Guardians of the units

The Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) is Germany’s highest authority in all matters relating to correct and reliable measurements. In 2017, it celebrated its 130th anniversary

Dr. Sascha Eichstädt © Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt

For generations now, students in Germany have learned that the steam engine was invented by James Watt in 1769, the first automobile was made by Carl Benz in 1886 and the Wright Brothers completed the first motorised flight in 1901. The year 1887, however, goes unmentioned, although in two respects it set Germany on a course to becoming one of the world’s leading industrial nations. It was the year in which German products were first sold in Great Britain under the label “Made in Germany”. Initially this was used to warn consumers of the ‘inferior’ quality of the goods. Soon, however, this badge of shame became the seal of quality we know it as today. And there’s one institution that played a significant role in this development: the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, known today as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (National Metrology Institute or PTB). The PTB has been the guardian of units and a meticulous defender of quality since 1887. To gain insight into this time-honoured institute, it’s best to set off from Ernst Reuter Platz, move past the Technische Universität (TU), then walk for what seems an eternity through a vast area lined by old chestnut trees and shielded from the hustle and bustle on Marchstraße by man-sized walls and fences.

Here, in one of the massive buildings dating back to the Kaiser Wilhelm era, is where Sascha Eichstädt works. The 35-year-old provides a pleasant contrast to the imposing business structures that surround him. He is not a man of big gestures; instead, he is someone who smiles a lot and gets his work done in a simply furnished office. As a mathematician, he has plenty of the patience one needs to explain his craft to laymen. Indeed, when he tells people he works at a metrological institute, it prompts the same misunderstanding time and again: “People incorrectly assume my work has something to do with the weather”, he says. However, metrology is not meteorology. That is, Eichstädt doesn’t work with high and low pressure fronts, but rather with lumens, amperes, metres, kilos and everything that counts as a measurable unit. “We make sure gauges are absolutely reliable, plus we support calibration authorities and industry alike,” he says. Measuring instruments are used wherever units are measured, which involves everything from personal scales to crash test sensors. All of these instruments must be calibrated, which means ensuring that the kilogram displayed on a scale actually corresponds to what is defined as a kilogram. “Of course, a calibration device has to be better and more precise than the measuring device itself”, notes Eichstädt. More than 1,500 laboratories approved by the PTB offer such calibration services in Germany, and these have to be checked regularly. Manufacturers also need the know-how to make their products with the greatest possible accuracy. In other words, PTB is a paradise for sticklers. So-called guestimates don’t count for much here, especially seeing as they would only bring disrepute to the “Made in Germany” name.

Eichstädt got his start at PTB nine years ago as a doctoral student. He enjoyed the working conditions so much he stayed long after finishing his PhD. “Nowhere else would I have been able to gain as much insight into all the different areas, ranging from fusion reactors to LED surveying”, he notes. Today, the PTB works together with German companies, the neighbouring Technische Universität and T-Labs to explore new fields and develop joint ideas and projects. Innovation is not just a buzzword here; it’s been a fact of everyday life for 130 years. While others are droning on about the digital future, Eichstädt and his colleagues are already knee-deep in research on it. Quietly, calmly and without any fanfare, the team at the PTB carry out the work necessary to ensure that “Made in Germany” remains a seal of quality.

Michael Sellge
Kluge Köpfe 2017