Standardization News

From Altoona to the World

Report by Former ASTM Editor Highlights Roots of ASTM in the Pennsylvania Railroad

Samuel Etris' report on the Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department will be available through the National Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.

Few people are as qualified to chronicle the history of the Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department and its integral connection to the founding of ASTM International as Samuel Etris. Fortunately, Etris has done just that, in a report recently published by the Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society.

In 2004, Alan Buchan, then president of the National Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, commissioned Etris, a former editor of SN and a member of the railroad society, to research the history of the Altoona, Pa., Test Department, which was in operation from 1874 to 1968. Etris' twin interests in railroads and standardization provided him with a unique perspective from which to tell the story of how the search for consistency in steel rail fabrication led to the formation of an organization whose standards are known and respected throughout the world.

It could be said that Etris' research for Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department 1874-1968 began at least as far back as 1968, when he, as the editor of Materials Research and Standards (ASTM's predecessor to SN), wrote a story on the closing of the Altoona facility in the wake of a merger between the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads.

As Etris wrote in the 1968 article, "Without trumpets or fanfare, what was once the world's most prestigious simulated service test laboratory ended almost a century of service to the railroad industry and, through its by-products, to ASTM and the nation."

Originally opened in 1874, the test department added a chemical laboratory, under the direction of Charles B. Dudley, the following year. With Dudley in charge, the lab began to research rail improvement in order to provide the knowledge needed to develop standard specifications, which were a new concept at that time. The research would become an integral building block for the concept of modern standardization.

"Dudley was a brilliant man who grasped a problem and made the Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department a world-class testing laboratory," says Etris. "The test lab was the learning ground for modern testing and evaluation."

Dudley's ongoing work at the testing department convinced him of the need for, as Etris noted in his 1968 article, "a neutral party to arbitrate the divergent views of producer and consumer and furnish a neutral ground for their discussion."

Dudley, along with cooperating steel companies, responded to this need by forming an American branch of the International Association of Testing Materials in 1898. This chapter became a separate entity, the American Society for Testing and Materials, in 1902. The first ASTM standard, A1, Specification for Open-Hearth Carbon-Steel Rails, was published later that year. (Still in existence, A1 is now called Specification for Carbon Steel Tee Rails.)

Etris' magazine story nicely summarized the history and closing of the Pennsylvania Railroad Testing Department, but he was able to provide a much more detailed history of the department and its connection to ASTM in this new report.

According to Etris, his history of the Pennsylvania Railroad Test Department is a memorial to "the professional engineers at the test department who devoted their careers to making sure ‘Pennsy' was the greatest and safest steam railway in the world."

In addition, of course, Etris' report shines a light on how the work of Charles Dudley and the Pennsylvania Railroad Testing Department led to the foundation and growth of ASTM International and, ultimately, to the course of modern consensus-based standardization as we know it.

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