Published by EH.Net (May 2020)

JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy, Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2019. xiv + 421 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2889-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aashish Velkar, Department of History, University of Manchester.


Economists have long grappled with the problem of standards as public or private goods (Kindelberger, 1983). The received view (Farrell and Saloner, 1988) is that to agree on standards ex ante (often termed standardization by committee) is a superior outcome compared to letting standards emerge as a result of ex post market interactions (often seen as an inefficient and inferior outcome). An even better outcome than standardization by committee, it is believed, is to let private committees (rather than state-sponsored ones) set a standard that others are likely to follow, i.e. combine the best elements of the two standardization processes. But how would this hybrid process work? In fact, how did it actually work in the twentieth century?

In their book, Engineering Rules, JoAnne Yates and Craig Murphy take a long-run view of global standardization since 1880 and present a compelling narrative of how private committees of “standardization entrepreneurs” (engineers, designers, bureaucrats, scientists) worked assiduously to establish technical or engineering standards. The authors argue that these “standard bearers” and the international standard-setting organizations they helped to establish (e.g. the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and World Wide Web Consortium) provided “a timely way to set desirable standards that would have taken much longer to emerge from the market and that governments were rarely willing to set” (p. 3). To Yates and Murphy, this private, non-governmental activity that occurred within not-for-profit standard setting bodies — they term this “voluntary standard setting” — combined the best elements of standardization by committee by setting standards ex ante, but which were voluntary to use (as is the case with ex post market standardization). For them, the entire period they cover reveals a “standardization movement that has ebbed and flowed since the later nineteenth century” (p. 11). They see this “movement” occurring in three waves, each of which frame the three parts of their book.

The first part of the book (chapters 1-3) covers the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which for the authors is when the voluntary standardization movement arose (“first wave”) out of the professionalization of engineering in the industrial countries. The book’s title thus relates to both the propensity of engineers to set technical standards (engineering rules), but also how engineering standards laid the foundations for the international economic integration fueled by industrialization (engineering rules).

The second part of the book (chapters 4-6) covers the period between 1930 and 1980 straddling World War II, during which the authors locate the “second wave” of the standardization movement that ushered in true globalization of voluntary standard-setting. The case studies of containerization, establishment of the ISO, and standards of electromagnetic frequency (radio and color TV) are used to show how conflicts ranging from commercial to ideological were resolved through consensus building. Reaching consensus is a process, and these case studies show how that process unfolded in similar and yet different ways in each case. The most important aspect these chapters show is how critical the networks of national and international organizations were for the standard setting activities.

The third part of the book (chapters 7-9) covers the period after 1980 when, as a result of the “third wave,” digital technologies changed both the nature of international economic integration as well as the voluntary standardization activity. The earlier international organizations led by charismatic and influential individuals, often well-versed with diplomacy, and which at times represented national interests (in addition to commercial ones) were, according to the authors, gradually replaced by more global organizations where national interests became subsumed within technological and social considerations. The standardization activity during this period, most profoundly the standards that underlie the internet and make it possible for me share this review with you, may be seen as an extension of the voluntary standardization activity that preceded it. And yet they were different, as with a few exceptions the standardization entrepreneurs of the post-1980s period appear to be motivated by different ideologies than their predecessors. Getting the technology to function effectively seemed to be the goal of standardization in this wave rather than the loftier aims declared by the engineers of the first and second waves (including the promotion of economic growth (p. 131)).

The individuals of Engineering Rules thus were crucial to the global standardization movement, if we are to understand standardization as a sociological rather than merely a technical activity. The authors have used extensive institutional archives and many personal records not usually in the public domain to unearth the stories of these individuals. The voluntary aspect of standardization refers to both the standards themselves (they are voluntary to use) but also to the engineers who voluntarily gave up their time and expertise to establish key standards that makes most economic activity possible (p. 62). Networks are key for international economic integration and the networks of global standardization reinforce this profoundly. Yates and Murphy effectively demonstrate that these social networks followed the third way of standard setting that could overcome many of the limitations of standardization by committees or ex post market-based standardization. Indeed, they make us pause and consider whether the dichotomy of committee-based and market-based standardization is really very helpful to economic historians. Most engineering and technical standards are voluntary to use, privately established, but seem to be generally used as if they were enforced by some law. Most standardization activity of the type covered in Engineering Rules lies along a spectrum of committee-led to voluntary market-based activities. The vocabulary of voluntary consensus standardization could provide a fecund way for historians to think about such standards.

The focus of Engineering Rules is predominantly on technical industrial standards. Economic historians have examined other non-engineering standards that may fruitfully fall within the voluntary consensus standards definition that Yates and Murphy provide. These other standards, many which predate the 1880s, include those developed by commodity exchanges and agricultural trades (e.g. quality grades) or by professions such as accounting standards (e.g. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP). Do the narratives of such non-technical standards mirror those covered by Engineering Rules? Yates and Murphy provide a glimpse of this in Chapter 9 where they cover standards for “social responsibility” in the twenty-first century. However, the histories of such non-engineering standards and the international issues they straddle may yet prove to be very different to those encountered by the engineers and “standardization geeks” of Yates and Murphy’s fascinating book.


Charles Kindelberger, “Standards as Public, Collective and Private Goods,” Kyklos 36 (1983): 377–96.

Joseph Farrell and Garth Saloner, “Coordination through Committees and Markets,” RAND Journal of Economics 19 (1988): 235–52.

Aashish Velkar is Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Markets and Measurements in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press 2012) and has a forthcoming article “‘Imperial Folly’: Metrication, Euroscepticism and Popular Politics in Britain (1965-80)” in Journal of Modern History. Other recent publications include “Rethinking Metrology, Nationalism, and Development in India (1833-1956),” Past & Present (2018), and (with David Higgins) “‘Spinning a Yarn’: Institutions, Law, and Standards in the Lancashire Cotton Textile Industry c1880-1914,” Enterprise and Society (2017).


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