Created in 1863 by the Congress of the United States to "advise the government in scientific and technical matters." The NAS is a private, non-profit society of distinguished scholars to which new members are elected every year. The NAS is one of four U.S. National Academies (the others are the National Research Council (1918), the National Academy of Engineering (1964), and the Institute of Medicine (1970)). Members and foreign associates are elected "in recognition of their achievements in original research." Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the NAS is governed by twelve councilors and five officers elected from among the membership.
During the Civil War, the United States government was innundated by inventions and proposals submitted by citizens who wished to contribute to the war effort. Joseph Henry (a leading American scientist) suggested that the Navy Department set up an advisory agency to evaluate such contributions. The plan, revised with the help of Alexander Dallas Bache (Superintendent of the Coast Survey) and Rear Admiral Charles Henry Davis, was approved by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and a Permanent Commission was established.
Meanwhile, a bill for the incorporation of the National Academy of Sciences was written by naturalist Louis Agassiz, Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, Alexander Dallas Bache, Charles Henry Davis, Harvard Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy Benjamin Peirce, and astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould. The bill passed both House and Senate and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1863.
There were fifty charter members inducted at the first organizational meeting of the NAS on April 22, 1863. Soon, the NAS received its first commission: a Committee on Weights, Measures, and Coinage was formed to study the "uniformity of weights, measures, and coins, considered in relation to domestic and international commerce." The Committee eventually recommended that the U.S. adopt the metric system.
The first two decades of the NAS resulted in many reports on diverse topics. For instance, the NAS recommended the formation of the U.S. Geological Survey and helped set up the National Forest Service. For several years after 1900, the NAS became much less active and membership dwindled. A revival was begun by the NAS's Foreign Secretary, astrophysicist George Ellery Hale, who realized that the U.S. was not prepared for the conflict which became World War I. He authored a resolution to organize scientific resources in the U.S., out of which the National Research Council was formed "for cooperation of government, educational, industrial, and other research organizations for promotion of national security and welfare." The NRC was approved in July of 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, organized September 20 of the same year, and made permanent by Executive Order 2859 on May 11, 1918.
After World War II, the NAS sponsored important conferences on theoretical physics. The June 1947 Shelter Island Conference and later Pocono and Oldstone Conferences involved many eminent physicists. These conferences gave the scientists an opportunity to discuss the important issues that had come out of quantum theory and the Manhattan Project.
NAS member Lloyd Viel Berkner proposed participation in the activities of the International Geophysical Year (I.G.Y.) which took place in 1957-1958. Almost seventy countries were involved in coordinated observations of geophysical phenomena around the world, although concentrated in arctic and equatorial regions. The International Council of Scientific Unions oversaw the organization and funding of the I.G.Y.
The NAS was housed by the Smithsonian Institution for its first fifty years. In 1919 the Carnegie Corporation agreed to donate funds to build a new NAS building. A site was purchased for 185,000 USD in Washington, D.C. bounded by 21st, 22nd, C, and B (Constitution Avenue after 1931) Streets. The ground breaking was celebrated in July of 1922 and the building was completed April 28, 1924. President Calvin Coolidge delivered the principal address at the dedication ceremony. The three-story building, designed by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, is in the classic style with a domed Great Hall. It has walls of white marble and bronze window panels and doors that depict the progress of science. A west wing was added in 1962, followed by the east wing in 1965 and the auditorium in 1970. On the southwest corner of the grounds is the Albert Einstein Memorial (1979).
More information about the National Academy of Sciences and the building is available at the official websites: