I recently read Dennis Duncan’s Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (Norton, 2022).  He provides a wonderful chronicle of the emergence of various common elements of books, and a glimpse into the notion of standards.

Manuscripts were originally written in scrolls, so just one very long page.  Titles of scrolls did not emerge for quite some time.  The idea of chapters or sections came later, followed by the notion of a table of contents.  With one very long page, the construct of page numbers was not meaningful.

Concordances — an alphabetical list of the principal words used in a manuscript – emerged several centuries ago, after the reluctance to employ alphabetical orders subsided.  This was followed by indexes, alphabetical lists of the form: subject, page numbers.  The idea of a card catalog in libraries came much later.

It struck me that the idea and form of an index, and all its forerunners, is an example of a standard that eases access to the knowledge in books.  Of course, it would not be very useful if the notion of page numbers had not earlier been conceived.  So, the evolution of “book technologies” included many inventions.

This got me thinking about other “standards” that we now take for granted.  Interchangeable parts are key to manufacturing and maintaining engineered systems.  This standard started when Eli Whitney built a firearms factory near New Haven in 1798. The muskets his workmen made by methods comparable to those of modern mass industrial production were the first to have standardized, interchangeable parts.

Railway gauges — the distance between rails — are 4 feet 8.5 inches, originated with George Stephenson’s pioneer Liverpool & Manchester line in 1829.  By June 1886, all major railroads in North America, an estimated 11,500 miles, were using the same standard gauge. Consequently, train engines and cars could move from one railroad to another.  This gauge, by the way, was derived from the distance between horse-drawn carriage wheels in England.

There are two standards for electricity.  Canada, Mexico and the United States all use a 110 volt, 60 hertz electrical system, which shares the same physical connectors. Most of Africa, Asia and Europe use a 220 volt, 50 hertz electrical system, with a variety of differing physical connectors.  Consequently, the portable electrical devices you buy in the US, for example, do not work in Europe without a transformer. 

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers Boiler & Pressure Vessel Code is a standard that regulates the design and construction of boilers and pressure vessels.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers maintains the IEEE 802.11 standard, popularly known as WiFi, that specifies the architecture and specifications of wireless LANs.

There are also government-mandated standards.  The Occupational Safety & Health Administrations provides a set of safety standards.  The Federal Aviation Administration promotes safe air transportation by setting the standards for certification and oversight of airmen, air operators, air agencies, and designees.

Standards make things work better, e.g., indexes for accessing published information.  Standards make things work together, e.g., mechanical parts and electricity.  Standards make sure things do not hurt us, e.g., safety and flight standards.  Overall, standards play a key role in translating technological inventions into market innovations.

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