Engineering Standard Setting

When we started researching the global history of industrial standard setting, we expected that we would end up writing about a community of engineers acting in their typical role as conservative rationalizers, even if, in this case, they operated on the vast stage of the global economy. We did not think we would be writing about engineers as part of a transformation-oriented social movement—something resembling the transcontinental free trade movement or the global environmental movement—but it turns out that just such a movement was behind the voluntary standards that link all our transportation systems and electrical grids and make global manufacturing and the Internet possible.

Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 tells the story of three waves of a social movement that invented and promoted a process of setting standards through consensus-oriented committees of engineers representing the major producers and purchasers of industrial products, along with engineers chosen to represent the larger public interest.  A series of movement leaders worked to create the organizations that set up and manage these committees.  In the first wave, before the Second World War, most of these organizations were national standardization bodies, joined by a couple of international bodies such as the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). In the second wave, which ended in the 1980s, the global International Organization for Standardization (ISO) became the center of the network connecting the national bodies. In the third wave, since the late 1980s, they have been joined by new organizations creating standards for the Internet and World Wide Web and extending the consensus process to new fields including environmental sustainability and other aspects of corporate social responsibility.

The image most of us have of engineers and their role in the economy is as conservative rationalizers, not as passionate members of a social movement. Yet the engineers who established non-governmental standard-setting bodies and set voluntary standards were part of an international standardization movement that powered the growth of private organizations designed to develop standards that would be adopted voluntarily by manufacturers and users of industrial products. They believed that national standards would help the economy and avert worker unrest; on the international level they believed that standards would help achieve world peace.

The engineers involved in early standardization called themselves a movement as early as 1899, when the first president of the “American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials” (which became the independent American Society for Testing Materials or ASTM in 1901) summarized its evolution up to this moment when “the movement took on an international character.” When Charles B. Dudley, the first president of the independent ASTM, died in 1909, an obituary called him “the father of a movement which is of as much philanthropic as commercial importance.” Similar claims could be (and were) made for a half-dozen of his contemporaries from Germany and Great Britain.

These leading standardizers corresponded and often met. At the center of the group was Charles le Maistre, a bilingual electrical engineer who was secretary to the British national standards body and general secretary to the IEC, founded in 1906. Le Maistre helped engineers on five continents start their own national standards bodies. According to Comfort Adams, the first chair of the US standards body, “Progress of civilization depends to a large degree on successful standardization in many fields and on the cooperation necessary to develop standards.” Standardization promised peace and prosperity and was even an antidote to Bolshevism, since engineers could “so improve methods and machinery that the productivity of labor would increase until it is possible to pay labor a real living wage and still have a fair return for capital.” Yet le Maistre, and his first wave German counterpart, were equally celebrated in the Soviet Union for helping establish and sharing standards with the national standards body there!

On the international level, the claims were even broader. At the end of the meeting that established the IEC, the newly elected honorary secretary of that organization, the UK’s Colonel Crompton, reminded his colleagues that “It was, by patiently working together and by smoothing down difficulties which were likely to arise in such peaceful matters as standardisation, that the world would gradually arrive at universal peace.”

The missionary enthusiasm of the movement waned during the Depression and Second World War, but was immediately rekindled by the peace, after which ISO was established and began working with the UN to extend engineering education and establish national standardization bodies throughout the world. The goal became creating a nested network of bodies focused on international standards to promote economic growth, and, of course, general prosperity and peace.

The new standardization bodies created outside ISO since the 1980s, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium, and the social and environmental standard setters of the ISEAL alliance all consider themselves much more up to date and relevant than ISO, IEC, and the old national standardization bodies, but their rhetoric remains the same. They still sound like social movement organizations, out to save the world by creating voluntary standards—albeit it is the Internet and social responsibility that are the primary foci of their mission, not engineering standardization alone.

So we have, in fact, written a book about some typical engineers with their focus on problem-solving and rationalization, but it is also a book about a social movement and how it came to shape, and to help govern, today’s world.

JoAnne Yates is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management and Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century. Craig N. Murphy is the Betty Freyhof Johnson '44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. He is the author of The United Nations Development Programme: A Better Way? and International Organization and Industrial Change: Global Governance since 1850. Together, Yates and Murphy are the authors of Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880.