||The National Institute of Standards and Technology: 100 Years
NIST & ASTM Share a Century of Innovation
by James A. Thomas
The following is taken from a speech ASTM President James A. Thomas
delivered at the National Institute of Standards and Technologys
Centennial Symposium, Standards in the Global Economy: Past, Present,
and Future, in Gaithersburg, Md., on March 7.
This year we celebrate a momentous occasionthe centennial anniversary of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I have
been asked to speak about the standards partnership that exists
between NIST and ASTM and how that partnership has produced standards
for the public benefit. Without doubt, this is a fact. But the
history we share has much more to teach us than the fact that
we have been able to produce standards together. Governments and
private citizens produce standards together all over the world.
It is, rather, how we did it that is of note. The partnership
we are celebrating today is a microcosm, a snapshot of this countrys
history. It is the story of what set us apart from the rest of
the world, the story of how a government and its citizens came
to share a common purpose and achieve a common goal in an atmosphere
of equanimity and balance.
This partnership is a model for governments and private institutions
everywhere, a model in which we can take pride, one that has proven,
time and again, what great strides in progress can be made when
public and private institutions are willing to abandon traditional
roles and old ideas. Our partnership has refuted the idea that
public and private institutions are destined to be defined by
authority and mutual mistrust.
A Century Ago
At the turn of the last century, when ASTM and NIST came on to
the American scene, we were a nation on the move. Literally. We
were building the great railroads. Steel producers worked night
and day to fill the ever-increasing demands of the burgeoning
railroad system, making the United States the most prolific steel
producer in the world. In the midst of this unprecedented boom,
we hit a wall: train derailments. Broken rails, broken wheels,
and broken flanges and axles began to take a terrible toll on
American lives and the American economy. Desperate railroad companies
began to import their rails from Great Britain.
In 1898, 70 members of a new association, the American Chapter
of the International Association for Testing Materials, met in
Philadelphia to discuss the prospects of organizing committees
of companies and customers to develop testing methods for iron,
steel, and other materials. Three years later, the U.S. Congress
chartered the first physical science laboratory of the federal
government, the National Bureau of Standards. By 1912, NBS was
performing materials research on the iron and steel constituents
of the railroad industry, research that advanced and enhanced
the specifications that had been developed by the steel companies
and the railroad companies in what was now ASTM. American railroads
began to be reliable and safe again; and a unique partnership
had been forged. Almost 100 years later, this partnership is stronger
When we consulted ASTMs membership roster last week, we counted
194 NIST scientists among its ranks. NISTs Annual Report to OMB
reported that in the period October 1998 to September 1999, NIST
scientists held 572 ASTM committee memberships, an astonishing
number that far surpassed any like number related to any other
private standards developing organization. At a time when there
is a general government agency decline in participation in standards
activities, these statistics represent the commitment of NIST
to our partnership, and to the work of producing standards for
While this number is important, we can only use it to measure
units of activity. There is no method yet devised, however, whereby
we can measure the talent and dedication NIST scientists bring
to the work of ASTM. To our NIST technical partners therefore,
I can only extend my deepest gratitude and thanks.
It was during Dr. Louis M. Branscombs term as NIST director,
in the 1970s, that NBS made some very important decisions, decisions
that more clearly articulated the relationship between us, decisions
that brought all of us into a more enlightened age. It was during
this time that NBS shifted many of its voluntary standards program
activities to private sector organizations, opting not to compete,
but to supplement private sector programs. It was also during
the 70s that NBS decided to become more active in voluntary standardization
activities at the policy level, a decision ASTM welcomed wholeheartedly.
Soon thereafter, NBS was represented on ASTMs Board of Directors.
Some of you will remember names like John Hoffman, Karl Willenbrock,
Emmanuel Horowitz, and Bill Andrus, all distinguished NIST scientists
and administrators, all ASTM Board members. Dr. Branscombs foresight
changed both our institutions and deepened our relationship in
a very meaningful way.
The immediate past director of NIST, Raymond Kammer, is also a
former member of the ASTM Board of Directors. His service, not
only to ASTM, but to our entire community, came at a time when
standards development was coming to be recognized by policy makers
and industrial leaders as a critical element in the globalization
of industry and international trade. We had no national standards
strategy to help us cope with our changing world. At an American
National Standards Institute board meeting, Ray challenged us
to develop one. Rays instincts, insights, and guidance have been
invaluable to ASTM, and his involvement with the voluntary standards
system in this country is very deeply appreciated.
In 1993, during my first full year as president of ASTM, I had
the pleasure of partnering with a NIST scientist named Nancy Trahey.
At that time, she was chairman of the ASTM Board, and the second
woman in ASTMs history ever to be elected to the chair. She was
an outstanding chair and remains a great friend. ASTM was the
clear beneficiary of her steady, skilful leadership.
NIST members have brought to our process everything from measurement
infrastructures and basic research to the management of the battlefields
for economic competitiveness, to quote Ray Kammer. Dr. Belinda
Collins, whose hard work and dedication I wish also to acknowledge,
has been a partner who has shouldered some of the heaviest burdens
and most difficult challenges of our day, not the least of which
was the development of the National Standards Strategy.
Time will not permit me to describe the range and depth of our
partnership, which goes far beyond the development of standards,
but I will mention three outstanding collaborative efforts:
w Our Cement and Concrete Reference Laboratory partnership, started
in 1929, a Research Associate Program in which the manager is
an AASHTO/ASTM em-ployee and the rest of the staff is employed
Our Standard Reference Materials partnership, another Research
Associate Program begun in 1976 to provide standard reference
materials for the nations metals industry. It now includes glass
and fine particle metrology and is managed by our past Chairman
of the Board Nancy Trahey.
Our grants and contracts program that has served to accelerate
standards development and the transfer of technology to the marketplace
through the resulting standards.
These collaborations are all success stories whose implications
and effects have been felt worldwide.
NIST and ASTM have shared in the outreach to developing countries,
co-hosting delegations from around the world. ASTMs Washington
representative, Helen Delaney, became the NIST standards attaché
to the U.S. Mission to the European Union. ASTM has appeared before
Congressional committees and testified time and again in support
of funding for NISTan act of partnership we will repeat whenever
given the opportunity. Together we have supported the implementation
of the OMB Circular A-119 and the National Technology Transfer
and Advancement Act, instruments that have brought us closer together,
that have enhanced and strengthened our partnership.
Accomplishing Our MissionGood Standards
No other country in the world, even the most democratized, has
a standards infrastructure that is built on our concept of government/private
sector partnership. Our system has often made it difficult for
us to fit into a world where standards systems are characterized
more by legislative or authoritative involvement than by an equal
partnership where government is part of the process. However,
one has only to look around to see what this partnership for the
public benefit has produced: standards that have seen us successfully
through two world wars, that have restored and sustained our environment,
that reflect unhampered invention and innovation, and that make
our products household names around the globestandards of inimitable
quality and relevance. Our standards are the measurement of unprecedented
prosperity, levels of health and safety, and a quality of life
that is unparalleled anywhere. Our standards are the irrefutable
result of our way of life, and our partnership.
And so, on this important day, at the dawn of your second century,
I bring you ASTMs best wishes. When our railroads needed us,
we were there. We set our sights on their survival and success;
and the public benefited. Our country benefited. The goal we set
out to achieve 100 years agoto promulgate valid and accurate
standards, standards that would promote trade, increase the quality
of life for our citizens, and measure the best of who we are as
a nationis as valid and viable as it was then. May it continue
as the basis of our partnership for the next 100 years.
Happy anniversary. //
Copyright 2001, ASTM