The Role and Historical Development of Standards

Senior Fellow, RIETI

Give the officials a standard weight made of copper and have them inspect the weights used in the city.
      —The Yoro Ritsuryo (Ryonogige
, Article 30) (Note 1)

1. Introduction

This article provides a historical overview of the practical role of standardization. In addition, the history of the management theory related to standardization is discussed. The purpose of this article is to provide information on the history and background of standardization to readers who are involved in standardization policy planning and academic research.

2. Standardization in History

The history of technical standards is closely related to the history of humankind. Historically, standards have been used as a way for nations to govern their people and territories. Unifying the basic rules of society as standards has been the basis for unified nations and the creation of markets. For example, the first emperor of China (during the Qin Dynasty) unified the ancient kingdoms across the Chinese continent. After unification, the system of weights and measures was unified as a standard during the Qin Dynasty. The unification of this system is said to have formed the foundation of modern China.

In the twenty-sixth year of his reign, the First Emperor unified the ancient Chinese region at every turn, and the lords and people were greatly at peace. He was named "Emperor." Then, he issued an imperial edict to the Prime Minister to unify the system of weights and measures and to clarify all doubtful measurement matters.
—Qin Shi Huang's labeling passages for proofing weight and measurement standards (Note 2)

On the other hand, in the Middle Ages in Europe, there was no unified standard for measuring length, currency, or weight. For example, in the Baden region of today's Germany, there were 122 methods of measurement for length alone. For weight, 80 methods of measurement were in use [1]. In other words, a uniform standard was not well established in the European Middle Ages. This absence may be the cause of the divisions that exist within the present continent of Europe, which is divided into many nations. The absence of unified social rules leads to a fragmented market. This fragmented market hindered the activities of merchants and negatively impacted economic activities. Historically, the establishment and stipulation of standards has had a profound impact on economic activities.

3. Historical Management Theories and Practices Related to Standards

In classical management theory, technical standards themselves are rarely discussed as a central theme; one example is Taylor's Scientific Management Method (1911), which describes the role of technical standards in production process control in the United States in the early 20th century [2][3]. Other examples can be seen in the 19th century in the U.S. from the perspective of product design regarding the commonality of parts for firearms.

3.1. Production Process

Taylor's idea is to increase the efficiency of production regardless of differences in individual worker's abilities. The proposed scientific management method argues that setting up objective working procedures is important for maintaining and improving a factory's productivity. In this context, standardization of tools used by factory workers is mentioned [2]. The idea of standardizing workers' behavior in a factory evolved into the subsequent mass production system (Ford system). In today's language, it can be said that Taylor was involved in process innovation using technological standards (Note 3).

3.2. Product Design

The interchangeable parts in the manufacture of firearms can be taken as a classic example of standardization efforts in product design as product innovation. This effort by John H. Hall, Simon North, and Roswell Lee in the 19th century U.S. is considered an early example of their contributions to standardization in the product design field [4][5].

Their efforts contributed to the establishment of the "American manufacturing system" characterized by interchangeability and mechanization [4]. Before this, there were variations in the parts used for the same product, making interchangeability and mass production impossible (Note 4). This case is also a well-documented historical effort in which a management study was conducted on the impact of standardization on production costs. Earlier, John H. Hall complained that since government contracts are limited to 1,000 rifles per year, production costs are higher than they would be for producing larger quantities [6]. This record implies that the production costs of using interchangeable parts were known in that period [6].

This effort has subsequently evolved into the idea of commonality of parts between different product models and between different generations of the same product. The commonality of parts reduces the need to redesign all parts, shortens product development time, and creates the advantage of eliminating changes in the production process. Factory production personnel can apply their previously-acquired product manufacturing skills to new products, production efficiency decreases can be avoided, and manufacturing costs can be curbed.

The theory of skill learning, known today as the S-curve, was applied for practical purposes. Such management and economic theories that are considered to have been established in recent years have in fact been put into practice for an unexpectedly long time (Note 5).

4. Modern Role of Standards

It is important to note that in the standardization for parts commonization mentioned above, the maintenance of calibration standards was probably meant as a standardization activity [5]. The management of calibration standards plays an essential role in the control of product accuracy. However, this activity aimed at ensuring product accuracy is very different from today's standardization concept, which is the specification of technology that enables network construction. This transition is a point that should be fully recognized today when conducting policymaking and research.

The importance of standardization today is due to the resulting network effects consisting of direct and indirect benefits. The direct network effect arises from the fact that the adopters of a technology (i.e., goods and services) can communicate mutually by using the same technology together. Indirect benefits come from the fact that the more people who adopt a technology, the more the technology will be continuously used [7]. These direct and indirect benefits are the reason behind the importance of technology standardization in today's product development.

5. Conclusion

In this article, the changing role of standards has been discussed from a historical perspective, citing academic theory and practical examples. Even readers who are aware of the importance of standards in today's society run by information and communications may be surprised to learn how old the history of standardization is. Also, many readers may be surprised to learn that standardization played a major role in introducing the U.S. production system in the 19th century.

These historical roles of standardization are rarely described comprehensively from a management history perspective. This is because the concept of technical standards was not necessarily recognized as a central research or policy theme in the past. Moreover, as described in this article, it is because of the historical background in which calibration standards and other standardization concepts have not been clearly and separately discussed. Understanding the historical role and background of standardization as described in this article can lead to a clear understanding of how the current situation surrounding standards differs, which will help to go into new related research activities and policymaking.


This article's research was supported by JSPS Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (19K01827: PI Suguru Tamura).
Note: "Research funded by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research is conducted with the awareness and responsibility of the researcher. Therefore, the conduct of the research and the publication of the research results are not based on government requests or any other such requests, and the views and responsibilities regarding the research results belong to the individual researcher."
(Handbook on Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research Program (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) (in Japanese))

April 6, 2021
  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ See [3] for details.
  4. ^ This initiative has enabled soldiers to replace broken parts on the battlefield, allowing for faster weapon repairs [4].
  5. ^ The S-curve can be said to be a concept that can be derived from general observations. This is because the trajectory of change resembles an S-shaped curve, where efforts for a certain amount of time start to lead to results, and after a while, they come to a head.
  6. The contents of this article correspond to the policy content of Chapter 2.1.(6), "Promotion of research and development and social implementation and utilization of comprehensive knowledge to solve various social issues" of the Sixth Science, Technology and Innovation Basic Plan (FY2021-2025) [8].
  7. The contents of this article are cited in the following:
    Tamura, S. (2021). The Role and Historical Development of Standards. RIETI Column
  8. Contact information
  • [1] Heilbroner, R.L. (2000). The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (Revised 7th edition). London: Penguin Books.
  • [2] Taylor, F. W. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York and London: Harper & Brothers.
  • [3] Tamura (2012). Visiting the Old, Learning the New: The role of technical standards revisited—Taylorism and standardization. RIETI Column.
  • [4] Regele, L.S. (2018). Industrial manifest destiny: American firearms manufacturing and antebellum expansion. Business History Review, 92(1): 57-83.
  • [5] Smith, M. R. (1973), John H. Hall, Simeon North, and the milling machine: The nature of innovation among antebellum arms makers. Technology and Culture, 14(4): 573-591.
  • [6] Rosenbloom, J.L. (1993). Anglo-American technological differences in small arms manufacturing. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 23(4): 683-698.
  • [7] Hall. H. B. (2005). Innovation and diffusion. In J. Fagerberg, D. C. Mowery, and R. R. Nelson (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Innovation (pp.459–484). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • [8] Cabinet decision of Japanese government (2021). The Sixth Science, Technology and Innovation Basic Plan. Tokyo: Government of Japan (in Japanese).

April 19, 2021