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Sunday, March 09, 2014

To Think Of Time

One power of the general government that pm carpenter forgot: to fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

President Washington admonished Congress to do something about that in the very first SOTU ever:

Uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.

Oh yes, the Legislative branch was Johnny-on-the-Spot and a mere 9 years later as part of a huge act regulating duties on imports, and establishing districts and ports, the office of 'surveyor' was created whose duties included:

[F]rom time to time, and particularly on the first Mondays In January and July, in each year, examin[ing] and try[ing] the weights, measures, and other instruments, used in ascertaining the duties on Imports, with standards to be provided by each collector, at the public expense, for that purpose; and where disagreements or errors are discovered, he shall report the same to the collector, and obey and execute such d Sections as he may receive for correcting thereof...

So yeah, standards would totally be uniform...within the demesne of each port's collector.  Not quite what Washington had in mind.  But such was the state of affairs for a few decades, until March of 1830 when Delaware's General Assembly instructed their Senators and begged their Representatives "fix an uniform standard of weights and measures throughout the United States."

The House appeared to ignore Delaware's entreaties, but the Senate did act on May 29:

On motion by Mr. Woodbury, and by unanimous consent,

Resolved, That the Secretary of the Treasury be directed to cause a comparison to be made of the standards of weight and measure now used at the principle custom houses in the United States, and report to the Senate at the next session of Congress.

How odd that the Senate got something done without a supermajority invoking cloture.  Anyway, the Treasury made excuses on March 3, 1831:

The President communicated a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury, assigning the causes that have prevented a compliance with the resolution of the Senate of the 29th May, 1830, directing him to cause a comparison to be made of the standards of weight and measure now used at the principal custom-houses in the United States;" and

Ordered, That it be printed.

Did the Executive branch drop the ball?  Nah, there were just a bunch of problems they had to contend with, to wit:

It was deemed essential to the accuracy of the operation to have the advantage of temperatures below as well as above the freezing point; and the undertaking was, therefore, necessarily postponed until the winter season. In the mean time, the apparatus had been provided in New York, and was shipped from thence to this city early in December. The vessel was unfortunately stranded in the Chesapeake, and part of the apparatus lost. The delay occasioned by this accident has prevented the completion of the comparison in time for a report to the Senate during the present session. The work, however, is far advanced, and it has exhibited such a remarkable disparity in the weights and measures used at different custom-houses, as to demonstrate the urgent necessity of providing standards for their regulation.

The man charged with all this work, Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, who was also the Superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey was:

thereupon directed by the Secretary of the Treasury to secure apparatus and establish a shop, wherein copies of certain standards adopted by the Treasury Department could be made for distribution to the various custom houses. The avoirdupois pound adopted was derived from the troy pound of the mint and the distance between certain lines on a metal bar in the possession of the department and supposed to conform with the English yard was taken as the standard of length.

Long story short, Hassler did yeoman's work developing standards in what was ultimately called the Office of Standard Weights and Measures, and Congress tinkered and directed everything along the way.  The Office's responsibilities necessarily grew beyond figuring out how much a pound was, including developing such things as electrical standards.

Exactly seventy years after the Senate received the letter explaining Hassler's delays, Congress changed the office's name to the National Bureau of Standards.  A couple years later, it was moved from Treasury to Commerce & Labor, then just under Commerce (when Labor split off in 1913).  Then it was renamed as the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1988.

And NIST today has a wicked accurate atomic clock called NIST-F1 in Boulder, CO.  You may have lost an hour of sleep this morning, but that sucker won't gain or lose a second in 100 million years!

Anyway, whatever it was called and whatever department it was in, this function is important and constitutionally mandated.  So naturally people like Ron Paul have proposed axing it.  Because in a free society everybody should keep their own time (and GPS satellites).


March 9, 2014 | Permalink


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