Naval Ordnance Laboratory

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 the Food and Drug Administration.



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, marking 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 cause serious problems 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 (2.88 km2) 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 facility could be finished. "That laboratory" remarked the Navy man, "is not being built for this war".[1]

Overall Map

Map of FDA with NOL areas overlaid
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

1960's-era postcard

This 1960s-era postcard image shows the NOL Administration Building and golf course as seen from New Hampshire Ave. After renovation for use by the FDA it still looks much the same, with "Naval Ordnance Laboratory" still carved in stone above the main entrance.

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 was 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 apparently a 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 geographically, 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, ranging from basic compound research and new formulations, to large scale weapon systems design. 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 largest test facility was Bldg. 327, the 50 Pound Bombproof Facility [2] [3] , which became operational in 1984. The center of the building housed a 20' x 20' x 16' steel-lined reinforced concrete test chamber capable of containing an explosion equivalent to 50 pounds of TNT. Numerous sophisticated high speed cameras, x-ray equipment, and high speed electronics were used to monitor a wide range of experiments. A four inch (102 mm) single stage light gas gun and one inch two stage light gas gun set up to fire projectiles into the chamber further extended the facility's capabilities.

The 400 Area

The 400 area was home to a number of wind tunnels.[4] At the end of World War II, the G.I.'s found several large wind tunnels in Peenemünde, Germany. The wind tunnels were disassembled and brought back to the United States.[5] One went to NOL's sister laboratory, the David Taylor Model Basin (DTMB), in Bethesda, Maryland. DTMB operated that wind tunnel until the 1990s, when a major failure led to its abandonment.

White Oak's "Supersonic Wind Tunnel", the larger of the German wind tunnels, was installed in 1947. There was a number of similar facilities including the Mach 10 Wind Tunnel (1950), Mach 12 Wind Tunnel (1951), the Hypersonic Wind Tunnel (1957), and the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel (1972) (Article about work performed at the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel Hypervelocity wind tunnel reaches 3,000-run milestone ).

The U.S. Air Force's Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) currently (in 2010) operates the Hypervelocity Wind Tunnel 9.[6] This facility, known simply as Tunnel 9, operates by blowing down hot, high-pressure nitrogen gas through one of several available axially-symmetric 12-meter-long De Laval nozzles, through a test section, and into a downstream vacuum sphere. Operating in the test-section Mach number range of 7 to 16, Tunnel 9 is the highest-pressure wind tunnel in the world. It produces realistic flight Reynolds numbers at hypersonic Mach numbers and beyond, with test times on the order of one second.[7]

Other buildings in the Aeroballistics Area 400, including the original main wind tunnel building (415) and the 1,000-foot (300 m) Hyperballistics Range, are now (in 2010) abandoned and have fallen into disrepair. They are to be demolished during the continuing GSA conversion of the old NOL campus into the Federal Research Center at White Oak. A section of the original Peenemünde wind tunnel (Tunnel 1) is preserved in the lobby of the Tunnel 9 building.

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 name of "Tandem Pelletron Positive - Ion Accelerator Facility".

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 a remote area. 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 explosion, and were occasionally rewarded with one.

In 1974, the lab was merged with Naval Weapons Laboratory (NWL) in Dahlgren, VA to form the Naval Surface Weapons Center (NSWC), later renamed the Naval Surface Warfare Center. As years passed after the name change, fewer local residents understood the nature of the research being conducted on areas of the base. Explosives testing operations were carried on in hardened indoor test facilities and almost no external signs of explosions and other tests being carried out reached the edge of the facility.

This all changed suddenly on a Sunday afternoon, June 28, 1992, at about 1PM when the contents of explosives storage magazine Bldg. 355 exploded. Approximately 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) of stored explosives detonated, shattering windows and rattling china in the nearby neighborhoods. While the magazine accomplished its design purpose of limiting off-site damage (it was designed to hold up to 7,000 lb (3,200 kg) safely), this did not endear the Laboratory to the neighbors, and probably contributed to the ultimate decision to close the Lab. [8]

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 (NSWC) R&D Labs: NSWC Dahlgren retained the weapons systems research and associated personnel. NSWC Indian Head received the explosives research, and NSWC Carderock, formerly David Taylor Model Basin, received the basic research interests.

Ultimately though, NAVSEA had the choice of relocation sites. White Oak boasted a 9-hole golf course, hundreds of acres of woods with abundant flora and fauna, and a pleasant suburban location with existing buildings, lots of parking, good roads, shopping and housing. Although the Washington Navy Yard, in a decaying part of the city, had few such benefits to recommend it, it was nevertheless the choice NAVSEA settled on.

The General Services Administration (GSA) then took over the White Oak 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 US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to consolidate offices from various locations in the suburban Washington DC area at the White Oak campus. Currently under phased construction, the new FDA Headquarters is scheduled for completion by 2014 and will have more than 9,000 employees.

The NOL employee golf course has closed.



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.
  • Samuel J. Raff, nuclear physicist, electrical engineer, founding editor of the scientific journal Computers and Operations Research.
  • William E. Caswell, physicist and victim of September 11, 2001.
  • Henry Earl Singleton, electrical engineer, cofounder of Teledyne, Inc.
  • 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 SMPTE for his work in high speed photo imagery. obituary Wikipedia entry describing some of his work Kamlet-Jacobs-Gleichungen Here is another document describing his work written by close colleagues Mr. Detonation Science for DOD: Sigmund J. Jacobs
  • Jack W. Wise (1917–2005), worked for the White Oak Laboratory (see alumni site for the WOL below) during WWII, and for NOL from the 1940s on into the late 1960s. During the war, he worked on fuse ruggedization, ship demagnitization. Later, he worked on the Polaris Missile project. Other details uncertain. Would entertain further edits with accurate information.
  • I. Lee Reed (1917–1966) worked at the Washington Naval Gun Factory during and after World War II (with a brief transfer to the Navy's new China Lake facility at Inyokern, California in 1946), and moved to NOL in 1951-52, where he was employed for the rest of his life. During the war he worked on the proximity fuse and artillery shells. At NOL he continued this work and was involved with other weapons systems, including the Polaris missile. His work occasionally took him to the testing facilities at White Sands, New Mexico and back to China Lake.
  • William J. Buehler. shape memory alloy.

Alumni Association

The White Oak Laboratory Alumni Association (WOLAA) was formed as a not-for-profit alumni organization for the purpose of:

  • Carrying out programs to perpetuate the history, memory and accomplishments of the WOL for the United States Navy and the United States of America
  • Sponsoring and participating in activities of a patriotic nature
  • Perpetuating the camaraderie and memories of former WOL employees and the people who worked on site to support the WOL and its employees


  1. ^ Dahlgren Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center, "On the Surface", Volume 17, Number 10, 30 September 1994, "THE WHITE OAK LABORATORY: A Tribute".
  2. ^ Swisdak, M; Peckham, P. (30 Oct 1985). Validation Tests in Building 327 - 50-Pound Bombproof. SILVER SPRING MD: NAVAL SURFACE WEAPONS CENTER. NSWC/TR-85-384. 
  3. ^ Swisdak Jr, Michael M; Peckham, Phillip J; Spahn, Patrick F; Bendt, Richard (1986). "A New Explosion Test Facility at NSWC - The 50-Pound Bombproof". Minutes of the Explosives Safety Seminar (22nd) Held in Anaheim, California on 26–28 August 1986. Volume 1. pp. p545–564. 
  4. ^ Marren, D.,
  5. ^ P. P. Wegener, The Peenemünde wind tunnels: a memoir, Yale University Press, 1996.
  6. ^ AEDC Factsheet
  7. ^ G. Norris and G. Warwick, Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 22, 2010, p. 58.
  8. ^ Investigation Report Draft dated 18 September 1992

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".

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