Through History with Standards
Standards have existed since the beginning of recorded history. Some were
created by royal decree. For example, King Henry I of England standardized
measurement in 1120 AD by instituting the ell, which was equivalent to
the length of his arm.
Some standards were an outgrowth of man’s desire to harmonize his
activities with important changes in the environment. Others were created in
response to the needs of an increasingly complex society.
Short Course: Through History with Standards
One of the earliest examples of standardization is the creation of a calendar.
Ancient civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of the sun, moon and
stars through the sky to determine the appropriate time to plant and harvest
crops, to celebrate holidays and to record important events.
Over 20,000 years ago, our Ice Age ancestors in Europe made the first
rudimentary attempts to keep track of days by scratching lines in caves and
gouging holes in sticks and bones. Later, as civilizations developed
agriculture and began to farm their lands, they needed more precise ways to
predict seasonal changes.
The Sumerians in the Tigris/Euphrates valley devised a calendar very similar to
the one we use today. 5,000 years ago, the Sumerian farmer used a calendar that
divided the year into 30-day months. Each day was divided into 12 hours and
each hour into 30 minutes.
The Egyptians were the first to develop the 365-day calendar and can be
credited with logging 4236 BC as the first year in recorded history. They based
the year’s measurement on the rising of the “Dog Star” or Sirius every 365
days. This was an important event as it coincided with the annual inundation of
the Nile, a yearly occurrence that enriched the soil used to plant the
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the increased
demand to transport goods from place to place led to advanced modes of
transportation. The invention of the Railroad was a fast, economical and
effective means of sending products cross-country. This feat was made possible
by the standardization of the railroad gauge, which established the uniform
distance between two rails on a track. Imagine the chaos and wasted time if a
train starting out in New York had to be unloaded in St. Louis because the
railroad tracks did not line up with the train’s wheels. Early train travel in
America was hampered by this phenomenon.
During the Civil War the U.S. government recognized the military and economic
advantages to having a standardized track gauge. The government worked with the
railroads to promote use of the most common railroad gauge in the U.S. at the
time which measured 4 feet, 8 ½ inches, a track size that originated in
England. This gauge was mandated for use in the Transcontinental Railroad in
1864 and by 1886 had become the U.S. standard.
Federal Railroad Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation,
the Association of American Railroads and the U.S. Dept. of Defense’s
Defense Standardization Program Office
Cities experienced tremendous growth in the 20th century, bringing increased
prosperity to America and attracting more and more people to urban centers. As
cities became more sophisticated and their infrastructures more complex, it
became apparent that a unique set of national standards would be necessary to
ensure the safety of city dwellers.
In 1904, a fire broke out in the basement of the John E. Hurst & Company
Building in Baltimore. After taking hold of the entire structure, it leaped
from building to building until it engulfed an 80-block area of the city. To
help combat the flames, reinforcements from New York, Philadelphia and
Washington, DC immediately responded—but to no avail. Their fire hoses could
not connect to the fire hydrants in Baltimore because they did not fit the
hydrants in Baltimore. Forced to watch helplessly as the flames spread, the
fire destroyed approximately 2,500 buildings and burned for more than 30 hours.
It was evident that a new national standard had to be developed to prevent a
similar occurrence in the future. Up until that time, each municipality had its
own unique set of standards for fire fighting equipment. As a result, research
was conducted of over 600 fire hose couplings from around the country and one
year later a national standard was created to ensure uniform fire safety
equipment and the safety of Americans nationwide.
Excerpted from "A Look From Yesterday to Tomorrow on the Building of Our Safety Infrastructure," by Casey C. Grant, P.E., National Fire
Protection Association (Presented at NIST Centennial Standards Symposium, March 7, 2001)
National Fire Protection Agency International and the National Safety Council.