History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 13

Our last installment mentioned that Secretary Hoover wanted to reduce industrial waste and use resources more efficiently. A report by the Federated American Engineering Societies in the 1920s had concluded that between 25-50% of production costs could be eliminated by eliminating waste (including, in some cases, wasteful labor practices). Hoover’s aims at achieving waste reduction affected the Bureau directly on two fronts: 1) that material waste reduction would be achieved by setting standards of quality, simplifying grades and reducing unnecessary variety; and 2) that labor waste reduction would be achieved by scientific development of better processes and methods and invention of labor-saving devices.


“The crusade for standardization” became a phrase used to express the objectives of standardizing materials and business practices, reducing extraneous variety, and producing quality specifications. Independent of, but in close connection with the Bureau, the actual authority regarding industry standards was the American Engineering Standards Committee or AESC (later renamed the American Standards Association). The year 1927 saw the first publication of the Bureau’s “Standards Yearbook” which provided fundamental information on standardization which by then, it claimed, affected “every phase of design, production, and utilization.” Industrialized countries around the world underwent their own “crusades for standardization” during the same period, as the phenomenon was not contained to the US, though with the distinction that in the US it was driven largely by industry as a matter of increasing profit, whereas abroad it was more likely to be a government initiative.


As we have seen earlier, establishing quality standards for government purchasing was one of the Bureau’s former tasks, though for a long time, each department or agency had its own purchasing department and its own quality standards. With the establishment in 1921 of the Bureau of the Budget came the creation of the Federal Specifications Board which bound all Federal purchasing to Bureau quality standards.


The general procedure, then, was for the Bureau to conduct research and recommend a standard, which was then conveyed to the AESC. From there, the draft of the Federal specification was disseminated to industry representatives who, in turn, provided feedback until a standard was approved. In this way, the Bureau prepared 72 specifications between 1921 and 1924 and 150 new specifications between 1925 and 1928.


Together with other concerned parties, the Bureau published the “National directory of commodity specifications” in 1925, including 27,000 specifications for 6,650 commodities, which Secretary Hoover envisioned as a “Buyers’ Bible” to support industrial and Federal purchasing.


Of the various branches of the standardization initiative, the general public seemed most interested in the topic of simplification because it was easy to understand and often came with staggering statistics. For example, a Bureau report in 1921 showed excessive variety in style and material when there was no real demand for such variety and consumers would have been content with a more standardized selection. The same report found that this issue alone represented an annual 30% loss of American energy.


As its first two recommendations, the Bureau’s division of simplified practice reduced the available sizes of paving bricks from 66 to 7 and beds from 20+ varieties to 4 widths and one arbitrary length (we see the vestiges of this in our current twin/full/queen/king sizes). In cooperation with the Bureau, savings over $293 million were estimated in nine key industries within 5 years. A study in 1926 found compliance rates to the new standards to be at 79.5%, exceeding expectations, which had assumed that manufacturers and consumers would try to hold on to eliminated sizes/styles of product. The program continued to enjoy much success with manufacturers reporting savings and benefits seen in numerous facets of their operations. As such, Hoover created within the Bureau the division of trade standards to consolidate activities related to standards and publish specifications with industry-wide application.


While manufacturers accepted the reduction in variety and standardization of their products relatively readily, as they saw the results on their balance sheets, consumers continued to want that additional variety in some products. In an ironic example, the heads of the simplified practice division at Commerce requested typewriters for their division that were not of the manufacturer and type style used throughout the rest of the organization. Their request was denied on those grounds but they insisted until their purchase was approved, illustrating that limited variety does not always suit all needs or wants of the end user. As the country rebounded from the post-war depression, both industry and consumer became less compliant with Government simplification recommendations until the program was drastically cut, though not abandoned, when the Great Depression hit.


**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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