Monday, July 09, 2007

Standards Bodies: AASM, NBS, etc.

I'm getting dogged by the Association of American Steel Manufacturers. How can an organization--particularly one that apparently had an early hand in standardizing steel shapes--just disappear? I've had to go digging. All that I know is that the shape of the I-beam standardized around 1896.

Here are some of the few facts that I've able to glean:

1. A New York Times article noted on June 1 1939: "Research in steel technology conducted by the Association of American Steel Manufacturers Technical Committees, with headquarters in Pittsburgh, is to be transferred to the Technical Committees of American Iron and Steel Institute, effective today." (p.43) The offices of the AASM closed on that day. So at least I have an end date. What about a start date?
2. The Washington Post may be able to add some details. On Jan 19 1896 (p.6), it noted that the Board of Supervising Inspectors of Steam Vessels petitioned the AASM to amend the rules and methods for testing plate. They wanted tensile strength to be limited to 60 kips, instead of 70 or 80. They also wanted a test to limit phosphorus and sulfur.

Google Books has a very intriguing collection of books that mention some to the AASM standards. Many of them are in the public domain. But of course Google only wants to give me snippet view...

The Universal Library also has some interesting leads. The "Cyclopedia of Civil Engineering v.3," (1919) for example, discuses "standard sections" for steel construction: "The shapes in common use conform to the standards of the Association of American Steel Manufacturers. These standard shapes as made by the various manufacturers are identical in dimensions and weights; therefore, in designing, it is only necessary to specify the sections and not the name of the manufacturer." (p.25)

A book by Harry Huse Campbell called "The manufacture and properties of iron and steel" (1907) also sheds some light on the AASM, and the specification process in general:

"It is the custom for engineers to specify the kind of steel they wish, and what the physical requirements shall be. It sometimes happens that the engineer does not understand all about the different kinds of steel and does not know what elongation and reduction of area should be obtained in each case. He often takes the first specification he finds and adds to it some special idea which has been impressed upon his mind. There are many such specifications used by engineers. Some of the are out of date, but hold their place because the longer they have been in use the more reverence they receive from certain people, and the more proud of his work is the author. His name attached to a set of specifications is a constant advertisement, and arouses a pardonable feeling of self-satisfaction. They conditions, however, do not serve scientific progress.

In 1895 the Association of American Steel Manufacturers adopted a set of specifications, and although it was claimed that it was the place of the manufacturers to do this, yet the users of structural material eagerly grasped these specifications as filling a long-felt want, and they are the basis of business to-day. There are two facts which may well be kept in mind:

First: The steel manufacturers in session assembled may be supposed to know something about steel.
Second: It is not for their interest to advocate a bad material. It might be for the interest of one of them to pass a bad lot of steel on a single contract, but as a whole they have no incentive to plead the cause of something they think is bad.

The steel makers are not a unit in all matters, but they agree in some things." (p.46)

The author then goes on to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of acid and basic steel and notes that the issues is soon to be put to rest by American Society for Testing Materials. The ASTM was essentially organized by the Pennsylvania Railroad (Knoedler, 1993). At the time, there was considerable tension between steel producers and steel consumers. Consumers tended to create very onerous specifications (occasionally including obscure and novel testing criteria) that the producers felt free to ignore. This tension emerged in a debate about the responsibility for broken rails. Railroads--the primary steel consumer--felt that the producers were at fault while the producers blamed the railroads and their increased wheel weights. This impasse was broken with the formation of the ASTM. It was originally established as the American division of the IATM in 1898 and evolved into the ASTM in 1902. Knoedler claims that its early role was as a consumer bloc. As such, it had two goals: to establish appropriate tests and to create standards that were mutually agreeable to both consumers and producers. Steel and iron were particularly important and the ASTM acted quickly to establish standards for structural steel, steel bars, steel axles, forgings, and castings. Standards such as ASTM A46 and ASTM A709 were particularly important.

ASTM wasnt' the only standards organization on the street. There was also the National Bureau of Standards. The NBS was founded in 1901. It was preceded by the Office of Weights and Measures of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. An explanation of this rather odd origin will require a different entry on the history of U.S. measurements. The NBS became the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988. Before the NBS there was considerable consternation with standards. Powell (2005) describes some of the problems experienced by manufacturers: lawsuits over electricity voltage, components that didn't match, and the Navy's need to send instruments to Europe for calibration. The federal government spent less than $11,000 on standardization. In 1900, the National Academy of Sciences resolved to endorse "a national bureau for the standardization of scientific apparatus." (Haseltine, 1953, p.295). When the NBS was established, it inherited only two standards. Ironically, they were the kg and the meter. The purpose of the NBS, as stated in its charters was to:

"Sec. 2. That the functions of the bureau shall consist in the custody of standards; the comparison of the standards used in scientific investigations, engineering, manufacturing, commerce, and educational institutions with the standards adopted or recognized by the Government; the construction, when necessary, of standards, their multiples and subdivisions; the testing and calibration of standard measuring apparatus; the solution of problems which arise in connection with standards; the determination 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." (p.297)

The NBS emerged at the same time as a number of professional organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (spring of 1880) and the American Institute of Electrical [and Electronics] Engineers in 1884. In addition to creating standards, the NBS also issued "standard samples," notably a collection from the American Foundrymen's Association in 1905 and a collection of 17 types of steel for the AASM in 1906.


Haseltine, Nate. 1953. The national bureau of standards. The Scientific Monthly. 77(6): 295-301.

Knoedler, Janet T. (1993). Market structure, industrial research, and consumers of innovation: Forging backward linkages to research in turn-of-the-century U.S. steel industry. The Business History Review. 67(1), 98-139.

Powell, Evelyn Constance. 2005. The history and resources of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Science & Technology Libraries. 25(3),5-20.


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