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President's Address, National Conference on Weights and Measures Annual Meeting


Thank you, Rich. I also wish to thank Chairman Ron Murdock for the opportunity to address the Conference members. It is my pleasure as NIST Director and as Honorary President of the National Conference on Weights and Measures to attend my first conference meeting.

And in anticipation of my first meeting with this very important group, I decided to prepare by going back in history-to the inaugural meeting of what was to become the National Conference on Weights and Measures.

In the Beginning: Confusion at Home

Back in 1905, the nation's system of weights and measures wasn't a system, at all. It was, uniformly, a mess-decades behind France and Germany. That's why Samuel Stratton, the first director of the National Bureau of Standards (the predecessor of today's NIST), and Louis Fischer, the bureau's chief of weights and measures, convened a meeting of state sealers of weights and measures.

Most states were not represented. Among the missing states, several had no such personnel.

Accounts given by those who did attend-representatives of eight states and the District of Columbia-confirmed the confusing state of affairs. I'll give a few quick anecdotes to convey the situation in the early 1900s.

In Iowa, for example, only 14 of the state's 99 counties had a set of measurement standards. When Iowa's new superintendent of weights and measures instructed the 14 counties to submit the standards for the once-a-decade inspection required by law, the requests was largely ignored. Of those who did respond, most pled ignorance. Some counties said-quote-"they had heard something about a set of standards, but did not know where they were to be found."

By comparison to most states, Massachusetts was near head of the pack. Sealer of weights and measures was a fully funded position, and this person worked closely with his counterparts in cities and towns. Massachusetts began enforcement actions in 1890, but merchants intent on defrauding consumers were not easily deterred.
When Massachusetts inspectors identified thousands of short boxes of strawberries and underfilled bottles of milk, the purveyors of these items simply shipped them to an adjoining state, where they did not undergo inspection.

Then, there was the tongue-in-cheek lament of a scale manufacturer who was sent to represent Vermont. He worried that uniform standards might extend to thermometers, which, at the time, varied up to 15 degrees. On cold winter mornings, temperatures ranged from 35 to 50 degrees below zero.

Vermonters and their newspapers always chose the lowest reading, using it as evidence of their fortitude and proof of New England stoicism. More accurate thermometers, he said, could dull an important point of pride.

In the end, however, the scale manufacturer agreed that, too often, the purchasing public was-quote-"at the mercy of users of unreliable weighing machines and capacity measures and of unscrupulous users of even correct ones."

So began the National Conference on Weights and Measures. And from this nearly one-hundred-year-old partnership between NIST and the states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories has come an essential, integrating element of a fair and equitable marketplace: A true system of uniform weights and measures.

We have come a long and productive way!

And, today, there should be a renewed appreciation for the organizations and the people who ensure fairness and equity in retail and wholesale transactions. Headline-making corporate scandals, though few in number, have grabbed the public's attention. Now may be an opportune time to remind the American public of the incredible value they get from their very, very modest investment in weights and measures.

And let me add-for those of you who have a hand in the senior management of our nation's companies-we need to address those concerns about corporate governance. We need to make certain that CEO stands not only for chief executive officer, but also for chief ethical officer. The President has introduced some well thought-out reform initiatives that deserve to be adopted.

Trust is not an intangible. It sustains confidence, promotes efficiency, encourages investment, and, in so doing, helps to grow the economy. Through your behind-the-scenes contributions, you build trust by ensuring that buyer and seller get a fair deal.

And what a good deal it is! NCWM has done the math. Just 50 cents per citizen pays for a system that underpins about half of the U.S. economy, or the almost 5 trillion dollars worth of transactions based on the weight, volume, length or count of products. That's a highly leveraged impact.

Today: Advancing toward a Global System of Legal Metrology

Obviously, the marketplace has changed greatly over the years. In the early 1900s, we got serious about putting our own house in order. Domestically, there are still important jobs to be done, and, without a doubt, new ones will arise as technology advances and ways of doing business evolve in sophistication.

Today, we also must think and act at the international level. We have a global marketplace with multinational retailers. Exports are vital to U.S. manufacturers. And they help to fuel economic growth. During the 1990s, increases in exports accounted for one-fourth of the nation's economic growth. Today, almost 10 percent of jobs in the United States depend on exports.

U.S. businesses in every sector now must reckon with the requirements of international standards and the regulations that embody those standards. It's estimated that 80 percent of world merchandise trade is affected by standards.

Legal metrology-your valuable specialty-is part of the infrastructure of international commerce. So, it is gratifying to see the participation of experts from other countries in the NCWM process. They add a much-needed perspective to the development of the U.S. standards.

I understand that our colleagues from Measurement Canada have served as technical advisors on NCWM committees since 1992 and that they were active participants for many years before then. I also understand that Measurement Canada and the conference intend to expand their current mutual recognition agreement on type evaluations.

Our relationship with Canada on weights-and-measures issues has been outstanding over the past 15 years. We need to replicate this partnership many times over.

Recognition of International Guests and Participants

Weights and measures are truly a global concern. The NCWM hosted a NIST Standards-in-Trade group from Latin America at its annual meeting two years ago. This year, I wish to recognize and warmly welcome the 25 representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council who are attending this meeting. These guests represent the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. They are here as part of another Standards-in-Trade Workshop.

Through this meeting, they will gain a deeper understanding of how measurements from the NIST calibration laboratories are transferred throughout the manufacturing and retail systems to the benefit of consumers. Opportunities to observe the NCWM process, to participate in some technical sessions, and to meet U.S. participants should be constructive for our guests and for conference members. NIST thanks the NCWM for its support of the Standards in Trade workshop program.

Another international aspect to this year's meeting is the attendance of two colleagues from Mexico. Today, Dr. Francisco Ramos, Director General of Research for the PROFECO Laboratories, and Ricardo Muñoz Rodríguez, Director for Accreditation and Metrology in Mexico's General Directorate for Standards, are attending the NCWM Annual Meeting. I understand that Mexico is expanding its legal metrology activities. As part of the NIST collaboration with Mexico, one area of work is legal metrology. We look forward to working more closely with Mexico in this area.

While I'm at it, I also should mention one person whom you don't see at the meeting this week: Tina Butcher. Tina is on detail for one year to my office. She is a dedicated professional with a sincere interest in weights and measures. Your temporary loss of her services in weights and measures is my office's gain.

The Importance of International Standards

If I may, I'd like to say a bit more about the global marketplace, international standards, and the international measurement system. I'll start with a quote from baseball icon Yogi Berra, master of the malapropism.

After leaving a social gathering Yogi made the following comment: "It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much."
Though unintended, Yogi's remark could have been considered an astute observation on the situation in weights-and-measures, specifically, and on measurement-related matters, overall. Let me explain.

From day one, weights and measures people knew, makers of measurement equipment knew, testing laboratories knew, and we at NIST knew-and fully appreciated-the bedrock importance of accurate, uniform measurements to the structure and flow of commerce.

Our message competed for attention in the increasingly hectic and ever more complex national and global economies. Often, it was drowned out in the din of discussions over things like tariffs, rules of origin, treatment of intellectual property, and the like.

Over the last few years, however, either our voices have grown louder or more ears have become tuned to our wavelength. In any event, measurement-related issues are beginning to get at least some of the attention they deserve from the users of our services and our equipment.

In Pursuit of Measurement Equivalency

From industry we are getting feedback in the form of a slowly intensifying chorus that goes something like this: one standard, one measurement, one test, one certification.

U.S. companies are learning-sometimes the hard way-that standards set and regulations made in other nations and regions may not coincide with U.S. practices. In industries ranging from microelectronics to agriculture, U.S. firms have discovered that they can be shut out of markets if they do not make expensive changes to products or services-changes that are necessary to achieve compliance.

Competition in the rough-and-tumble global market is not always conducted on a level playing field. One means of correcting the tilt in this crucial arena is through measurement equivalency among international, national, and local laboratories. Measurement equivalency is critical for the acceptance of test results for international trade and for human health and safety, worldwide.

Now comes the more difficult part: actually achieving measurement equivalency or, in other words, creating a common global infrastructure that enables direct traceability to international standards.

NIST Strategic Plan

At NIST, efforts to accomplish this goal are key elements of our strategic plan. Some actions already have been taken.

For example, we have merged national weights-and-measures activities with the work NIST does in support of the International Organization of Legal Metrology. Our aim is, in effect, to harmonize work on national and international legal metrology issues. We will leverage the contributions of national work groups that already exist to review international legal metrology standards.

U.S. industry has been actively involved in these work groups for about 30 years. Now, we are enthusiastically encouraging weights and measures officials to become more involved in the national work groups.

Clearly, regulatory officials should participate in developing U.S. positions on international issues.

The NCWM strategic plan complements the steps that NIST has taken to harmonize the outputs of work on legal metrology issues. The conference's Board of Directors has set a priority on participating in the review and development of standards of the International Organization of Legal Metrology.

In addition to this unified focus on national and international matters, we are pursuing long-term strategies that advance our commitment to enabling mutual recognition and worldwide traceability of measurements.

NIST is building the machinery to establish the equivalence of measurement results on regional and, ultimately, global scales. We set up the International Comparisons Database. This is a vehicle for comparing our measurement and calibration capabilities with those of national metrology institutes in other Western Hemisphere nations.

By means of the database, a Brazilian purchaser of U.S.-made equipment, for example, could be certain that measurements shown to be traceable to NIST are equivalent to those traceable to INMETRO, Brazil's measurement authority.

This database, in turn, is associated with a comparison and calibration database maintained by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, or BIPM. With links to all of the world's regional metrology organizations, the bureau's database will eventually provide direct and indirect means to judge the equivalence of measurement capabilities in different countries.

Of course, we also must tend to the quality and efficiency of traceability linkages at home-the chain of comparisons that run from NIST to federal, state, and private-sector laboratories. Our strategic plan-"NIST 2010," for short-calls for effective use of information technology and organizational strategies to enhance the measurement traceability system in the United States.

In concert, we will use these tools and strategies to improve the quality, timeliness, efficiency, and accessibility of measurement services that NIST provides.

Survey of the U.S. Weights-and-Measures System

So, the increasing importance of global trade is sharpening the focus on the measurement infrastructure. This is good news, but one also might say that it is bad news. Because of tight state and local budgets and an uncertain economy, weights and measures programs are being asked to do more, often with less.

Today, both industry and government must demonstrate the value of what they do. Government agencies must be able to show the impacts and benefits of their work. This is true for NIST and, I am sure, it is true for weights and measures programs.

Last Fall, NIST sponsored two workshops for weights-and-measures administrators to discuss several challenges, including funding.

Administrators said they wanted data they could use to compare weights-and-measures programs in terms of workload, staffing, and effectiveness. In response, NIST is undertaking a study to benchmark the national weights-and-measures system.

We want to see how workloads and resources have changed, to identify adjustments that programs have made to improve efficiency and effectiveness, to estimate the economic impact of weights and measures activities, and to ask members of industry how their customers, markets, and international perspectives have changed.

Henry Oppermann, chief of the NIST Weights and Measures Division, gave you the details on the survey earlier today.

I just want to emphasize that this information is essential to justify impacts and to champion state and local needs. To succeed, the study must have your support and cooperation.

Computer-Based Training

As I already have indicated, one of the challenges NIST faces is improving the effectiveness of the services that NIST delivers to the weights-and-measures community. This requires us to be responsive to changing needs. We are trying to do just that in our training programs.

These programs have been extremely popular with metrologists in state and industry laboratories. However, the constant turnover in staff and ever-expanding amount of material to cover make it difficult to meet all the demands.

So, we are developing a comprehensive computer-based training course for basic mass calibration. This is being done under the direction of Georgia Harris. This multi-media course will be more accessible, and the information and guidance it contains will be available as a reference after training is completed. This course should be completed this Fall.

We also are developing a computer-based course on electronic audit trails used in both weighing and measuring devices. Since the conference approved the use of electronic audit trails in 1990, adoption of the technology has been increasing every year. Expected to be ready later this year, the course will help weights and measures officials to understand how the electronic audit trails operate, how to access them, and how to interpret the information contained in them. Juana Williams is leading this project.


We are doing other jobs to increase the utility and value of the resources that we provide in support of the weights-and-measures system. NIST, like all of you, is trying to keep up with needs spawned by new technology. It's not easy.

In fact, we won't keep up if we don't work together and with other organizations in the private and public sectors.

We do need, like the theme of this meeting says, a "progressive partnership for the future." We at NIST need your input so we can place our resources where they can deliver the greatest impact in service to you, the customer.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for the important contributions you make to our economy and to our nation.

Created October 13, 2009, Updated June 2, 2021