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Wired has an interesting article describing how industrial standards first
came about 140 years ago in the machine tools industry, describing the
debate over the rival standards for screw threads ("Whitworth" and
"The two sides of a Whitworth thread formed an angle of 55 degrees, and its
tip was rounded off at the top. The Sellers thread, by contrast, had a 60-
degree angle, but its apex was flattened.
These differences may sound minor, but in practical terms they were
revolutionary. The 55-degree angle of Whitworth's screw was difficult to
measure accurately without specially designed gauges. By contrast,
Sellers' 60-degree thread - one angle of an equilateral triangle - could be
measured with ease. Similarly, the rounded top of Whitworth threads made it
more difficult to fit nuts and bolts together, since the threads often did
not match perfectly. Flattening the threads made it easier to ensure that
they locked into place with one another. Finally, producing a flat thread
was something any machinist could do quickly and efficiently by himself.
Building a Whitworth screw required "three kinds of cutters and two kinds
of lathe," Sellers noted that night. His screw required just one cutter and
Britain, however, had already standardized on the Whitworth design, and
stayed with it until the lack of interoperability with American parts
became obvious in World War II:
"Under the strain of desert warfare, British tanks and trucks broke down.
Screws loosened. Bolts wore out. American factories were churning out
vehicles and parts for the British. But when those supplies arrived in
North Africa, everyone was surprised to discover that American nuts did not
fit British bolts, and vice versa. The broken-down tanks stayed broken-
American factories immediately retooled and, for the last three years of
the war, ran two separate assembly lines, one to make British engines and
weapons and another to make American engines and weapons. "
Mark Bierbeck ruminates this article and on the implications for
"Of course standards don't stifle innovation. But standards that emerge
from competition in the market at least imply that there is some underlying
innovation demanding our attention. Today, market-driven innovation has
given way to sanitised implementation - with industry being drip-fed
technical advances from on high in the form of new standards."
Lots of food for thought here ... on the benefits of standardization, but
on the perils of casting a standard in concrete before implementation
experience is available ... and the horrible thought that "it seemed like a
good idea at the time" decisions today could haunt our great-grandchildren.