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TNO 90 Years

TNO is celebrating its 90th anniversary in 2022. We were “born” in May 1932, the moment the TNO Act became official. Since then, the organisation has achieved an incredible amount.


A listening device for determining the position of an aircraft, measuring equipment for the Delta Works, a comprehensive vaccination programme for children, early experiments with wind and solar energy, a pioneering position in the field of radar, and a computer programme for constructing greenhouses. TNO has lived up to its motto 'Innovation for life' by also making a substantial contribution to the digital revolution with major breakthroughs in computer simulation, network transactions, wireless communication, cyber security, optical satellite communication and quantum computing.

To celebrate our 90th anniversary we wanted to look back on a number of top innovations. Below you will find our selection in chronological order.


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1935 - First listening device hears sound from far away

In the decades following the First World War, human hearing was increasingly used for the purpose of air defence. Enemy aircraft could then still be detected at night or if the weather was overcast. In the 1930s, researchers working for what later became TNO developed an “electrical listening device” for determining the position of aircraft. The system proved unique, and a few years later it gave the Netherlands and the UK an advantage in the Second World War.

1946 - From Hydrological Research Committee to Key Registry of the Subsurface

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a real boom in the supply of water via the Dutch mains network. This created a need for central coordination of hydrological research. In 1946, various ministries and departments decided to establish the Hydrological Research Committee under the aegis of TNO. One of its aims was to collect and disseminate hydrological and water management information. Since then, the systems used to do this have changed, but the core task for TNO remains the same. The Key Registry of the Subsurface (BRO) – managed since 2022 by the Geological Survey of the Netherlands – comprises all data about the Dutch soil and subsurface. Did you know that the Netherlands was the first country in the world with such a database? This information ensures that tunnelling, constructing new neighbourhoods, and drilling for oil or gas can take place safely.

1948 - Experimental homes in Rotterdam completed

As early as 1943, TNO’s Experimental Homes Construction Committee began preparing 48 experimental houses in the Carnisse district of Rotterdam. At first glance, there’s nothing special about the apartment complexes in Eksterstraat. Nevertheless, all kinds of special floor, roof, and wall constructions were used, attention was paid to heat and sound insulation, and modern heating and ventilation systems were installed. The TNO homes, officially unveiled in 1948 by Mayor Oud, set the standard for post-war reconstruction.

1954 - Delta Works (measurement at sea)

The 1953 flood disaster caused an unprecedented number of fatalities and extensive damage in the south-western Netherlands, and the Dutch government was determined to prevent another such disaster whatever the cost. That aim led to the construction of the Delta Works. TNO was involved in this immense project from the very beginning, and developed a range of instruments, such as wave gauges, water velocity meters, salinity meters, and tide gauges. In many cases, these had to be able to operate unattended at measuring stations out in the sea. TNO ensured radio communication with the mainland and also, from the 1960s, the possibility of data processing by computers, at first by means of punched tape and, after the advent of the minicomputer, using online (digital) signal transformation.

1955 - Measuring young people’s growth

The Netherlands is one of the few countries in the world where child growth studies are carried out quite regularly. The growth of Dutch children is therefore among the best documented in the world. TNO has been performing these national studies since 1955. A large group of children are measured and weighed every 10 to 15 years. The results make it possible for the authorities to monitor trends and take any necessary action. TNO, in turn, uses this data to develop instruments that help monitor and assess the development of individual children, for example, growth charts and calculators, for both parents and medical professionals.

1956-1960 - DiPhySa fire control unit

Between 1956 and 1960, TNO – working closely with the Royal Netherlands Army – developed a digital fire control unit for use against aircraft. The device was given the name “Diphysa” (Digital, Physics Lab, Signalling Apparatus). The project received financial support from the US government and was the first calculator with a self-fabricated rapid-access memory that could digitally process radar data. The digital fire control technology attracted international attention. In April 1957, a TNO delegation visited six US military research institutes to explain the benefits of digital fire control. In 1965, a Norwegian defence representative in NATO called the Diphysa project a “hardware project of magnitude developed in a small country”.

1957 - Vaccinations protect children

Mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tuberculosis... for children in particular, the effects can be very serious. Since the 1950s, these infectious diseases have fortunately almost disappeared from the Netherlands, all thanks to the National Vaccination Programme (RVP). Starting in 1957, the programme made it possible for children born after 1945 to be vaccinated against polio. The programme currently offers protection against no fewer than 12 infectious diseases. TNO was a major contributor to development of the tuberculosis vaccine and is today still closely involved in various RVP studies.

1964-1971 - Vehicle safety

In 1950, more than 2,000 Dutch people died in car accidents. In the 1960s, as we had more money to spend, the number of cars in the Netherlands increased, but along with it the number of traffic deaths rose to 3,196 in 1972. Since then, despite the further increase in traffic, that figure has nevertheless continued to fall, to only 661 deaths in 2019. This is mainly due to the introduction in 1971 of the mandatory wearing of seat belts, a policy choice based on decades of TNO research. The search for the perfect seatbelt gained momentum as far back as 1964, when TNO introduced “Pinocchio”, the country’s first crash dummy.

1971-2003 - Registration of emissions

In the second half of the 20th century – with the increase in car traffic and ever-growing industry – governments and companies started to think about their emissions. What impact were they having on the air, water, and soil? The only party with sufficient capacity and know-how to answer that question was TNO. Starting in 1971, employees from throughout the organisation visited the chemical factories in Limburg, the Hoogovens steelworks, and a large number of smaller companies. They also calculated the emissions produced by cars on major roads. TNO continued with that important task until 2004, when the project was transferred to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). In those more than 30 years, it was TNO data that formed the basis for targeted policies on air, water, and soil quality.

1973 - MADYMO visualises crashes

Crash tests are indispensable when designing safe cars. Previously, such tests could only be carried out using crash dummies, i.e. artificial human beings containing a lot of electronics that transmitted information about the collision via cables. It was of course extremely expensive to use up several dummies each day. By the early 1970s, computer technology had advanced to the point where it was possible to calculate in advance what would happen to the human body and the protective equipment during a collision. For that purpose, TNO developed the Mathematical Dynamic Model program, or “MADYMO”. Even today, almost all major car manufacturers use MADYMO in the initial phase of designing a new vehicle. Although the program has changed over the years, the basis was created by TNO.

1975 - Research Programme on Wind Energy

In 1973, the United States, the Netherlands, and other Western European countries were stricken by the first oil crisis. As a result of political action against the West by oil-producing countries, oil had suddenly become scarce and expensive. In the Netherlands, that led for a time to car-free Sundays and lower speed limits. But something else happened that would ultimately have a major impact: for the first time, there was large-scale investment in research into renewable energy. In 1975, the first National Research Programme on Wind Energy was set up, within which TNO, the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), and Delft University of Technology set out to develop relevant know-how. The results enabled Stork and Holec to build the first generation of wind turbines.

1976 - Solar homes in Zoetermeer

As part of government investment in renewable energy, TNO staff got down to work extensively on wind energy. That led to the first generation of wind turbines. At the same time, there was growing interest in better utilisation of heat from the sun and TNO developed a solar collector. In 1976, TNO was involved in a pioneering project involving the building of four experimental solar homes in the town of Zoetermeer. Large solar collectors collected energy, which was then used to (partially) heat the homes. The know-how that TNO gained from this experiment soon attracted international interest and in 1977 TNO became involved in a major European programme to develop a method for testing solar collectors. Today, TNO is still a leader in the production of ever more efficient and easily applicable solar cells.

1979 - CAISSA: phased array radar

Radar technology has been a key theme in TNO research for decades. From the late 1960s, TNO staff worked on the development of new types of radar that no longer rotated but made use of electrically controlled directionality (phase shifters). These “phased array radars” were not only smaller than usual but also consisted of a large number of small antennas, making them less vulnerable to enemy attacks. The biggest advantage, however, was that phased array radars could track a large number of targets continuously and simultaneously. That is not possible with rotating radar. Their compact size meant that they could also be used in aircraft. The epitome of TNO radar research at the time was the Computer Assisted Inertialess Scanning System Array, or “CAISSA”. The prototype of this radar system, which included no fewer than 850 phase shifters, was assembled by TNO’s own instrument builders.

1980 - Image recognition

In around 1980, TNO took its first steps in the field of image recognition. By then, computer technology had advanced to the stage where it was possible to recognise handwriting or medical photographs, for example. This was all done using TNO’s Technical Command Language Image program, often abbreviated to “TCL-Image”, a workbench for image processing applications. In the 1980s, the program was used to quantitatively determine the influence of anti-cancer drugs and to select chrysanthemum cuttings for product improvement, but also to process fingerprints during investigation of the kidnapping of the businessman Freddy Heineken in 1983. TNO’s image recognition was not only eagerly sought after by international companies but was also the springboard to image recognition based on AI algorithms.

1985 - Computer screen work

When large numbers of computer screens appeared in Dutch offices in the early 1980s, there were concerns about negative health effects, such as loss of visual acuity or the development of cataracts. Some bank employees even thought that an abnormally high number of miscarriages and birth defects had resulted. In 1985, the Dutch government commissioned TNO to conduct research into computer screen work. The 1986 report Behind the Screens showed that health problems mainly resulted from working at a screen for long periods of time. The same report also made suggestions for tackling the problem by paying attention to ergonomics, work organisation, and work pressure. These findings were eventually incorporated into the Working Conditions Act [Arbowet].

1987 - Self-scanning at Albert Heijn

The basic idea behind self-scanning is simple. For most people, time spent waiting at the checkout is by far the most annoying aspect of supermarket shopping. With a self-scanner – a compact barcode reader – customers can register their own items while shopping. This saves time for both the customer and the supermarket staff. The Albert Heijn company embraced this idea in 1987 and approached TNO to work it out in practice. This led to installation of an initial prototype in a branch in Tilburg. With the aid of an American manufacturer of barcode readers, TNO produced a new version in the early 1990s that could be rolled out nationally and internationally. It took some time, however, for self-scanners to become commonplace. It’s only since the past few years that they have increasingly been appearing in supermarkets – including those of Albert Heijn’s competitors.

1993-2006 - CASTA + Sensiplant

Dutch greenhouse horticulture is renowned the world over. A major reason for its success is the highly efficient design of the country’s greenhouses. The vast majority of those with a glass shell were designed using the CASTA program. Foreign greenhouse constructers are also making increasing use of this TNO innovation, which came into operation in 1993, resulting in lighter but stronger structures and a doubling in size and height that enabled rapid scaling up of greenhouses. In 2006, TNO also impressed the sector with “Sensiplant”, a wireless system to monitor the soil moisture of pot plants in greenhouses. TNO’s expertise in greenhouse horticulture continues to this day.

1996 - “Contamination control” for chip manufacturers

In 1960, TNO was the first institute in the Netherlands to construct a laser and apply it to spaceflight. The know-how acquired back then has been deployed since 1996 for high-tech clients, including the Dutch chip manufacturer ASML. Manufacturing chips requires a very fine beam of light to “write” a pattern into silicon. At the time, ASML had reached the limit of what was possible with visible light. Further improvement was still possible with “Extreme UV-light” (EUV), but not a single chip manufacturer had dared to adopt that approach. TNO stepped into the deep end with ASML and became a preferred partner, not directly in the field of optics or fine mechanics, but for “contamination control”. For the EUV approach, it was necessary to develop an entirely new radiation source, which worked in a vacuum and with mirrors instead of lenses. The tiniest nano-dust particle on the mirrors could disrupt the entire manufacturing process. TNO therefore developed a scanning system to register such particles. The expertise utilised back then has ensured that ASML is still ahead of competitors such as Intel and Samsung today.

1999 - Noise cancellation (anti-noise) (TNO Institute of Applied Physics (TPD))

On long-haul flights but also on the train, more and more people are wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Not only do they make music sound better, but noise-cancelling technology can help if you just want to enjoy “a bit of quiet”. That’s because generating the contrary sound reduces the noise of the engines enormously. TNO was already testing anti-noise back in 1994. Placing magnetic sensors on aircraft propellers made it possible to determine the frequency spectrum of the engine noise. This signal was fed to a tone generator, which analyses that spectrum and produces the opposite sound at each frequency. That anti-sound was made audible through loudspeakers in the aircraft cabin. Pilots were suddenly able to communicate with one another without needing headphones.

2001 - SOCRATES: Long-range sonar

It’s not only on land and in the air that observation is important, but also under water. Right from the start of the Cold War, the Royal Netherlands Navy and TNO have been working together to improve sonar technology. A good example is the passive Twin Array, which enabled immediate detection of whether a target was to the left or right of a ship. Passive sonars only receive signals. With an active sonar that not only receives but also transmits, you can discover objects that are difficult to observe. And a sonar that can detect them at a great distance offers the biggest advantages. Since 2001, TNO has been testing the possibilities with SOCRATES (Sonar CalibRAtion and TESting) and its successor SOCRATES 2.

2009 - Smart Grids: smart energy sharing

The energy supply of the future requires “smart grids”, i.e. smart infrastructures for electricity, gas, and heat in which ICT is an essential component. Smart grids create the optimum match of supply and demand by measuring energy flows. The systems also contain applications to control those flows and energy production (for example from solar panels). Smart grids were first showcased in 2009, but in fact TNO (and ECN, which was acquired by TNO in 2018) have been researching this topic for decades. TNO develops the concepts, calculation models, and systems needed. In 2005, TNO launched its first application, anticipating the smart meter that in 2022 can be found in almost every household.

2009 - AMS – Accelerated medication development

When medication is being developed, human absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME) studies are often only conducted in the final phase. This means that when metabolites are discovered at that stage, it’s a huge challenge for biotechnology companies to gain approval for the medication. TNO is the only organisation in Europe with a biomedical Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS). This microtracer makes it possible to detect metabolites at an early stage in the development process. That doesn’t only speed up how quickly the medication can be brought to market; it also reduces the need for testing on animals. The procedure is also less labour-intensive, resulting in cheaper medication for the patient.

MPC: Learning from sensitive data without sharing it

Sharing information between organisations is becoming increasingly important, but privacy and sensitivity are often difficult obstacles to overcome. How can you learn from data from different organisations without actually exchanging the underlying data? TNO is working on the safe analysis of data using Multi-Party Computation (MPC). One of the research projects is BigMedilytics. Based on sensitive data on heart-failure patients, TNO’s computer model learns all sorts of correlations from the combined data of the Zilveren Kruis health insurance company and the Erasmus University Medical Centre. Using cryptography, MPC makes it possible to link and analyse the information securely and so predict who is at increased risk so that the patients concerned can get the care they need.

High-energy laser to shoot down drones

Drones are everywhere nowadays. But malicious persons can do a lot of damage with them, for example by mounting explosives on them. And even without being armed, drones can cause problems, for example by disrupting air traffic at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. A number of countries around the world are developing solutions to the drone problem, including the Netherlands. TNO is focusing on high-energy lasers that can shoot down unwanted drones at the speed of light. In a laboratory setting, the laser can already pierce through a thick piece of steel. With high-energy lasers, we will soon have a powerful weapon that can be used on many fronts.


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