History of Force Measurement in the US – Part 6

In contrast to the unsuccessful magnetic testing discussed at the end of the last installment of this blog, the Bureau had tremendous successes as well. Among their most successful endeavors of the age was the work done on temperature-related issues especially the temperature scale and refrigeration constants. This work began in 1909 when the American Society of Refrigerating Engineers engaged the Bureau’s assistance in collecting data on refrigerants. The heat division then turned its attention to determining constants of gases, combustion points for different substances and so on. As a result of this work, the Bureau was able to fix new points on its standard temperature scale. With an appropriation from Congress in 1913, the Bureau resumed work on refrigeration, this time for large-scale machinery to be used for meat-packing and other cold storage plants. In addition to the study of the specific heats of ice and other refrigerants, the Bureau also investigated insulation and construction concerns related to this large-scale cooling.


Following the appropriation for refrigerant study, Congress approved the next year an appropriation for the study of fire-resistant building materials. Annual losses of life and property due to fire were 10 times higher in American than any country in Europe, according to studies. Even buildings that were declared to be “fire proof” often burned as completely as other buildings in the series of American city fires around the 1900s. As part of this investigation, Bureau engineers reviewed city building codes and found them to be filled with inaccurate data regarding the properties of building materials. For example, codes that claimed brick, mortar, plaster, cement and metal to be uniformly fire resistant did not include testing or data regarding the various compositions of these materials, nor did it consider their response to high temperatures such as would be encountered in a building fire. Soon the heat division of the Bureau had a new section devoted to fire-resistance. The Bureau constructed furnaces, buildings and all sorts of structures and then subjected them to fire testing. They even burned abandoned structures in downtown Washington as part of the research. Their efforts resulted in new standards provided to cities for civil engineering and work on fire-resistance continues at the Bureau to this day.


Throughout the course of its existence, the Bureau has sought to make its findings public knowledge for the good of the consumer. In its early days, this goal was accomplished by means of circulars which were printed and then made available for purchase (for a 10 cent fee) to the general public. When the Bureau published its lamp specifications as Circular 13 in 1907, the text was full of scientific terms and anonymous data that did not provide much information to help the consumer know which brand of lamp to purchase at their local store. This was also a problem with later publications on textiles, inks, soaps and other materials used by the average person in the course of their daily life, but the Bureau could not name specific brands without calling into question whether the data had been corrupted by the manufacturers in question.



In 1915, Circular 55 “Measurements for the household” was published. Its sales were more than 6 times higher than its bestselling predecessor and required multiple additional printings and a cheaper version printed on lesser-quality paper. Its success was due to the simple and accessible language used and its content treated household items such as scales, cooking measures and clocks. The Bureau continued to refrain from using brand names or pointing to specific manufactures, but in many cases, the data was presented in such a way that the consumer would infer those details.


The next effort made to the general public was the publication of Circular 70 “Materials for the household,” which was published in 1917. Not as popular as Circular 55, Circular 70 addressed concerns regarding materials used in the home, such as rubber, leather, stationary, building materials, fuels and cleansing agents. It was essentially the forebear of publications like Consumer Reports that American still consult today. Many household products still lacked standards of production or quality standards before they entered the marketplace, a fact recognized by the Bureau. As such, the Bureau made suggestions, where possible, of how to perform quality tests in the home, such as a test the average housewife could perform to determine the strength of thread. When no home test could be offered, the Bureau simply suggested buying from reputable sellers and taking into account the experiences and reviews of other consumers.


**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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