125 Years of ASTM International
This year, ASTM International celebrates its 125th anniversary. The occasion presents a chance to reflect on a storied past and anticipate a bright future, noting both the time-honored traditions and patterns of change that have led to our present.
ASTM’s story is not only one of organizational growth, but also the social and economic advancement of our world. Since its formation in 1898, ASTM has played its part in three industrial revolutions and weathered two World Wars, reinventing itself with each generation to champion discovery in materials science, design, safety, and the exchange of information.
Along the way, the membership has also confronted deep questions about how and why to use technology, supporting progress as well as safer and more responsive innovations. From industrial raw materials, automobiles, and ecological systems to additive manufacturing, spaceflight, and beyond, ASTM continues to bring people together to help our world work better – and lead richer lives.
ASTM International has its roots in the late 1800s, an era of discovery that some historians have characterized as “the second industrial revolution.” During this period, the world saw radical innovation in technology and method, such as electrification, steam turbines, applied science, telecommunications, metallurgy, and scientific management.
At times, development was so frenetic that it outpaced the safe management of new technologies. Railways were a particular example of this complex moment. They allowed mass migration and the circulation of industrial supplies but also presented grave hazards. Trains swelled in size along congested routes, packed full of human passengers and valuable commodities. With a steep rise in derailments, it soon became clear that there was a need for careful attention to materials and testing.
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One of the major voices for change in the period was Dr. Charles Benjamin Dudley, a young chemist who was appointed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) to create a groundbreaking department of chemistry. Dudley had served in the U.S. Civil War with the New York Volunteers, and despite a lack of means, had managed to pay his way through a doctoral degree in chemistry at Yale University by working as a night editor for the New Haven Palladium.
1898: Testing and research became a greater part of industry during the 19th century. ASTM was founded by Dr. Charles Benjamin Dudley, a chemist for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, who played an important role in materials research and the promotion of safety.
After taking up his position with the PRR in 1875, Dudley applied an unprecedented method to the study of train rails. He prioritized data over conventional wisdom, a model that matched his powerful belief in deliberation and research. He further supplemented these values with an unshaken faith that the insights of pure science could be applied to practical applications, all without compromising rigor or the pursuit of knowledge. As he noted some decades later in his 1897 Presidential Address to the American Chemical Society, if “the love of the truth is above all, and honest work is being done,” the applied scientist and the scholar alike were “worthy of recognition, honor, and respect.”
Dudley’s rail study sent a shockwave through the industry. Over the next two decades, he learned that serious issues plagued manufacturing. Business-to-business sales typically relied on ad hoc rather than general specifications. A lack of consistency frequently led to bitter conflicts between producers and purchasers, with both parties feeling swindled by inevitable variances in costs or quality of materials.
Owing to such issues, Dudley and several like-minded individuals saw the need for an independent organization that could facilitate discussions of quality and method. On June 16, 1898, they brought together 70 people to define the needs and scope of a brand-new American Section of the International Association for Testing Materials (IATM).
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The Section was to be short-lived. IATM was led by European powerhouses such as Germany and France. Members had a well-established preference for the creation of test methods, a position that left little room for Dudley and others who believed in the equal need for specifications. In 1902, just a year after releasing their first standard – a specification for steel rails – the membership elected to leave IATM.
Henry M. Howe, the outgoing American Section president, explained the move in his address to the newly chartered American Society for Testing Materials, saying that the need for specifications “applies with even greater force to international negotiations, between buyer and seller who have never seen each other, who live under different conditions of society, with different traditions, conceptions, and points of view.”
The departure from IATM was largely harmonious and did little to hamper ASTM’s international perspective. The new Society opened its membership to people across the globe, and Dudley himself was elected president of IATM just three months before his 1909 death. In a memorial, IATM observed that Dudley’s name would “ever remain honourably inscribed in the annals of technical science.”
A New Century
Dudley’s passing was a difficult loss for ASTM, but nothing could prepare the organization for the challenges it would face over the next four decades.
The outbreak of World War in 1914 transformed standardization and established industrial technology as a key component of modern warfare. With a membership heavily concentrated in Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, IATM fragmented.
When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, ASTM found itself tested. The society’s standards were applied to the steel plates used in tanks and ships, as well as the concrete used to construct fortresses on the Western Front. Meanwhile, the membership worked tirelessly to mediate the interests of wartime producers. Circumstances so deeply affected the association that during its 1917 Annual Meeting, both the presidential nominee, General William Herbert Bixby, and the vice-presidential nominee, Edward Orton, Jr., were unable to attend due to wartime commitments.
1917: During World War I, ASTM's standards were applied to the steel plates used in tanks and ships and the concrete used to construct fortresses on the Western Front. The membership also worked to mediate the interests of wartime producers.
By the end of that year, the group’s more than 2,000 members testified to its significance. Captains of industry such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison had become members, as had major academic institutions, industrial firms, and national entities such as Brown and Stanford Universities, Bethlehem Steel Company, General Electric, and the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair.
The end of the war in 1918 brought respite from conflict but also presented its own hardships. The Great Depression was particularly challenging, seeing the organization’s membership decrease for the first time. Still, ASTM endured. From the 1920s to the late 1930s, ASTM standards contributed to automobile manufacture, highway construction, plastics, water, glass, nondestructive testing, and radiography, technologies that played a role in New Deal economic recovery.
World War II introduced strife on a level that overshadowed even those earlier crises. Two decades of additional technological development joined rampant economic and political conflict to create a perfect storm, one that affected civilians and governments without discrimination.
In January 1942, just a month after the U.S. entered the war, ASTM acknowledged the situation in their Bulletin: “It is still too early to make any very definite appraisal of the effect of the War Effort on A.S.T.M. activities. That there will be need for all our technical knowledge, we know, and many A.S.T.M. members will be serving in key positions. Also there will be imperative need for standard specifications in the procurement of materials in order to conserve materials and production capacity, so that some of our committees may be called upon to take prompt action to meet the emergency.”
Supply lines were quickly tested, and shortages would become the norm throughout the war. ASTM members played their part, publishing a 1942 Book of Standards that made purchasing specifications and other information more accessible for government and industry. They also worked to help issue emergency modifications to reduce or replace the use of increasingly scarce materials, ones badly needed by wartime industry and the civilian economy alike.
After the Wars
With the end of war in 1945, ASTM had over 5,600 members – a thousand more than when the conflict began. Poised to play a role in postwar recovery, ASTM moved from its location in downtown Philadelphia on 260 S. Broad Street to its first headquarters located at 1916 Race Street, a significant change for an organization that was initially run from the office of a University of Pennsylvania professor.
The organization remained vital as new technologies and social concerns stepped into to the foreground. World War II had definitively established nuclear technology as a matter of global significance. ASTM brought together individuals and groups who understood the absolute care required by the issue. The membership created several committees and subcommittees, collaborated with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense, and attracted important specialists – such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Oscar Sisman, a veteran of the Manhattan Project, who chaired an ASTM committee to study the effects of radiation.
By 1960, ASTM had added committees oriented toward growing industries such as engine coolants, molecular spectroscopy, electronics, and vehicle-pavement systems. Four years later, it built an entirely new headquarters at 1916 Race Street, a state-of-the-art facility that further increased its ability to support member activity.
In this era, ASTM followed a pattern established by Dudley in the organization’s early years, hosting important discussions about how to use humanity’s expansive productive capacities. Even as ASTM standards played a role in the construction of modern wonders such as Seattle’s Space Needle, the pages of the Society's magazine testified to the way members boldly confronted complex issues like the space race, gender equality, and the emerging social consciousness of the era.
The spirit of this period was neatly captured in a 1969 editorial by C.R. DeCarlo, “The New Reality in Technology,” which called attention to the human element of standardization. As DeCarlo explained to readers, “Whether you are prone to do it or not, you will be dealing with human problems, essentially value problems, philosophical as well as scientific. This will be a great challenge. We will have to start at the engineering school level to show that human and technological values are intimately related and turn out as graduates, people who are not only scientifically and technically competent, but also who care for these values.”
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1970s: The decade saw milestones such as the Clean Air Act and the creation of the EPA. ASTM members responded to environmental concerns and issues affecting everyday life.
This humanistic impulse guided ASTM’s earliest materials committees, and it encouraged the formation of others to address novel concerns. Following milestones such as the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ASTM matched the 1970's attentiveness to environmental issues and other matters affecting everyday life. By the end of the decade, both older and newer committees had come together to discuss topics such as consumer products, pesticides, textile flammability, oil spills, occupational health, and sports equipment.
End of the Century
Whether it marked a period of globalization, the dawn of the digital age, or a third industrial revolution, the last decades of the twentieth century saw a shift of production away from the North American and European industrial centers of Dudley’s era, toward a more complex, multipolar landscape characterized by increased attention to information and design.
ASTM had been involved with electronics and other information technologies for decades, but by the 1980s, its membership recognized a pressing need for standards in an increasingly digital world. The organization also remained committed to progress in materials science and consumer safety. By the end of the decade, committees had approached a wide range of new topics, including waste management, ski safety, emergency medical services, search and rescue, and biotechnology.
Also building on its tradition of self-evaluation, ASTM worked to strengthen itself as an institution. New services supported education, research, and collaboration in the standards community. The introduction of technical training courses was followed by other services such as proficiency testing programs. The organization’s 1995 move into a new headquarters in the Philadelphia suburb of West Conshohocken further empowered staff and members to evolve throughout the information era, something signaled by the creation of an ASTM website the same year.
1995: ASTM opens a state-of-the-art headquarters in West Conshohocken, PA. The organization also launches a website, designed to make standards more accessible to the world.
ASTM’s place in the new century was cemented by the additions of a student membership category (2003), an interlaboratory study program (2004), and a digital library to further increase access to technical documents (2006). Currently, ASTM’s wide range of products and services includes the Compass platform, which makes more than 12,000 standards and over 40,000 articles and papers available to subscribers; reference materials for cement, concrete, and petroleum; market intelligence via Wohlers Report; and trainings and certifications.
In 2001, when the organization was renamed “ASTM International,” it was in many respects a simple acknowledgment of something that dated back to its formation as a branch of IATM. Even so, the change was also an embrace of a new era of global cooperation – represented by the opening of ASTM offices in Latin America, China, Europe, and Canada, along with the establishment of a global Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) program to create international partnerships. At present, ASTM has more than 120 MoU agreements.
Today, we sit in an era that some have called a “fourth industrial revolution,” marked by innovations in robotics, automation, machine learning, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and other emerging industries. Whether members refine steel rails or imagine materials of the future, they still bring unique voices to the challenges of our time.
ASTM’s president, Kathie Morgan, cites the balance of tradition and growth as one of the key strengths of the society.
“Like most organizations, ASTM has seen significant change,” Morgan explains. “We have moved from transactional to transformative with new products, new services, new member tools, greater efficiencies, broader reach, and more. However, the principles of our standards-development process remain the same. Consensus, openness, balance, due process – we welcome any standards project where there are stakeholders willing to work on it – low cost to entry and a premium environment attracting many of the best technical experts in the world. These pillars were true in ASTM’s early days, and they are true today.”
Following more than a century of relentless industrial progress and social upheaval, ASTM’s current initiatives reflect an unbroken tradition of research, innovation, and careful deliberation. The organization builds on Dudley’s foundation, ready to rethink enduring problems and confront new ones.
JP Ervin is content editor for Standardization News.