1898-1998 • A Century of Progress

ASTM in a Maturing Industrial Society

Chapter Two: Extending the Influence

ASTM Standards in New Industries


In the early 1920s, ASTM’s main activities still focused on the steel, railroad, and cement industries, and most of its members were based in the Northeastern part of the country. In the four decades after World War I, ASTM evolved into a truly national organization whose more than 100 technical committees formed an integral part of America’s maturing economic base, contributing to the rise of new industries in strategic areas such as highway transportation, petrochemicals, electronics, and aerospace technology, to name only a few. ASTM’s development from the 1920s to the 1960s helped facilitate the nation’s rise to economic and military superpower status.


The period between the two world wars witnessed a phenomenal growth of mass-production industries, which formed the backbone of American economic strength for decades to come. Mass production, which involved interchangeable parts and manufacturing methods based on the assembly-line system, had been pioneered by Eli Whitney in small arms manufacture, Isaac Singer in sewing machine production, and Henry Ford (who was a member of ASTM) in automobile production. In the 1920s, mass-production technologies fueled skyrocketing growth in other product lines as well, including appliances, telephones, rubber tires, chemicals, and electrical equipment. The principle of interchangeability, the linchpin of the mass-production system, confronted new-growth industries with major challenges because materials used in manufacturing processes had to conform to new standards of precision and uniformity.


To meet this challenge, leading manufacturers availed themselves of ASTM standards, which gained wide acceptance well beyond the steel industry. General Electric, for example, a pioneer in the use of ASTM standards in the electrical industry, required suppliers to adhere to ASTM’s new standard specifications for non-ferrous metals in the early 1920s. A GE official commented that the company bought many supplies “directly to A.S.T.M. specifications by title and designations. … Occasionally direct reference to A.S.T.M. standards is made even on drawings.” Like most manufacturers, GE also used ASTM standards as a basis for its own specifications. “In such cases quotations from the A.S.T.M.


standard are written [into the contract with the supplier] as freely as possible and the company’s standard differs from that of the Society mainly by additions rather than in technical detail.” The use of standard specifications reinforced GE’s status as one of the world’s leading producers of electrical equipment during the interwar period.


The automobile, another recent innovation that came into its own during the 1920s, also benefited from the widespread adoption of ASTM standards. In this era, leading car manufacturers like General Motors, Packard, Hudson, and Studebaker copied Henry Ford’s mass-production system, which depended on the uniformity of materials like steel, rubber, paint, and oil—all areas where ASTM’s technical committees launched a series of new activities. Committee D-11 on Rubber Products, for example, developed standards for testing the effect of vibration of rubber products used in automobile production, such as bumpers, engine supports, and universal joints in 1928. This initiative, which evolved in close coordination with the American Society of Automotive Engineers, was followed by a series of committee activities during the 1930s that resulted in 16 standards for testing the chemical properties, aging patterns, adhesion characteristics, hardness, and abrasive wear of vulcanized rubber. Most of them were quickly adopted by B. F. Goodrich (the pioneer of the modern rubber industry), Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Chrysler, and Firestone Tire & Rubber, whose representatives on ASTM’s D-11 had been instrumental in formulating the standards in the first place.


Road construction, another spin-off of the automobile revolution that forever changed the American landscape, triggered a range of ASTM activities during the interwar period. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 and the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided financial backing for turning many dirt tracks into concrete or asphalt roads, and for the construction of New York’s Bronx River Parkway, the nation’s first scenic highway. ASTM standards laid the groundwork for these vast civil engineering projects. Taking the lead role, Committee D-4 on Road and Paving Material coordinated its standards activities with the American Association of State Highway Officials, which adopted 70 standards for testing road materials in 1928. Twenty-three of them had been issued by D-4; another 16 were slightly modified versions of ASTM standards.


The automobile revolution triggered a virtual frenzy in bridge construction and led to some of the most spectacular engineering projects of the age. Several ASTM technical committees provided vital testing and materials specifications to support these efforts. The Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit—birthplace of the American automobile industry—with Windsor, Ontario, served as an example. This $23 million construction project, which was completed in 1929, produced the world’s longest suspension bridge. Probably unbeknownst to the 1.6 million drivers who crossed the Ambassador Bridge during its first year of operation, the majestic span was built according to ASTM standards for structural carbon and silicon steel, steel castings, cement, concrete, and paving blocks.


The New Deal Era


The Great Depression of the 1930s marked a difficult period as ASTM’s membership and income fell significantly for the first time in the organization’s history. To cope with the financial hardship, the leadership introduced austerity budgets and reduced the volume of technical papers presented in committees and at annual meetings. Despite cutbacks, technical papers remained one of ASTM’s most important vehicles to disseminate the results of cutting-edge research conducted by committee members within the engineering community.


The greatest worry of the Depression years was ASTM’s declining membership, a result of growing unemployment and tight budgets in industrial research. The Great Depression threatened the organization with “brain drain.” In 1934, ASTM declared that “the regaining of membership lost under the difficult times through which we have been passing is one of the basic problems that faces the Society today—not alone because of its financial aspects, important though they are, but from the viewpoint of building up the ‘manpower’ of the Society and extending still wider the influence of its work.” But the membership crisis reached its peak in the mid-1930s, and ASTM launched imaginative initiatives to deal with its budget problems. Most important, it introduced a new category of “sustaining members” aimed at major corporations that were willing to support ASTM with $100 in annual membership fees. By 1940, more than 100 companies with historic ties to the organization, such as International Harvester, Westinghouse, and Firestone, had joined the ranks of sustaining members.


Depression-related problems did not prevent new industries from availing themselves of ASTM’s consensus process. One of the most important new committees formed during the 1930s was D-20 on Plastics which evolved out of an ASTM symposium held in 1937. D-20 quickly evolved into one of the organization’s most active committees and included representatives of DuPont, General Electric’s plastics department, and other industry leaders.


Given ASTM’s long tradition of consensus building, it was no surprise that the organization was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic recovery programs, which encouraged private business to weather the Great Depression collectively and with government support. Major initiatives included the National Industrial Recovery Act, which introduced codes of fair practice in many industries, and the Public Works Act providing $3.3 billion for federally-funded employment programs. ASTM commented on the passage of this legislation in 1933 by stating that “codes of fair practice must in the last analysis be based on equitable standards, and the purchase of large quantities of construction materials for the public works program should, wherever possible, be based upon such standards. Moreover, there is immediately available in the Society the organization and experience to bring about the necessary cooperation between industries.” ASTM soon forged close ties with New Deal programs that introduced the principle of consensus-building in many Depression-stricken industries.


The engineering community, hard times notwithstanding, developed key innovations during the 1930s that revolutionized materials testing, still ASTM’s main field of activity. In 1932, scientists introduced the world’s first electron microscope, enabling researchers to study materials at a level of detail unimaginable only a few years before. An ASTM member who used the nation’s first commercially-produced electron microscope at Stanford Research Laboratories in 1940 to produce several thousand micrographs marveled, “objects commonly used were ‘seen’ for the first time.” This had immense benefits for ASTM committees that worked on high-performance test standards involving details as small as 40 angstroms in materials such as silicone, hydrocarbons, and metal alloys.


Radiography was another innovation that developed during the 1930s. First introduced after World War I, radiography found acceptance among metallurgists during the Depression decade, when several dozen welding shops introduced X-ray machines to inspect welds in high-pressure vessels. ASTM, the first engineering society to recognize the enormous potential of the new technology for test standards, held a symposium on radiography and X-ray differentiation methods in 1936, followed two years later by the formation of Committee E-7 on Radiographic Testing (today’s Committee E-7 on Nondestructive Testing). ASTM X-ray test standards were used by aircraft manufacturers who had recently introduced planes that flew at high altitudes, thus requiring welds that could withstand extreme changes in temperature and pressure.


Industrial Mobilization in World War II


The trends of the 1930s—advances in test methods, close cooperation between government and industry, and mass production techniques—converged during World War II, when ASTM joined the industrial mobilization effort. Its first major contribution was the publication of the Society’s most extensive Book of Standards, the three-volume 1942 books that made more than 1,000 standard specifications available to industry and government. Since more than half of these were purchase specifications, they could be written directly into tens of thousands of government contracts for war-essential materials. Existing ASTM standards also played an important role in the creation of an industrial base that was necessary to sustain the war effort. Major projects included a state-of-the-art aviation fuel plant built by the Sun Oil Company at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, whose builders used 50 ASTM standards for steel (including the venerable A 7 standard for structural steel).


The effectiveness of German submarine warfare triggered critical shortages in strategic materials imported from overseas, leading many ASTM committees to issue modifications to existing standards that enabled users to adapt to the national emergency. Faced with a severe shortage of tin, for example, a subcommittee of B-2, Non-Ferrous Metals and Alloys, issued a series of emergency modifications that reduced the amount of tin in a wide variety of alloys. The speedy passage of such emergency modifications preserved many ASTM standards for the war effort. Others had to be replaced to meet the challenges of materials shortages. Committee B-1 on Electrical Conductors wrote entirely new specifications to replace tin-wire covers with lead-coated ones. A good deal of wartime committee work involved highly sensitive material standards. ASTM distributed these standards to manufacturers hand-picked by the War Department, which kept a keen eye on plant security. Committee D-2 on Petroleum Products and Lubricants, for example, developed ES-45, an emergency standard for testing olefins and naphthenes in aviation fuel, early during the war, but it was not printed in ASTM’s Book of Standards. Like many wartime developments, ES-45 proved a major improvement over previous standards and found widespread acceptance in the industry once the government lifted security restrictions.


ASTM in the Postwar Economy


The relationship between ASTM, the federal government, and private industry remained vital throughout the postwar era, most obviously in defense procurement. Federal spending on conventional weaponry decreased significantly during the postwar years, partly because immediate military threats had ended with Japan’s surrender in August 1945, and partly because the Truman administration relied on the nation’s monopoly on nuclear weapons to deter long-term threats. But this trend reversed when Soviet expansionism into Eastern Europe and Russia’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal triggered the Cold War, leading to the largest peacetime military buildup in world history.


ASTM standards played a major role in this effort. Building on positive experiences in voluntary consensus standards development during World War II, the Pentagon began to depend more on major technical societies to provide the bulk of standards used in defense procurement. Congress supported this practice with the passage of the Defense Standardization Act of 1952, which mandated the simplification of military specifications and standards, and strongly encouraged the Army, Navy, and Air Force to use established specifications developed by ASTM and other organizations. As a result, government defense specifications contained extensive references to ASTM standards. For example, 60 percent of the test methods described in a military specification of the early 1950s covering lubricants and liquid fuels were virtually identical with ASTM standards and contained extensive references to the organization’s Book of Standards. Recognizing the outstanding work of veteran technical committees such as D-20, D-11, and B-4, the Department of Defense adopted ASTM standards for plastics, rubber, and electrical resistance in toto to replace military specs and standards.


But defense standards development remained a two-way street. Government defense laboratories, equipped with the latest research tools, produced high-performance test methods that were later adopted by ASTM. During the postwar era, a Navy research laboratory that operated X-ray testing equipment developed reference radiographs for the inspection of aluminum and magnesium castings. ASTM adopted this method and published it as standard E 98-53 T in its 1955 Book of Standards as a recommended practice. This made the results of defense-related research conducted by government scientists available to private inspection laboratories, foundries, and civilian consumers of high-end castings such as jetliner manufacturers.


ASTM was aware that the fit between defense and civilian standards was not always as seamless as in the example just described. More often than not, technical committees had to develop separate standards for a given material to meet the sharply divergent needs of the armed forces and commercial users. Aircraft engine manufacturers that switched from propeller to jet turbine technology during the late 1940s and early 1950s soon realized that commercial jetliners required vastly different fuel specifications than fighter jets. Military fuel standards, primarily designed for combat operations, anticipated a large variety of emergency situations and rarely considered cost issues. The latter was of course a key variable in commercial applications. A representative of the commercial aircraft industry therefore urged ASTM that “the objective must be a fuel specification which will be adequate and insure consistent power and safety and yet at the same time will not unduly limit the supply or cause too high a cost.” Close familiarity with the divergent needs of military and commercial end users was critical to successful fuel standards development in technical committees.


In the civilian sector, one of the most important developments that transformed American culture and society during the postwar years was the explosive growth of suburbs, another area in which ASTM standards played a key role. Building contractors and architects, applying mass-production techniques to home construction on a massive scale to build suburban complexes in eastern metropolitan regions, Southern California, and the Southern states, developed a keen interest in material standards for construction materials. ASTM had been active in developing these standards for decades.


The need for standards was particularly pressing in the South, where construction standards were poor or nonexistent prior to the 1950s. In that decade, a rapidly growing number of municipalities adopted the Southern Standard Building Code, which used ASTM standards throughout. This particularly enabled suburban developers in the South to venture into mass-produced housing because suppliers quickly standardized materials according to ASTM standard specifications for bricks, cement, gypsum, and lime.


ASTM’s structural steel specifications were applied in some of the most prestigious and demanding construction projects of the postwar era. Seattle’s Space Needle, a soaring 600-foot steel tower that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, featured three sets of tapered steel legs made according to Standard A 36. The standard described a new type of hardened carbon steel that could handle extreme design stresses. An ASTM publication reported that the Space Needle had “less than 3-inch maximum sway at the top; it is designed for heavy seismic loads and wind gusts. The greater strength of A 36 steel permitted higher design stresses, welded fabrication, and cost savings.”


On the Threshold of a New Era


In 1961, sixty years after the American Section had turned itself into the American Society for Testing Materials, the organization renamed itself once again and became the American Society for Testing and Materials. The conjugation emphasized that ASTM was devoted to the development of standard material specifications, not only standard test methods. Fortunately, the name change that reflected this broadening of activities over five decades did not require a new acronym, enabling ASTM to use its old and widely-recognized logo.


Internally, the Society had evolved from a handful of technical committees devoted to steel and cement standards into a fairly complex organization comprised of a management structure and more than 80 committees involved in a wide range of activities. After decades of sharing office space with other technical societies, ASTM finally moved into its own newly-built headquarters at 1916 Race Street, Philadelphia, in 1964. The building accommodated the organization’s staff that supported technical committees, edited the annual Book of Standards and ASTM’s member publications, organized meet-ings and symposia, and performed a variety of administrative functions.


ASTM, which did much to facilitate the phenomenal success of American industry during the postwar era, also shared some of the problems plaguing the nation’s businesses during the late 1960s. Not unlike many American corporations, it suffered from a lack of management expertise and accumulated considerable debts. These problems called for a strategic reconfiguration of the organization, a task that fell to William T. Cavanaugh, ASTM’s “second founder.”


On to Chapter Three