1898-1998 • A Century of Progress

Early Standards Development and the Origins of ASTM

Chapter One: A Broader View

Standard Specifications: A Novelty in American Industry


One of the first materials specifications is found in the Book of Genesis: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.” Prior to the 19th century industrial revolution, craftsmen told their suppliers in similarly basic language what kinds of materials they desired. Shipwrights preparing to build a sturdy vessel usually ordered live oak, the toughest hardwood available in Europe and North America, rather than softer white oak, because they knew from experience that live oak was more durable. Craft experience was indeed key because artisans had no instruments to measure the tensile strength, chemical composition, and other characteristics of a given material.


The industrial revolution opened a new chapter in the history of material specifications. Locomotive builders, steel rail producers, and steam engine builders who used revolutionary new materials such as Bessemer steel could no longer rely on craft experiences of centuries past. The new materials and techniques invented during this period required new technical expertise. Moreover, manufacturers encountered numerous quality problems in end products such as steel rails because suppliers furnished inferior materials. American rails were so poorly-made, in fact, that many railroad companies preferred British imports, which were more expensive but reliable.


To avoid such problems, some manufacturers issued detailed descriptions of material to ensure that their supplies met certain quality standards. For example, when a federal arsenal ordered gun steel from a steel mill, the contract included several pages of specifications detailing chemical composition and physical characteristics. The federal government also asked the steel makers to take a sample from each steel batch which was then subjected to a few simple tests determining its tensile strength and elasticity. To perform quality checks, American steel companies used new testing equipment such as the Riehle steel tester or a version of Tinius Olsen’s Little Giant, which were used to determine tensile strength.


Resistance to Standards


Progress was nevertheless slow. Suppliers in many industries such as construction and metallurgy objected to standard material specifications and testing procedures because they feared that strict quality controls would make customers more inclined to reject items and default on contracts. Even in iron and steel, where quality definitions and standards made greater headway than in other industries, material specifications remained controversial. The ones that existed were highly customized and applied only to a specific order. Industrywide standard specifications were unheard of, making life difficult for large buyers. Without standard specifications, and with each mill following its own material testing procedures, buyers of industrial products were unable to ensure uniformity and frequently found reason to complain about the uneven quality of steel rails for railroads.


The Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation of the 19th century, played a key role in the quest for standard specifications. Its efforts in this field were initiated by Charles Dudley, who received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1874, and who later became the driving force behind ASTM. Dudley organized the railroad’s new chemistry department, where he investigated the technical properties of oil, paint, steel, and other materials the Pennsylvania Railroad bought in large quantities. Based on his research, Dudley issued standard material specifications for the company’s suppliers.


Dudley soon realized that he had taken on a formidable task. In 1878, he published his first major report, “The Chemical Composition and Physical Properties of Steel Rails,” in which he analyzed the durability of different types of steel rails. It concluded that mild steel produced a longer-lasting rail than hard steel, and Dudley recommended an improved formula for mild steel for rails to be used by the Pennsylvania. His report raised a firestorm among steel masters, who disputed its findings. The application of Dudley’s new formula, they charged, produced unnecessary expenses that increased production costs. Steel producers, determined to keep full control over output and quality control, viewed standard specifications issued by their customers as unacceptable meddling. Dudley later reported that steel companies often told the railroads that “if they did not take the rails offered [by the manufacturers], they would not get any.”


The disappointing response to his first report reinforced Dudley’s resolve to initiate a constructive dialogue between suppliers and their customers. Each party had much to learn from the other. Steel makers knew more about practical production issues and the industry’s cost structure than their customers, while railroads, locomotive builders, and other users of steel products had better knowledge of a material’s long-term performance, knowledge that could help manufacturers improve the quality of rails, plates, and beams. Dudley concluded that “a good specification needs both the knowledge of the product’s behavior during manufacture and knowledge of those who know its behavior while in service.”


The introduction of more powerful locomotives, heavier rolling stock, and longer trains gave buyers an additional incentive to work more closely with their suppliers. Statistics compiled by railroad engineers indicated that the average wheel load of cars increased 75%, and traffic volume rose more than 300% during the late 19th century. Rail manufacturers needed this kind of data to supply steel that conformed to higher performance standards. But the lack of cooperation between producers and users of steel rails was an enormous detriment to such improvements.


The Birth of Consensus


Dudley’s efforts to find a solution to these seemingly intractable problems facilitated the formation of ASTM, which was committed to building a consensus on standards for industrial materials. The founding of the organization in 1898 was preceded by several key initiatives that laid the groundwork.


Dudley, whose experiences during the 1880s gave him a better picture of the antagonistic attitudes that marred relationships between the Pennsylvania Railroad and its suppliers, proposed an innovative system of technical committees. These committees provided representatives of the main parties with a forum to discuss every aspect of specifications and testing procedures for a given material. The goal was to reach a consensus that was acceptable to both producers and to the customer, i.e., the railroad. Although many initial meetings ended in failure due to the inflexibility of the parties involved, Dudley’s system held considerable promise and later formed the basis for ASTM’s committee structure.


Dudley’s call for consensus building, which he articulated in meetings of the American Chemical Society and the International Railway Congress, fell on fertile ground in the engineering community.


His ideas contributed to the formation of the International Association for Testing Materials (IATM), which organized working committees to discuss testing methods for iron, steel, and other materials.


In its by-laws, the organization dedicated itself to “the development and unification of standard methods of testing; the examination of technically important properties of materials of construction and other materials of practical value, and also to the perfection of apparatus used for this purpose.”


The International Association encouraged members to form national chapters. On June 16, 1898, seventy IATM members met in Philadelphia to form the American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials. The members grappled with two questions that were widely discussed throughout the engineering community at the turn of the century. First, how could standards for materials contribute to industrial progress? And second, how could producers and users of industrial materials reach a consensus on standards? ASTM’s early history was in large part a quest to find answers to these pivotal questions.


The American Section’s first technical committee on steel initiated a series of discussions of testing and material standards for the railroad industry, where most of its members were employed. During the first two years, the committee drafted specifications for steel used in buildings, boiler plate, and bridges. One of the first standard specifications in the history of the organization, “Structural Steel for Bridges,” was approved by the committee and submitted to all members for a final ballot vote at the annual meeting in 1901.


This specification, like its successors, was not set in stone. The organization acknowledged that “it is thoroughly appreciated that in the rapid advances made in the process of manufacture, and the increased demands made by the Engineers in their Specifications, that no Standard Specification can be in force for a long time. It will of necessity have to be modified from time to time.” Indeed, the above mentioned steel standard, which was later classified as ASTM’s Standard Specification A 7, soon underwent a series of thorough revisions. It was widely used by large engineering companies that ordered steel for bridge construction projects during the 1920s and 1930s. The standard finally was discontinued after a long and useful life in 1967, when Committee A-1 reported that “almost no structural steel shapes have been purchased to A 7 for some time.”


The steel committee’s early work attracted widespread attention in the engineering community and helped the American Section increase its membership from 70 to 168 during its first three years. But the organization’s plan to increase membership on the steel committee was vetoed by the International Association, which was determined to maintain extensive control of its national chapters and restrict committee memberships. The resulting conflict, combined with other disagreements, convinced Dudley and other American members that they had to strike out on their own. At the fifth annual meeting of the American Section in 1902, they renamed the organization the American Society for Testing Materials and elected Dudley as its first president.


ASTM developed what Dudley called a “broader view” of standards issues than the International Association for Testing Materials. IATM educated its members on testing procedures and the technical properties of a given material, but left the actual writing of standard specifications to unaffiliated engineers’ societies. ASTM, in Dudley’s words, intended to go “a step farther, and [put] its accumulated information with its recommendations into definite and serviceable shape.” As the steel committee’s early work indicated, ASTM wanted to write standard specifications that were directly applicable in production processes.


ASTM was not the only organization dedicated to standards development. Well-established technical associations, including the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, formed technical committees that drafted standard specifications for the iron and steel industry. The federal government, responding to the pressing need for standards in many industries, established the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in 1901. Manufacturers and engineers, however, resisted NBS’s plans to duplicate European practices in which government standard bureaus had authority to write specifications and force industry to adopt them. The result was a uniquely American system in which professional organizations such as ASTM played a key role in voluntary standards development.


During the early years, ASTM refined its consensus-building process. The key was balanced representation of producers and users of materials in technical committees. To allay old fears that producers would dominate the standard-setting process, ASTM’s rules stipulated that supplier representatives on a given committee could not outnumber the representatives of buyers, and that supplier representatives could not serve as committee chairmen. Moreover, the “Procedures Governing the Adoption of Standard Specifications” adopted in 1908, required that once technical committee members had drafted a specification, a two-thirds majority was necessary to refer it to ASTM’s annual meeting for consideration. At the annual meeting, a simple majority of members could amend the specification, which was finally presented to the meeting for a ballot vote. Negative votes carried considerable weight and were referred to the committee, whose members discussed them and tried to resolve differences. Negative votes that remained unreconciled could be overruled by the committee for good cause. This basic structure of checks and balances, designed to ensure fairness in the standards-setting process, proved highly effective and remains essentially in place to this day.


Most members of ASTM’s technical committees were scientists and engineers who were employed by some of the nation’s leading industrial enterprises and the federal government. A-1 on Steel, which together with its subcommittees remained ASTM’s core committee for decades, included metallurgists, chemists, railroad engineers, and naval architects. The producer side was represented by the industry giants—U. S. Steel, Bethlehem, and Midvale—and smaller specialty firms such as Jones & Laughlin, then a proprietary steel company in Pittsburgh that later joined the ranks of the nation’s leading steel producers. They were joined by a second group, variably categorized as “non-producers” and “consumers” (the latter term usually meant “end user,” not “consumer” in our contemporary sense of the word) that purchased a given material. On the A-1 committee, they included engineers and scientists who represented the New York Central Railroad, General Electric, the U. S. Navy’s Bureau of Steam Engineering, and other steel “consumers.”


Expanding the scope of ASTM


After the turn of the century, ASTM formed several new committees that expanded the organization’s scope beyond the steel industry and responded to the growing need for standards in many areas. Committee C-1 on Cement, Lime and Clay Products, for example, founded in 1902, played a key role in standardizing test methods in the cement and concrete sector.


The American cement industry, which traces its origins to the 1870s when David Saylor received the first U.S. patent for portland cement, underwent a major growth cycle during the late 19th century, when an urban construction boom generated strong demand for this versatile material. The first concrete road was built in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1891, followed by the first concrete high rise in Cincinnati in 1903. Despite its remarkable success, however, the cement industry suffered from a lack of basic standards that defined the material’s chemical composition and performance, leading to conflicts between manufacturers and their customers in the construction industry that resembled disagreements between steel makers and users. Prior to 1900, there was no consensus on the exact ratio of stone, silica, iron, and aluminum in portland cement, or on simple properties such as tensile and compressive strength. As a result, construction companies often received cement that was unsuitable for a given project because it did not meet performance requirements.


The work of Committee C-1 was part of industry-wide efforts to develop uniform test methods. The committee defined basic testing procedures to measure tensile strength seven and twenty-eight days after the pour, researched the weather resistance of various cement formulas, and developed compression test standards that were widely adopted across the industry. During later years, committee members supported the formation of the Cement Reference Laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards, which standardized cement testing equipment used in research laboratories.


ASTM published each standard specification only once until 1910, when it introduced a yearbook which later became the world-renowned Annual Book of ASTM Standards. This publication constituted a major improvement; each volume made the entire set of existing, revised, and new ASTM standard specifications available to members on an annual basis. Membership rose to 1,687 in 1914, nearly a tenfold increase from 1902.


World War I marked another watershed in the history of standard specifications. Many steel mills and cement plants that had traditionally supplied commercial materials now geared up for military production—foreign territory to most civilian manufacturers. Standard specifications greatly facilitated this conversion. ASTM specifications, for example, provided rolling mills with detailed technical information that was necessary to produce steel plates for tanks and ships. Cement producers used standard specifications to supply concrete for massive fortress construction projects on the Western Front. A senior military officer later recalled that “a big job was done, and done well, because of a U.S. industry that performed to the standards set largely by ASTM.”


ASTM, firmly committed to the concept of consensus building, played a vital role in resolving conflicts among different parties involved in wartime standard-setting. Corporations, trade associations, and engineering societies often worked on the same standard problem without knowing about each other’s work and produced overlapping and conflicting specifications. To streamline the process, ASTM, other professional organizations, and the U.S. departments for commerce, war, and the navy established the American Engineering Standards Committee in 1918. This committee, which was established to coordinate and review standards work in American industry, remained active after the war and was later renamed the American Standards Association and then the American National Standards Institute.


By the end of World War I, ASTM had found answers to the two major questions that had preoccupied the organization’s founders in 1898. How could standards development contribute to industrial progress? ASTM’s work in the steel and concrete sectors demonstrated that standard specifications for testing and materials enabled producers and consumers to exploit the vast potentials of new industrial materials. Practical benefits included more uniform quality and greater predictability of a given material’s performance, which in turn enabled end users to improve their safety record, particularly in railroad transportation. On the producer side, standard specifications improved quality and the competitiveness of the nation’s steel industry, reflected in a sharp decline of American rail imports from Britain.


The second major question originally raised by the organization’s founders—defining the parameters of an effective consensus-building process—was developed through several years of hard work. Careful reviews of procedures that guided ASTM’s early technical committees finally resulted in the adoption of the “Procedures Governing the Adoption of Standard Specifications” in 1908, a milestone in the organization’s history. Equipped with an effective concept for consensus-building through technical committee work, ASTM soon ventured beyond the steel, cement and other industries involved in the railroad sector and developed standard specifications on the cutting edge of American industrial development.


On to Chapter Two