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National Conference on Weights and Measures

Determining the accurate weight or volume of an object is fundamental to ensuring fair commerce. We all know this—everyone in this room lives this everyday. But with the rapidly changing technologies and globalization of the economy, the types of products we will be called on to accurately weigh or measure will soon push our current capabilities to the limits.

So hang on— the future promises to be an exciting and dynamic ride.

But before we jump into the future, let's take a step back and see where all this began. The earliest known uniform systems of weights and measures date back 5,000 years to the Bronze Age and the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley.

At that point, the world population was estimated to be between 7 to 14 million—about equal to the current population of the state of Illinois. And not surprising, this period of time also coincided with a period of human progress and enlightenment including the dawn of writing.

The critical importance to society in adopting a uniform set of weights and measures can be demonstrated in that it appears to be a common discovery in virtually all cultures. Further evidence of its importance can be derived from the prominence that fair measures are given in seminal documents such as the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, The Analects of Confucius, and the religious texts in early India.

Most early measurement systems used parts of the body and the natural surroundings. Length was first measured with the forearm, hand, or finger and time was measured by the periods of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies.

The cubit is perhaps the oldest and longest-lived example of a standard measurement unit. The oldest documented cubit is the Egyptian royal cubit—traced back to 2750 B.C. and used for about 3,000 years.

And the Egyptians took their cubit seriously. In fact, it has been reported that: " The death penalty faced those who forgot or neglected their duty to calibrate the standard unit of length at each full moon..." *

To measure volume, people would fill containers with plant seeds which were then counted. When means for weighing were invented, seeds served as standards. For instance, the carat, still used as a unit for gems, was derived from the carob seed.

In China, some 3,500 years ago, a system of standard instruments for measuring length, mass, and volume was created. A special organization, perhaps the predecessor to NCWM, was established with the responsibility for checking the accuracy of these instruments twice a year.

The Chinese may also have been the first to use an unvarying physical constant as a standard of measure. Similar to the way we now use the distance light travels in a second as a length standard, 2,700 years ago the Chinese used the resonance tone of bamboo whistles to ascertain a length standard.

The good news is that every country, region, and city-state recognized the need for a uniform set of weights and measures. The bad news is that virtually every commercial center developed its own unique measurement system making commerce between trading centers cumbersome.

The problems and confusion caused by this measurement menagerie did not go unnoticed. The Magna Carta, for example, called for "one measure for ale, one measure for wine, one measure for corn."

But the problem continued to grow. France in 1788 had about 800 different names for measures and, taking into account their different values in different towns, resulted in around a quarter of a million different units.

From this chaos, the beginnings of the metric system emerged.

Everyone in this room is aware that the U.S. federal responsibility for uniform weights and measures, was written, first, into the Articles of Confederation and, then, into the Constitution. What you may not know was how much attention this topic received from our top leaders.

George Washington called for uniform measures in his first State of the Union Address. Other early proponents of a uniform measurement system in the U.S. included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, and Alexander Hamilton.

In 1821, future president and then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, issued a report that described measurements as one of "the necessaries of modern life." He likened the metric system to the invention of the printing press and predicted that it would save more human labor than the steam engine.

In 1836, Congress directed that standards be distributed to the states. Two years later Congress directed that the Treasury Department distribute balances to the states to use with those standards.

But serious progress toward uniform weights and measures did not begin until the turn of the century first with the creation of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and four years later with the first meeting of the National Conference on Weights and Measures.

The second meeting of the Conference, held one hundred years ago fundamentally changed the way this country ensures uniform weights and measures. In 1906, this new organization drafted the outline of a "Model State Weights and Measures Law," which was formalized the following year.

This organization jumped into the breach, addressing an unmet fundamental need that was undermining the performance of the national economy.

There are many stories from that period—each one a telling reminder of the incredibly valuable role that weights and measures operations play.

For example, the proceedings of the 1906 meeting pointed out that the entire salaries of clerks in New York groceries and butcher shops were paid with the money they cheated out of the public— by, in effect, keeping a thumb on the scales.

The inspector's righteous anger was well-founded. Around 1910, NBS staff tested more than 30,000 scales across the United States and found that almost 50% were significantly off and not surprisingly in favor of the storekeepers.

The annual loss at that time to the consumer in butter alone amounted to more than $8 million.

History repeated itself 90 years later. In 1997, NIST staff assisted a collaboration of 40 States, the USDA, the FDA, and the FTC in investigating school prepackaged milk. They found that 45 percent of containers were short filled, at a cost to consumers of nearly $30 million.

The Weights and Measures System is a key component of the nation's technical infrastructure. It is basic to the flow of commerce, to the functioning of our economy, and to realizing the Nation's ambitions to remain a leader in technological innovation.

Ken Alder, a history professor at nearby Northwestern University, reasons that our measurement systems are, in fact, a defining characteristic of who we are as a Nation. He makes the case eloquently in the prologue of his book, The Measure of All Things:

"... the use a society makes of its measures expresses its sense of fair dealing. That is why the balance scale is a widespread symbol of justice. . . Our methods of measurement define who we are and what we value."

Put another way, measurements are about trust, confidence, and, in the antiseptic terminology of the economist, transactional efficiency.

Every commercial transaction has an element of trust. Trust cultivated over time breeds confidence. Reliable, accurate measurements are the vital ingredients of both, but especially in transactions that lack transparency—such as in the sale of fuel.

Thanks to what this organization and NIST have accomplished together, American consumers and businesses can be confident in the quantity of product being purchased making transactions more reliable and cost effective.

Analyses done in the U.S. and in other developed economies demonstrate that weights and measures underpin transactions that account for over half of the GDP.

And continual verification of the accuracy is critical. In 1997, a Canadian case study reported that, on average, each Weights & Measures inspector discovered and corrected about $2 million worth of "measurement inequity."

Unfortunately, we don't have a comparable estimate for the U.S. But we do know that in 2002, the median investment in state Weights and Measures operations was about $50,000 a year for each inspector.

If we assume similar levels of performance in the U.S. as in Canada about $2 million in benefits per inspector then a rough estimate of society's rate of return would be 40 to 1, a phenomenal result.

Not all countries have the same rigor in checking and enforcing their weights and measures. In a 2002 survey, 93 percent of U.S. gas meters fully complied with required standards. Compare that with Mexico. Mexico's consumer watchdog agency recently found that pumps at 90 percent of the country's gas stations dispense less than indicated on average, about 1 liter less for every 20 liters sold. This rigging of gas pump meters cheats the Mexican consumer out of about $1 billion per year. **

With the advance of technology and the growth of the global economy and its increasing interdependencies, accurate weights and measures will become even more important. And like most components of the nation's technical infrastructure, the system will be challenged to do better—and to do more.

Clearly we must keep up with the quickening pace of innovation. New technologies can transform the marketplace and consumer expectations. And as these new technologies arrive in the marketplace we must be able to continue instilling the level of trust in the transaction that members of NCWM have been doing for the past century.

For example—anyone who owns a car or pays an electric bill understands why the government is aggressively pursuing new forms of energy. Biofuels are already established in some countries and will likely see increasing demand in the U.S.—requiring new tests for purity and volume. Since many different processes can convert biomass into fuel we need to have a variety of tests and procedures at the ready to meet the demand.

Slightly longer term, the Nation is committed to exploiting hydrogen to fuel the economy. Almost every stage of hydrogen production, distribution, and sale will require new measurement tests and methodologies to establish confidence in the transaction. Today when we drive to a gasoline station, we don't worry because we know the fuel pump reads accurately to better than 0.1percent.

But what happens in the future when we drive to the service station to buy a tank of hydrogen? The infrastructure to measure hydrogen fuel accurately does not exist. Anecdotal evidence from current demonstration facilities indicates that we're at about 8 percent accuracy. This is equivalent to over or undercharging about 20-25 cents per gallon of gasoline-equivalent.

NIST is committed to working with the DOE and state and local officials to ensure that the required tests are established in a timely fashion so as not to impede the development of the hydrogen economy. In fact, we are establishing a program at NIST as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative to accelerate efforts in hydrogen standards.

New technologies will require novel approaches to addressing measurements in the future. To get a feel for the evolving demands in the future—just look at the magnitude of current weights and measurement requirements in today's laboratories—which often foreshadow the requirements in the marketplace.

Researchers at NIST currently have requirements to measure force from picoNewtons to MegaNewtons (18 orders of magnitude). For example, NIST has a 4.4 MegaNewton deadweight machine that is used for testing the strength of bridge abutments. This is the largest such device in the world.

On the small end, we are measuring the force to pull apart a single DNA molecule—65 picoNewtons— which is equivalent to the momentum imparted from the photons from 6 laser pointers.

And as nanotechnology quickly evolves into a potentially trillion dollar industry over the next decade, the requirements for measuring mass and size at the smallest scales will become critical. We are not yet ready for the amazing potential that nanotechnology offers—so NIST, again as part of the American Competitiveness Initiative, is also accelerating its efforts in the development of nanometrology.

NIST is committed to work with the Conference to ensure that the requisite weights and measures methodologies are developed before the consumer demands them. Supporting this mission is one of NIST's oldest and remains one of our most important functions.

In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush outlined the American Competitiveness Initiative—which is designed to enhance the Nation's capacity to innovate and remain globally competitive. As part of this initiative, NIST's core budget will be increased, while most of the Federal Government's non-defense discretionary budget experiences a decrease. This is a tremendous recognition of the importance of the NIST mission and the recognition of the role that weights and measures plays in keeping the U.S. economically strong.

For over a century, NIST and the Conference have been strong partners. Going forward, we must build on our shared accomplishments. The world is smaller, trade is global, and technology is international. Weights and measures must keep up with the changes.

NCWM can benefit from NIST's technical expertise, its experience with standards development, and its position in the international measurement system.

NIST can benefit from NCWM's forum for bringing all stakeholders together, their ability to reach many jurisdictions simultaneously, and their ability to influence state and local programs.

While it's impossible to predict where the future will lead, it's likely that it will require the NCWM, NIST, and our weights and measures system to reach new heights, address new needs, and build new capabilities—including some that may even appear alien to our shared experience over the last century.

NIST looks forward to working with NCWM over the next century in making this all possible. Thank you.

* Metrology - in Short, 2nd edition, December 2003; a European Union publication

** Source: Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2006

Created October 7, 2009, Updated January 3, 2017