History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 1

The need to regulate standards of measurement in the United States arose in the late 19th century amid the phenomenal growth of industry and the pace of invention the country was experiencing. The engineers and scientists behind the production and dissemination of such inventions as the automobile and electricity needed to test their inventions. In order to do this, they needed standards of measurement. Consumers also cried out for regulation and standardization of commodities produced by different manufacturers. The lack of uniform standards was also a problem in government. For example, when imposing import taxes, the same quantity of goods might be found to weigh more at one port of entry than another, as evidenced in an 1832 investigation which found that “no two customhouses in the country” had the same weights.


The founding fathers’ aversion to centralized power and control prevented earlier establishment of government standards, despite the fact that governments in Europe had long supported such measures. The federal government did not support any scientific measurement until the establishment of the Coast and Geodetic Survey was founded in 1807. In 1836, the Office of Weights and Measures was born within the Survey. Gradually, different government agencies developed their own research departments for things like medical research (Army), meteorology (Navy), telegraph facilities (Army), etc. In the world of academia, research was also taking place. At times, researchers within these contexts set up their own means of taking measurements, with the result that differing standards arose for the “same” measurement. William Mason of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found eight different ‘authoritative’ values for the gallon, so to avoid confusion, he made up his own value for the gallon. Similarly, city surveyors in Brooklyn in 1902 recognized four different ‘feet’ as legal.


Eventually, a Congressional commission was established to evaluate the method by which research was conducted within government agencies. It found that work was being overlapped and duplicated by various agencies. As a result, the National Academy of Sciences was recommended to centralize research for government purposes, but fears of government encroachment on the free market ultimately killed the proposal.


The first real attempt by the government to standardize weights and measures came in 1836 when Ferdinand Hassler, superintendent of the Coast Survey in the Treasury Department, was directed by the Secretary of the Treasury to produce copies of various standards. Congress was still reluctant to enact a law making use of the measures obligatory, but they did approve the standards and instruct that copies be delivered to the governors in every state. Enforcement of their use, however, was not obligatory and laws continued to be passed at the state and federal levels defining new standards.


The new electrical industry was particularly affected by the lack of good standards. Laboratory testing was performed by trial and error, costing the industry dearly in time and resources, because accurate instruments did not exist for performing such experiments. At the turn of the century, electricity was a $200 million enterprise but its growth was slowed by the fact that it was frequently engaged in lawsuits for want of industry standards. As the United States was the world leader in electrical invention, instruments were created in this country for electrical testing, but users in Europe would calibrate the instruments themselves, because the US manufacturers’ standards were unknown. Measuring apparatus for all kinds of applications were regularly sent from the US abroad to be calibrated and verified in international laboratories, whose standards could be trusted, as opposed to having these services performed domestically. This eventually became viewed as a disgrace to the nation, to say nothing of the time wasted and money paid abroad for these services which should be performed within the US itself.


In 1899, work began to draft a bill for presentation to Congress proposing legalization of better standards and enforcement of their use. It was supported by numerous associations and institutes concerned with scientific pursuits. Representatives from manufacturing, government, and educational institutions spoke out via testimony and written endorsement for the need to enact such a bill. The proposal advocated reorganization of the Office of Standard Weights and Measures into the National Standardizing Bureau to be under the Secretary of the Treasury and that the new agency would have 6 primary functions:

  1. custody of the standards
  2. the comparison of the standards used in scientific investigations, engineering, manufacturing, commerce, and educational institutions with the standards adopted or recognized by the Government
  3. the construction when necessary of standards, their multiples and subdivisions
  4. the testing and calibration of standard-measuring apparatus
  5. the solution of problems which arise in connection with standards
  6. the determining of physical constants, and the properties of materials when such data are of great importance to scientific or manufacturing interests and are not to be obtained of sufficient accuracy elsewhere.


**The information presented here is drawn from “Measures For Progress: A History of The National Bureau of Standards” (Rexmond C. Cochrane)


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