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A Brief History of OWM

The NIST Office of Weights and Measures (OWM) is proud to recognize over 185 years of legal metrology standards and services to the U.S. weights and measures community and to promote the international harmonization of equitable standards that facilitate both U.S. economic growth and global trade. 

The first Office of Weights and Measures was established in 1836 in the Coast and Geodetic Survey of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and was originally formed to define the units of measure to be used in the construction of standards and balances provided to the States.  It was astutely observed by John Quincy Adams (in the 1800s) that the weights and measures used by the customs houses were not uniform, and the need for a ‘fixed’ standard was apparent.  Below are excerpts from his 1821 Report upon Weights and Measures:

Sepia photo of John Quincy Adams sitting in a chair by bookshelf
John Quincy Adams
Credit: Canva

Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life, to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and security of every species of property; to every transaction of trade and commerce; ... No legislator can attempt it with any prospect of success, or any regard to justice...” 

Should the fortunate period arrive when.... man will admit of the introduction of one universal standard for the use of all mankind, it is hoped and believed that the [platinum] metre will be that measure. ...it is with a view to uniformity that the preference is given, for the choice of a new standard, to the same metal of which that measure consists which has been the standard of our forefathers from the first settlement of the English colonies, and is exactly coeval with them.” 

Over the next decade, as the need for accurate weights and measures and other standards grew, the need for a “National Metrology Institute” drew widespread support from industry and academic experts.  On July 1, 1901, Congress transformed the Office of Standard Weights and Measure into the Bureau of Standards under the Treasury Department.  In 1903 the Bureau was transferred to the new Department of Commerce and Labor.  Later, in 1934, its name was changed to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and is the predecessor agency of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which was renamed in 1988.  And for further interest, a brief history of weights and measures standards of the United States (up until 1976) is published in NBS Special Publication 447.

Photo of Original U.S. Constitution with a feather quill
U.S. Constitution
Credit: Canva

In addition to an explicit mention to “fix the standard of weights and measures” in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 5), OWM carries out a wide variety of functions and responsibilities as provided for under Treaties, laws, or Presidential Executive Order.  The NIST Organic Act is found in Title 15 “Commerce and Trade” in the United States Code (15 U.S.C. §271 to §278) and authorizes NIST (15 U.S.C. §272) to develop, maintain, and retain custody of the national standards of measurement, and provide the means and methods for making measurements consistent with those standards and to assure the compatibility of these standards with those of other nations.  Furthermore, 15 U.S.C. §205 defines the metric system and authorizes NIST to interpret or modify the International System of Units (as adopted by the General Conference on Weights and Measures under the Treaty of the Meter) for the United States.  The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 as provided in 15 U.S.C. §205a to §205l names the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce.  The Presidential Executive Order 12770 (issued on July 25, 1991) requires the Federal Government to increase its use of the International System of Units (SI) and requires OWM to work with State and local governments to increase public understanding and use of the metric system.  The U.S. Senate ratified the International Organization of Legal Metrology (OIML) Treaty in 1972 and the State Department delegated responsibility for leading U.S. participation in OIML to NIST.  As required under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA), OWM works with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the areas of package labeling and net quantity of contents.  Under 15 U.S.C. §1458, OWM has a legal duty to provide these regulations and other information and technical and other assistance or support to the States to promote national uniformity.

Created March 10, 2022, Updated March 30, 2022