Standards make all the difference--right?
January 26, 2009 6:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking an example of how standardization on something has had a major impact to the world. Basically, because X became a standard, we now have Y. (Where X is something that was non-standard and Y is something better than what existed before X became a standard). I thought the standardization of screw threading might be a good one, but the wikipedia page makes it seem like it was a more gradual process (with various standards being made throughout time). Any better examples for my presentation?

Ideally the example would be something that most people could understand and appreciate.
posted by verevi to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Before timezones, every town had their own time--a guesstimate based on sun location. Without that, no internet, no automatic phone switching, none of that. National radio and TV would be impossible. Without standardized time sattelites wouldn't be able to synch with ground stations. Armies wouldn't move in such a coordinated manner. The number of applications of standardized time is just staggering.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:34 PM on January 26, 2009

How about Europe? First, the extension of the EEC/Common Market, the integration of economies, then, the European Community, and in 2009 potentially the EU proper.
Of course which end you define as "better" is always going to be a political question.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:35 PM on January 26, 2009

well, there's always microsoft.

and apparently, there's not the qwerty typewriter, which is a standard example and is wrong, according to the linked article.

and there's the vhs/betamax thing. but actually these are examples of standards being not so great, though having a huge impact.

people geekier than i can surely provide the internet examples, which make a better case.
posted by Maias at 6:37 PM on January 26, 2009

I'd go with the adoption of standard units of measurement.
posted by oddman at 6:43 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

how about railway guages?
posted by Redhush at 6:46 PM on January 26, 2009

Shipping containers!
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:48 PM on January 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it was on James Burke's Connections that he traced how railroad guages trace back to the standard width of cart wheels on Roman chariots.
posted by metahawk at 6:52 PM on January 26, 2009

I'm a little unclear on the question because there's a couple ways this could go. Does Y replace X, causing it not to exist anymore because of the Y standard; or, does X become more useful due to the emergence of the Y standard? Basically a question of where the quality lies, and whether X persists beyond and beside Y.

In the first case I'd use TCP/IP : Internet
Second case: Mouse : Mouse Wheel

A possibly interesting X-Y-Z tangent: Clamshell cellphones. Several years ago Motorola came out with the first flip phone with a flip-down mouthpiece (the old Star-Tac style). They got a patent on it which prevented anybody else from building a flip-phone like it. So what did the industry do? They started making flip-phones that did not have a flip-down mouthpiece: they had a flip-up earpiece.
posted by rhizome at 7:25 PM on January 26, 2009

I think this is the story about the railroad gauge.
I just found this rebuttal, so who knows?
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:31 PM on January 26, 2009

Response by poster: Rhizome, to clarify, I think shipping containers and time zones are in the vein of what I'm seeking. Basically, shipping containers existed in various forms. Once they became standardized in size (or whatever quality), then it lead to the establishment of new cities that would not have existed otherwise (or whatever the major impact is).

And thanks for the suggestions so far.. I'd love to see more thoughts on this. Thanks!
posted by verevi at 7:33 PM on January 26, 2009

I came to suggest the shipping container as an answer. Since someone already has, I'll instead suggest that you read this fascinating book about the history of the shipping container: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.
posted by decathecting at 8:25 PM on January 26, 2009

The international aviation of all commercial pilots knowing the English language.

Any commercial plane can have an approach to any airport. There's (theoretically) no chance to have a language problem.

Standard caliber bullets in the cold war NATO assault rifles all had one caliber and the Warsaw Pact had another (7.62 mm). Any dump could be a source of ammunition for any unit.

The institution of the General Staff in warfare. Invented by Prussia, it was an elite corps of centrally-trained officers who were sent out to "advise" field commanders on how to apply the leader's overall doctrine to the fight of the moment. All modern armies now use this system.

The standardization of close-order drill. Any commander can give a standardized command which every soldier knows and can execute.

Library cataloging data. The advent of standard MARC format centralized cataloging in libraries and made card catalogs (and many cataloggers) extinct.

Oh and uh, the Arabic Numbering system.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:32 PM on January 26, 2009

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 led to the standardization of fire hose couplings, which allows fire departments in different cities to help each other when a big fire breaks out. From the wiki:
One reason for the fire's duration was the lack of national standards in fire-fighting equipment. Although fire engines from nearby cities (such as Philadelphia and Washington, as well as units from New York City, Virginia, Wilmington, and Atlantic City) responded, many were useless because their hose couplings failed to fit Baltimore hydrants. High winds and freezing temperatures further contributed to both the severity of the fire and added difficulty for firefighters. As a result, the fire burned over 30 hours, destroying 1,545 buildings spanning 70 city blocks - amounting to over 140-acres.
posted by Wet Spot at 8:55 PM on January 26, 2009

shipping (cargo) containers / efficient international trade
DNS and root servers / email and the internet for non-wizards (no more bang paths)
indoor plumbing / less dysentery
unleaded gas (and a ban on leaded paints) / higher average IQs
fluoride in municipal water / better dental health
posted by zippy at 9:57 PM on January 26, 2009

I also was going to say shipping containers as they illustrate some neat points about standardization.

In some ways, shipping with shipping containers is almost certainly less efficient than traditional containerless shipping -- holds almost certainly end up with more empty space and less goods in them, which in theory is less efficient.


The massive efficiencies gained from being able to load and unload much, much, much more quickly because the hold is neatly stacked with containers of identical size instead of stuffed to the gills with stuff crammed in every which way, and the lower level of theft from having closed containers, completely swamp the lower packing efficiency.

And when they expanded into multimodal shipping so that you never had to unpack your container and load it into a trailer or boxcar, zowie.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:32 PM on January 26, 2009

posted by devnull at 1:47 AM on January 27, 2009

Well, there's the Panama canal. There's a whole class of freight ships called Panamax, which are the maximum size allowed to go through the Panama canal (anything bigger would have to sail all around South America). So the size of the Panama canal has impacted the size of freight ships.
posted by bjrn at 1:48 AM on January 27, 2009

Why does the fact that they evolved piecemeal make screw threading standards a bad example for your purposes? Is it that the story is too complex for your presentation? Are you specifically looking for standards that were imposed all at once by some sort of fiat?

There's no shortage of examples of benefits we reap from standardization, but I'm not understanding what qualities would distinguish a good/useful example from a bad one.
posted by jon1270 at 3:13 AM on January 27, 2009

posted by Kiwi at 5:34 AM on January 27, 2009

Ironmouth writes "Standard caliber bullets in the cold war NATO assault rifles all had one caliber and the Warsaw Pact had another (7.62 mm). Any dump could be a source of ammunition for any unit."

And Russian stuff is sometimes slightly larger than the standard. Mortars are like this: French 81mm and Russian 82mm. The design allows the Russians to use enemy mortar shells (with reduced accuracy) but not the other way around.
posted by Mitheral at 5:42 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: jon1270, the screw threading after further thought is a rather good example. I want to be able to say that the industrialization of the western world would not have occurred had Whitworth not created the standard when he did. (Or something equally as dramatic).

Thanks to everyone for their great suggestions.
posted by verevi at 6:41 AM on January 27, 2009

tcp/ip. pretty much rocks.
posted by zpousman at 8:37 AM on January 27, 2009

Stud frame housing and dimensional lumber in the US.

Up until the the end of the first World War there was practically no standardized size for the lumber used in construction. Most of the lumber was local sourced and there was significant regional variations in the sizes of the finished lumber. If you take a tree and make a wet board 2 by 4 inches, drying it and then planing it smooth will make it significantly smaller, usually about 1/32 inch per inch smaller. And different types of trees shrink at different rates, and it also depends on how dry they wanted the wood. Compounding this issue is that the saw-mills (chops the tree up into boards) and planer mill (makes it square and smooth) were often not located in the same place.

Starting in Chicago (supposedly) around the turn of the last century framed housing became a popular method of construction because it was inexpensive and quick, and remember Chicago's winters would have limited the construction season. The massive growth of the city (and others like it in the northern part of the US, including Buffalo, New York, Detroit) exhausted the local supply of lumber and these cities were massively importing lumber to support their huge expansions. The problem is that the local craftsmen were now getting wood from other areas that were the "wrong" or different sizes. The result was regional standards, but loose standards, with major differences between the west coast, north east, the south and North Carolina. Canada was also a major supplier and had similar regional variations. Remember, these regions often had different trees, contributing to the variation.

For example, in North Carolina, which was a lumber giant, a N. Carolina pine 2by4 was 1-3/4 x 3-3/4, while a west coast white pine would be 1-5/8 x 3-5/8 and a long leaf pine from Florida would be 1-5/8 x 3-5/8. Note: the modern standard is 1-1/2 x 3-1/2.

Greater standardization was clearly needed, as this would allow all of the other building materials to be standardized as well. Everything in a frame house is built around the stud walls, from the brackets, to the roof. Once the Panama Canal opened and west coast lumber was cheaply being transported to the east coast the issue became critical. Second World War comes and goes, still major regional differences and no national standardization.

Finally in the late 50's the US and Canada starts to move on a standard size for lumber. The Canadians choose the current standard nationally in 1961*, and as the largest single supplier of one standard of lumber it quickly became the dominant standard, except in the south, and most of the rest of the construction supplies market quickly followed in standardizing to the new dimensions. The current standard is for dressed (dry& planed) lumber, so it doesn't matter how much a particular tree may shrink.

The "small" 2 by 4 was chosen for a number of reasons, mostly because it was economical for the producers. It was often far easier to retrofit a sawmill to make a slightly smaller board, and often impossible to make such a system accommodate dimensions that are larger. If you ask a drywaller they will tell you the lumber is that size because once drywall is up then the wall is a full two inches (certainly not true - it doesn't particularly matter if your wall is a round number, well, maybe you care. Weirdo). Plus a "small" 2by4 is cheaper, and modern trees are smaller.

The benefit? Economies of scale. Wood can be sourced from anywhere on the continent, the construction workers can simply assemble the building, design can be built on uniform standards, building codes are simpler, etc. My rough estimation is that you would be able to buy a new car with the amount of cash saved from the lumber standard in the US and Canada. And if properly prepared and motivated, your house could be assembled in 6 weeks.

More early history here (pdf), written back in 64 when the US still didn't have a national standard and it was a hot fight.

*Changed slightly since then.
posted by zenon at 10:06 AM on January 27, 2009

posted by Good Brain at 10:24 AM on January 27, 2009

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