Some Truths About Standards

Early on the morning of September 3, 1967, all of Sweden changed an old and entrenched standard — they switched from driving on the left to driving on the right.

The change had been four years in the making. New traffic signals and signs (aiming in the other direction) had been installed and covered until the big day. People were educated about the change. Buses even had to have new doors to accommodate curbs on the other side.

Traffic was banned for a few hours that Sunday morning while the new signs were unveiled. On Monday, there were fewer traffic accidents than normal, and the change caused no fatalities.

When we think of standards, we often think only of electronics or computer standards such as JPEG (for photos), MP3 (audio), HTML (web pages), and DVD (video). But the simple choice of which side of the road to drive on is a standard, too; and one that is hard to dislodge.

We find standards all around us. The makers of the paper and the makers of the copier must agree on paper size. The makers of the film and the makers of the camera have to agree on film size. Whenever there’s an interface between the product of one group and that of another, that interface is likely to be governed by a standard.

There are standards for electric plugs, electric power, battery size, railroad gauges, screwdrivers and screws, and light bulbs. There are standards for phone jacks, records, television, fax machines, cellular telephones, bar code, cassette tape, and videotape. There are standards for floppy disks, communications cables, and operating systems.

An estimated 800,000 standards worldwide help bring a little order to life, so here are a few observations about standards:

Just because there’s a standard doesn’t mean it will take off. I worked at Magnavox in 1981 when the FCC finally chose a Magnavox standard over those of several competitors. There was quite a bit of excitement in the company, because this was a coup in what was sure to be an important new domain of consumer electronics: AM Stereo.

Though quite forgettable now, AM Stereo seemed to be a big deal at the time. There have been lots of standards that haven’t taken off: MiniDisc, quadraphonic sound, digital tape such as DAT and DCC, and many more. And it’s not a lack of a standard that’s holding back the videophone.

Some standards start from trivial or capricious beginnings. The 8½-inch-wide carriage of the 1874 Remington typewriter defined the standard width of paper. Clock hands turn clockwise because the shadow of a sundial turned clockwise. Oil is measured in 42-gallon barrels because that was the size of the standard Pennsylvania barrel at the first oil strike in 1859.

Designed by Herman Hollerith for the 1890 census, punch cards were given the dimensions of the dollar bill of the time so drawers designed to hold money could be used to hold these cards.

Standards can also hinder innovation, but, usually, later on, standards help progress. The 1954 submarine Nautilus marked a huge success for the peaceful use of nuclear power, and its light-water nuclear power plant design was adopted for land-based power plants. But other designs would have been more fail-safe (the reactor at Three Mile Island used this design), and this standard was locked in too early.