite-Zwisler(JCZ) equation. Also, was a life fellow of SMTE for his work in high speed photo imagery. obituary Wikipedia entry describing some of his work Kamlet-Jacobs-Gleichungen


The description of the facilities was gleaned from "On the Surface", Volume 17, Number 10, 30 September 1994, a publication of the Dahlgren Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center. This issue was titled "THE WHITE OAK LABORATORY: A Tribute".

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Naval_Ordnance_Laboratory". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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