History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 14

Picking up the thread of reducing waste and wasteful practice in industry, the Bureau in the 1920s tackled issues of efficiency in a range of products and industries, particularly the growing auto industry, with studies on auto engines, tires and oils, and public utilities with studies on improving gas appliances and minimizing dielectric loss. Testing on construction materials, crucial to Hoover’s home building initiative, concluded that often more of a building material was used than was structurally necessary, when less material would produce a structurally sound building. Other projects of the time included everything from sound-proofing techniques to fire-proofing to recovery of waste sugar.


Bureau investigations during the 1920’s on gas and gas appliances proved to have a significant impact on public health and safety. On its own initiative and using funds granted by Congress in 1915 for investigation of public utility standards, the Bureau began a new investigation of the gas industry prompted by rising gas prices and a belief that that the natural gas feeding half of the cities and towns in the country was in short supply. The Bureau’s aim at the outset of the investigation was to promote conservation of this supposedly dwindling resource.


Testing concluded that the greatest source of natural gas waste was domestic appliances, prompting the Bureau’s publication “How to get better service with less natural gas in domestic gas appliances.” In the course of the overall gas project, the Bureau also tested a number of “gas-saving” devices that promised to lower consumers’ gas bills when used in conjunction with their gas appliances. These products actually did no such thing and in many cases their use created additional safety dangers. The true culprits were the poor design and faulty installation of appliances, though Bureau recommendations for design changes to stoves, water heaters and room heaters were met with backlash from the industry or were simply rejected.


The winter of 1922-1923 saw an increase across the country in deaths from gas poisoning. The Bureau worked together with municipal health departments to compile data on fatalities attributed to carbon monoxide, which, in turn, shed light on the gas industry’s dubious practice of attributing all gas-related fatalities to suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning (even in cities supplied by natural gas which did not contain carbon monoxide). A subsequent investigation by the Bureau in conjunction with Baltimore’s Consolidated Gas & Electric Co. and public health officials reaffirmed gas appliances to be the primary source. Upon publication of the findings, the president of the American Gas Association, enraged, “demanded that further publication be withheld.” The data, however, was undeniable and the Association ended up installing a research associate group at the Bureau. They later hired a Bureau gas engineer and set up their own laboratories and quickly revamped the industry. Within a couple of years, gas poisoning deaths in Baltimore had all but been eliminated. So this shows but one example of how the Bureau’s work could literally be a matter of life or death for the public.


By the mid-1920s the Bureau was reporting that domestic production of scientific and industrial instrumentation had increased to 80% as opposed to 15% before the war. They also reported much greater cooperation from industry, especially large corporations, than they had received at the Bureau’s inception. A widespread concern of the time affecting many different industries and interests was the standardization of color.


The colorimetry section was formally established within the optics division of the Bureau in 1915, but Bureau interest in the topic went back to 1912 when they were called on to aid oil, butter and margarine makers with color grading their products. When the section was established, they had requests regarding color issues as they related to glass, headlights, paper, sugar and many others. At the time, two color scales were in use, but both had limited application. The unique problem with measuring color is that it is, to a degree, subjective. That is, color is in the eye of the beholder. Recognizing this psychological element to the way humans perceive color, the Bureau studied 150 subjects to establish a data curve. This curve was accepted as the standard by the International Commission for Illumination in 1924. Further years of work eventually resulted in the Bureau’s dictionary of colors and color names.


**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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