Finding the Unexpected Wonder in More Than 22,000 International Standards - Atlas Obscura

Finding the Unexpected Wonder in More Than 22,000 International Standards

From brewing tea to making shipping containers.

Almost every tiny component of a camera will have its own ISO standard.
Almost every tiny component of a camera will have its own ISO standard. Public Domain

It’s 7:30 a.m., UTC, and you need to brush your teeth. You switch on the bathroom light. The ceramic tiles are cool on your bare feet. You squeeze a little toothpaste onto the brush, then slide it between your lips and against your teeth. Brush. Brush, brush. Brush. (This bit takes a while.) Brush. Spit. Swill some water around in your mouth. Rinse. You splash a little tap water into the sink. Toothbrush down. You leave the room, switching the lights off as you go. It’s 7:33 a.m., UTC.

In Geneva, Switzerland, at the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, teams of engineers have spent months and months thinking about every single of one of these actions. For each, there’s a standard—for the glazed tiles beneath your toes; the precise chemical properties of your chosen paste, cream, or gel; the filaments that make up your brush. There’s an international standard behind the time on your watch and the water that flows through the pipes. As you go through your day, you will come into contact with countless others, without even realizing it. Each one is the product of a minimum of 18 months’ to-and-fro, and sometimes as much as three to five years. Then, within five years of being settled, they’ll be revised all over again.

It can be hard to find the joy in the minutiae of ISO—pages upon pages of acronyms, meeting notes, nuts-and-bolts bureaucracy about actual nuts and bolts. But without it, and the standardization it provides, the world would be a significantly more chaotic place. Understanding how the organization came to be requires a journey back through the history of modern standardization, a peek at some of the stranger—and most instrumental—standards, and a look at its political philosophy, one that stands in stark contrast to how most internationally significant decisions are made elsewhere in the world.


Standardization becomes critical in a connected world. If you never come into contact with your faraway neighbors, it doesn’t especially matter whether you use the same measurements, operate by the same clock, or have the same size windows in your workplace. The Industrial Revolution, however, had the effect of shrinking the world—journeys which would once have been unthinkably long could now take place in the space of weeks, or even days. And for that, there needed to be cooperation along the line.

ISO has standards for everything from screws (4026), drills (2306), and beers (67.160.10) to cigarettes (126).
ISO has standards for everything from screws (4026), drills (2306), and beers (67.160.10) to cigarettes (126). Public Domain

In mid-19th-century United States, this became especially clear as railroads began to stripe across the country for the first time. Each place used its own measure to determine the space between the rails on the track. Some track gauge measurements were narrow—in parts of Maine, just two feet wide. Other places, like New York State, favored a gauge of up to six feet. If everybody remained in their “area,” this didn’t represent an especial problem. But increasingly, people, and goods, needed to be moved great distances, from one place to the next. Usually, railways resorted to a break of gauge, where everything and everyone would trundle off one train operating on one gauge, and onto the next train which operated on a different gauge. But this was an expensive, time-consuming solution and, as trade between the Midwest and the East mushroomed after the Civil War, it became a nuisance for trading companies.

By 1880, most North American railways had agreed to convert to a standard gauge—4 ft 8 1⁄2 in, or 1435 mm. At the end of May 1886, the southern railways capitulated, and changed their own lines to approximately the same gauge. This seemingly arbitrary measure is now the standard across much of the world, and used in around 55 percent of railways. It was transitions such as these that began to impress upon people how important it was, from an engineering perspective, to use the same systems across states, countries, and the world.

Gradually, nations began to have their own organizations for standardization—first Britain, in 1901, with the Engineering Standards Committee. (They are now the BSI Group, with the charming tagline: “Making excellence a habit.”) Germany and the United States followed suit, in 1918: The American Engineering Standards Committee, founded by five engineering societies and three government agencies, became the American National Standards Institute in 1969.

The earliest example of international standardization, however, did not include Britain or the United States. Despite being founded in New York, the International Federation of the National Standardizing Association (known as ISA and established in 1926) was a mostly continental Europe body. (America and Britain’s reliance on imperial measurements did not make membership a particularly sensible option for either.) ISA began to lay the groundwork for standards across mechanical engineering out of its Swiss headquarters, but was brought to a crashing halt by the Second World War. In 1942, it was mothballed.

CDs are also ISO standardized—leading to the .iso file type.
CDs are also ISO standardized—leading to the .iso file type. Public Domain

In 1946, when the war was over, delegates from 25 countries met at London’s Institute of Civil Engineers. The city was still reeling from bombing and rationing, and Willy Kuert, who had traveled from Switzerland for the meeting, recalled a city that was “still partly destroyed.” In the wake of this international conflict, the delegates sought an organization that prioritized international cooperation. “We went to London, we Swiss, hoping to create a new organization which would do the work of standardization in a democratic way, and not cost too much money,” Kuert wrote in the ISO’s self-published history, Friendship Among Equals. “At the end of the London conference, we had the feeling that new statutes and new rules would permit us to do such work. Real, effective work.”

There were certain sensitive issues that delegates made a point of not discussing at that initial meeting—tension between the metric and imperial blocs, for instance. But others did have to be addressed, including the name of the body. Eventually, the group decided on ISO as a standard acronym, independent of any language. The organization’s website now claims that the founders derived this moniker from the Greek work isos, or equal. Kuert, for his part, remembered no such thing: “There was no mention of that in London!” In the 70 years since, the ISO has expanded to some 161 member states and more than 22,000 standards.

Some of these standards are decidedly quirky. Standard 3103, “Tea—Preparation of liquor for use in sensory tests,” which lays down a correct way to brew tea, has particularly enthralled the public, even earning an Ig Nobel prize in 1999. A few highlights: The pot’s inside edge should be partly serrated. “Large pots” should not hold more than 310 milliliters (plus or minus 8 ml), with two grams of tea per 100 ml of boiling water. Timing is critical—20 seconds for that boiling water to cool; six minutes of brewing time.

It may seem ludicrous that such a standard should even exist—but ponder this: In scientific experiments where participants must drink tea, how else can you be sure that tea made and consumed in one country is the same as in another? Americans mostly drink their tea without milk; Indians opt for a beverage that is heavily sugared and spiced, steeping the leaves in warm milk. In Britain alone, people stew over whether the milk goes in first or second. A standard may seem unromantic, but without it, anarchy reigns—even if, from the outside, it might seem a storm in a teacup.

ISO standardizes ski boots (5355), skis and bindings (8364), and poles (7331).
ISO standardizes ski boots (5355), skis and bindings (8364), and poles (7331). Public Domain

Other times, standards exist not for international cooperation or scientific accuracy, but because it’s really, really important for things to work. Craig Murphy is a political scientist and the co-author of The International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Global Governance Through Voluntary Consensus, with JoAnne Yates. He gives the example of condoms, which require fastidious and complex standardization. “There are multiple condom standards, because there are multiple sized people, and condoms are used slightly differently in different parts of the world,” Murphy says. Since 1975, somewhere in a room near Geneva airport, teams of engineers have sat around in technical committees, talking about condoms—“smooth, textured, parallel-sided, non-parallel-sided, plain-ended, reservoir-ended, dry, lubricated, transparent, translucent, opaque, colored, pre-shaped, welded or non-welded,” according to the standard.

Testing condoms isn’t sexy work, but it’s deeply, deeply important. On an individual level, the consequences of an unreliable condom may be life-changing—on a global one, they’re the difference between managing, and not managing, an epidemic. Because of that, committees will usually include representatives of as many stakeholders as possible. In the case of condoms, that might include the World Health Organization, charitable and educational agencies that focus on family planning, HIV prevention organizations, and groups representing consumers (who do, after all, pay the price if the standard isn’t up to scratch.) ISO has relationships with over 700 international, regional and national organizations, of which the World Trade Organization and the United Nations are just two.


Global standards can do more than just solve global problems—some have had a radical impact on economies. The most famous of these is likely ISO 6346: the standards for the humble shipping container. Before 1956, as noted in The Economist, goods were piled high on ships’ holds and crammed into empty nooks and crannies in wooden crates. Things regularly went missing, and companies’ losses due to theft were high. The introduction of uniform metal containers that year sent the price of shipping plummeting, as companies wasted far less time loading and unloading—picking up a box, even a really, really big one, is much quicker than trying to unpack hundreds of miscellaneous wooden crates of every which size. In the late 1960s, the ISO published an initial shipping container standard that made things even more straightforward.

Ships and ports got bigger—containers made it easier to move things inland, as well. People sent things around the world more cheaply, and with greater abandon, than they had before, with boxes shunted easily from ship to truck and from truck back to ship.

“Containerism,” as it’s technically known, is associated with a 320 percent increase in bilateral trade in the first five years alone. Over 20 years, it’s close to 800 percent—more than any free trade agreement in the last five decades. At any given moment, millions of shipping containers are making their way across the globe, whether laden with inexpensive merchandise, from China to the United States, or with 50,000 bananas per 20-foot box, from Colombia to the United Kingdom. Today, writes Rose George in Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, we live in an “era of extreme interdependence.” A lot of that is due to these special standardized boxes.

In a sense, nations being interdependent, and collaborating accordingly, is precisely the aim of ISO, whose slogan, is, after all, “When the world agrees.” It’s a wholly different kind of international wrangling, says Murphy. “ISO finds a way to create cooperative agreements that are widely used.”

“Knowing that it is possible to not have the kind of political battles that we have in the UN system or in the regular politics of Parliament or the American Congress,” he says, trailing off. “It’s fascinating to think that human beings can actually do this other thing as well.” There is little showboating or power play at work in the ISO, he says. ”[It’s] a world where, instead of having the kind of politics that we actually have, politics is done quietly, behind the scenes, by people trying to find the best possible solution, or at least the solution that is the most agreeable to lots of interest groups.”

Every five years, ISO updates each standard as necessary according to changes in technology.
Every five years, ISO updates each standard as necessary according to changes in technology. Jeff Easter/CC BY 2.0

International cooperation isn’t free, however. To be a member of ISO, each country pays a subscription fee that helps cover the organization’s operating costs—a figure that is worked out for each country according its Gross National Income and trade figures. Other revenue comes from the sale of standards, starting at around $40 apiece. Internet commentators often bemoan the high price of individual standards. In a world of open source technology, this can seem baffling, or even hostile, to engineers and developers. But these costs play an important role in the ISO’s day-to-day running activities, Murphy points out, as they help subsidize the costs of having engineers or organizations from developing countries on its committees.

It’s much easier for wealthy countries, and their organizations, to send representatives to Geneva to work with ISO. For developing countries, however, these costs can be prohibitively high. In the past, this has been a problem—a 2004 study points out that Western Europe represented almost half the voting base in ISO’s standards development work, despite comprising approximately six percent of the world’s population. In the past few years, however, ISO seems to have committed to funneling money into improving representation from the developing world in its boardrooms and meeting committees. It’s good for the developing world but it’s good for ISO, too: Without participation from developing countries, ISO standards wind up applying to only a minority of the globe—to the detriment of world markets, technical progress, and sustainable development.

That said, politically, 2018 doesn’t seem like a golden period of international standardization. Political leaders trumpeting promises of deregulation have proven of late to have serious sway with voters, especially in the Anglo-American world. Furthermore, calls for America to “go metric” have been ignored for hundreds of years. In 1906, purported telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell urged Congress to adopt the metric system: “Few people have any adequate conception of the amount of unnecessary labor involved in the use of our present weights and measures.” Congress demurred, and does to this day. It remains to be seen how long this will continue to be the case, despite the huge costs having a different system represents.

In the meantime, however, ISO’s technocrats are hidden in plain sight, keeping their heads down and trying to making the world function a little more smoothly. “It’s about the power to get things done, which is actually all about consensus and listening to people,” Murphy says. “It might seem very boring, but it’s a different form of power—and it’s a better form of power.”