Control Over Standards

The Measure of All Things is a great book about the invention the metric system during the French revolution.

The following passage in particular caught my attention:

Each act of measurement in the Ancien Regime referred to a particular physical standard, held in local hands and safeguarded by local officials. A town’s measure for the length of building materials, for instance, might derive from an iron fathom mortised into the wall of the town’s market hall. (…)

Not only did the physical standards differ from community to community, but the technique of measurement depended on local custom. One district measured grain heaped high in its bushel; another measured grain after it had been leveled off; still another, after the bushel had been struck to settle its contents. (…)

This meant that measurements standards were potentially open to dispute, negotiation, and change (…) Outsiders, of course, did no understand these measures, but local buyers and sellers did - which suggests one of the main advantages of local diversity. They kept outsiders out. Distinctive measures protected small-town traders from big-city merchants, or at least forced the latter to pay the equivalent of a fee before the could enter the local market. Artisanal guilds took charge of their own measures so that they might define their goods in a unique way, identify interlopers, and drive them out of business with ruinous lawsuits. This was as true of gunsmiths and milliners then as it is true of the computer industry today. Control over standards is control over the local rules of economic life, and Ancien Régime standards were everywhere local.

This is still true in the Peruvian Andes where the “quintal” weight measurement may differ from village to village.

I learned that standards wars are not specific to our modern age. Googling a bit more about this, I found this article (PDF) which presents a few other historical examples of standards wars and identifies strategies for companies fighting in such battles.