History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 16

In addition to the other industries exploding at the time, radio saw huge development in the 1920s. With the end of the patent wars between major manufacturers, radio broadcasting began. Reaching an estimated 7,000 privately owned radio sets in 1921, radio grew during the decade to reach 10 million commercially-produced and privately-owned sets by 1928. The Bureau, for its part, produced circulars instructing consumers on how to build their own radios with different instructions depending on the desired range of reception. The rapid growth of the industry soon had the Bureau calling for standardization of equipment and service.


With new radio stations popping up across the country, the government eventually found it necessary to regulate the airwaves. Technical advisors from the Bureau were present at all early radio conferences with Bureau researchers Dr. J. Howard Dellinger and Dr. Charles B. Jolliffe eventually becoming the first and second chief engineers of the Federal Radio Commission.


Of the early obstacles to commercial radio, the Bureau was most concerned with improving reception for the listener by devising ways in which the stations could use more precise waves to reduce interference from irregular wave widths. The Bureau developed a variety of new instruments and tools (wavemeters, wavemeter scales, etc.) to aid stations and government regulators in making sure stations stayed on their assigned frequency. Also among Bureau responsibilities was the testing of the frequency standards for broadcasting stations adopted by the FRC in 1927. Later investigations by the Bureau, in cooperation with the radio industry and academia identified that fading could be attributed to irregular absorption of radio waves in the ionosphere. Weather was found not to be a factor, but day and night produced consistent variations in reception. This finding lead to research into shortwave transmission, which was less susceptible to interference.


Amidst all the work on commercial radio, radio compasses were also improved for the Navy and other ships. High frequency radiotelephones became the preferred navigational tool for the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Navigation. Useful as the radio compass was, it was deemed inadequate for passenger flights, leading to the development in 1929 of the first visual-type radiobeacon system, which allowed the pilot to know his aircraft’s approximate location at all times. The following year, a system was developed to allow for blind flying and blind landing where the pilot’s only frame of reference for his position came from indicators on his instrument panel showing his position as determined by signals from directional beacons. Then, in 1933, a system was developed to allow nongovernment craft lacking the equipment to use the beacon system to navigate based on the radio waves of broadcasting stations.


With industrial growth and standardization efforts in the 1920s, the Bureau became much more visible to the American public, with one result being that the Bureau was flooded with mail and requests ranging from the legitimate to the insane (such as a request for a pamphlet on what the average American should be or for a standard for what well-dressed person should wear and even advice on protection against radioactive dictagraphs that controlled people hypnotically). One of the most numerous requests was for the invention of a device to locate buried treasure. The Bureau created a form letter advising people to just dig by way of response to those requests.


The Bureau’s increased visibility also brought increased criticism. Opponents to the standardization crusade questioned what, if any, was the benefit to the general homeowner. The cost savings to industry were clear, but at the level of the individual consumer, such savings were not apparent. Part of the disconnect was that the Bureau did not explicitly distinguish between the “organized consumer” like the government or trade associations and the individual consumer, despite its genuine concern for the individual consumer and insistence that all of its research benefited the consumer by improving the quality of products offered to him.


So, while industry resent the government’s oversight into their products and practices by means of the Bureau and while consumers cried for still more oversight, the Great Depression hit, reducing Bureau resources that left both sides feeling even more discontent.


Among those to voice concerns about where the Bureau’s authority began or ended was the AESC (American Engineering Standards Committee) which had been created under the eye of the Bureau to deal specifically with industry standardization. When the Bureau then established a “trade standards division” in 1927 to unify the efforts of the Bureau and the AESC, the AESC bristled. Under the direction of a former Bureau member, the AESC became the American Standards Association (ASA) and formally requested that the Bureau cease commercial standardization activities. A rift between the two organizations ensued.


**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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