An Investigation Into Standards and Innovation Part 1 of 6: How modern standards evolved from their farm-dwelling forebears

Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/Information Management News 12.09/An Investigation Into Standards and Innovation Part 1 of 6: How modern standards evolved from their farm-dwelling forebears

Laurent Liscia, OASIS

At first glance, standards are the sort of topic that a doctor might prescribe for sleep-deprived patients. That would be a misguided prescription. Not unlike the Harry Potter series, the story of how standards rose to prominence in the most exalted boardrooms and greatest chambers of government involves a battle between Chaos and Order, machinations in secret rooms, and of course quite a bit of wizardry, albeit of the technical sort.

Let’s start with some history, as is proper.

Standards are as old as human societies: their forebears are the coins and weights that were used for trade as far back as the historical record goes. In order for people not to feel cheated, they needed to know what money is actually worth, and what a weight actually weighs. The transition from the Julian calendar (after Julius Caesar) to the Gregorian, which corrected the 11 minute and 30 second Julian lag behind the solar calendar would make for a great scientific thriller: even though the Gregorian calendar, which included the leap year and its attending math, was way more accurate than the Julian, the Protestant world decided to ignore Rome’s decision to launch it in 1582, and chose to stay with their Julian deficiencies. Things didn’t change until the 1700s, and I certainly hope it will take less time for US engineers to realize that they live in a metric universe.

[On the topic of the snail’s pace adoption of the metric system in the US, please see a wonderful discussion by Stephen Bates, Assistant Professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies, UNLV at:]

The rail gauges used by the railroad companies when they started laying down tracks is cited as the first industrial standard, although I’m sure one might find an older standard for rivets, nails, or Adam’s Smith’s pins. I would argue that one of the first modern, “public-minded” standards arose from the Baltimore fire of 1904, which destroyed 2,500 buildings simply because the hoses of out-of-town firemen were not compatible with the local hydrants: the out-manned local firemen could not count on outside help.

Modern standards began with public safety, and for public safety to matter you need a political regime that cares: a democracy, or at the very least a benevolent monarchy. To this day, the most carefully devised standards are in construction, transportation and health care, and they take a long time to create and test.

***Please look for the second article in Laurent’s six part series on the topic of Standards and Innovation in next months issue of Information Management News.***

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