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American National Standards Institute
History and Background


From the time of its founding on October 19 1918, the American National Standards Institute has served as the coordinator of the U.S. voluntary standards and conformity assessment system. The diversified ANSI federation includes representatives of industry, standards developing organizations, trade associations, academia, professional and technical societies, government, labor and consumer groups, and more.

ANSI provides a forum where the private and public sectors can cooperatively work together towards the development of voluntary national consensus standards and the related compliance programs. The Institute provides the means for the U.S. to influence global standardization activities and the development of international standards. It is the dues paying member and sole U.S. representative of the two major non-treaty international standards organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and, via the U.S. National Committee (USNC), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and is also a member of the International Accreditation Forum, as well as numerous regional bodies.

The history of ANSI and the U.S. voluntary standards system is dynamic. Discussions to coordinate national standards development in an effort to avoid duplication, waste and conflict date back to 1911. In 1916, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE) invited the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (AIMME) and the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) to join in establishing an impartial national body to coordinate standards development, approve national consensus standards and halt user confusion on acceptability. These five organizations subsequently invited the U.S. Departments of War, Navy and Commerce to join them as founders.

ANSI was originally established as the American Engineering Standards Committee (AESC). According to Paul G. Agnew, the first permanent secretary and head of staff in 1919, AESC started as an ambitious program and little else. Staff for the first year consisted of one executive, on loan from a founder. He was Clifford B. LePage of ASME. An annual budget of $7,500 was provided by the founding bodies.

A year after AESC was founded it approved its first standard on pipe threads. The organization undertook its first major project in 1920 when it began coordination of national safety codes to replace the many laws and recommended practices that were hampering accident prevention. The first American Standard Safety Code was approved in 1921 and covered the protection of heads and eyes of industrial workers. Today there are over 1,200 ANSI-approved safety standards designed to protect the workforce, consumers and the general public. Overall, there are approximately 10,500 ANSI-approved American National Standards. In its first ten years, AESC also approved national standards in the fields of mining, electrical and mechanical engineering, construction and highway traffic.

AESC was very active in early attempts to promote international cooperation and in 1926 hosted the conference that created the International Standards Association (ISA), an organization that would remain active until World War II. Nongovernmental standardization had started twenty years earlier in 1906 with the formation of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). The IEC’s origins date back to a 1904 international meeting of leading scientists and pioneer industrialists that was held in St. Louis, Mo. IEC is responsible for the development of world standards for the electrical and electronics area and is composed of the national committees from countries around the world. The U.S. National Committee of IEC became affiliated with the American Standards Association’s (ASA) Electrical Standards Committee in 1931.

As its responsibilities and activities evolved, it was decided that AESC had outgrown its committee stature and structure, and in 1928 was reorganized and renamed the American Standards Association (ASA). Three years later, in 1931, the U.S. National Committee of the IEC became affiliated with the ASA’s Electrical Standards Committee. In just under two decades the vision of a coordinated national system had grown to international proportions.

When the United States went to war in 1941, ASA was prepared with a War Standards Procedure that it had adopted nearly a year earlier. It was used to accelerate development and approval of new and revised standards needed to increase industrial efficiency for war production. Under these procedures, 1,300 engineers worked on special committees to produce American War Standards for quality control, safety, photographic supplies and equipment components for military and civilian radio, fasteners and other products.

Shortly after World War II, ASA in 1946 joined with the national standards bodies of 25 countries to form the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). While some attempts were made in the thirties to develop international standards in areas other than in the electrotechnical field, it was not until ISO was created that an international standards organization devoted to standardization as a whole came into existence. Its object was to promote international standards development and to facilitate the international unification of industrial standards. Since its origin, ANSI has been a strong and active leader in ISO and through its U.S. National Committee in IEC.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, ASA helped industry and government anticipate standards needs in such fields as nuclear energy, information technology, material handling and electronics. Interest in international standardization continued to rise in the ''50s as ASA hosted the second General Assembly of ISO and the Golden Jubilee meeting of IEC.

Under the name of the United States of America Standards Institute (USASI), ASA was reorganized in 1966 in response to identified needs for a broader use of the consensus principle in developing and approving standards; making the voluntary standards system more responsive to consumer needs; and strengthening U.S. leadership internationally.

ANSI adopted its present name in 1969. Throughout these various reorganizations and name changes, the Institute continued to coordinate national and international standards activities and to approve voluntary national standards, now known as American National Standards. Domestic programs were constantly expanded and modified to meet the changing needs of industry, government and other sectors.

Structural and other modifications were introduced to enhance its performance. Formation of a public review process, via the establishment of ANSI’s Board of Standards Review in 1970 with responsibility for standards approval, was one of the most significant innovations in the Institute’s history. New requirements for approval enhanced the credibility of American National Standards with government agencies, industry and the public. Throughout the 70s, the institute continued to look for ways to strengthen the standards system. In the 1970s, ANSI assisted the Department of Commerce with a metric study and the Institute formed the American National Metric Council to help the private sector plan conversion.

Since the time agencies of the federal government joined the five societies as founders, the ANSI federation has enjoyed a cooperative relationship with various segments of the federal government. An unprecedented increase in federal regulatory legislation calling for use of standards led to increased cooperation with the federal government. In 1976, ANSI and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established a joint coordinating committee to provide for better private-public sector communication regarding voluntary standards activities that affect safety and health in the workplace. Its success led to the 1982 formation of a similar joint coordinating committee with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) that fostered better cooperation in standards activities relating to consumer products.

The 1980s brought a renewed emphasis on the importance of international standardization activities. Many segments of the business community realized standardization was the key to unlocking markets throughout the world and the U.S. standards system was called on to meet this challenge. While keeping appropriate focus on national standardization activities, ANSI, throughout the ‘80s, emphasized the importance of the international arena. In 1987, the Institute accepted responsibility for the world’s largest technical standards effort and the most significant innovation in international standardization - ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 on Information Technology.

In response to the planned unification of the European markets, ANSI launched a cooperative dialogue with its European counterparts. At the core of this program was the establishment of an office in Brussels that would provide for more timely information on European standards activities. The ANSI federation also initiated an important series of discussions with the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC). These meetings have been successful in achieving mutual cooperation and increased access to the European standards process.

Since 1989, ANSI has also advanced its international relationships within the countries of Eastern Europe, the Far East, the Pacific Rim and South and Central America. In 1991, trilateral discussions between Mexico, Canada and members of the ANSI federation were initiated to complement government negotiations for a North American Free Trade Agreement.

The 1990’s brought standardization into the limelight as a source of strategic and competitive advantage in the ever-expanding global economy. Never before had the importance of standardization been greater. Companies view standards not only as key to impacting product development, quality or environmental compliance, but also as an imperative in competing successfully in the global marketplace. The effective use of strategic standardization in achieving competitiveness, quality, product certification and conformity assessment became critical issues facing the business and the standardization community in this decade.

In late 2000, the first-ever U.S. National Standards Strategy (NSS) was approved. Developed over a two-year period, the NSS became a roadmap to developing reliable, market-driven standards in all sectors. It reaffirmed that the U.S. is committed to a sector-based approach to voluntary standardization activities, both domestically and globally. It provided an outline of key principles necessary for the development of standards to meet societal and market needs, and a strategic vision for implementing these principles nationally and internationally.

During the first years of the 21st Century, those involved in standards-setting activities clearly recognized a growing need for globally relevant standards and related conformity assessment mechanisms. “Market forces” such as global trade and competition; societal issues such as health, safety and the environment; an enhanced focus on consumer needs and involvement and increasing interaction between public-sector and private-sector interests were significantly impacting standardization and conformity assessment programs. Standards themselves had expanded well beyond documents identifying product specifications to instead focus on performance issues and to also include processes, systems and personnel.

In 2005, the U.S. National Standards Strategy (NSS) was updated and renamed as the United States Standards Strategy (USSS). The Strategy was developed over a 20-month period through the coordinated efforts of a large and diverse group of constituents representing stakeholders in government, industry, standards developing organizations, consortia, consumer groups, and academia. The USSS recognizes globalization and the need for standards designed to meet stakeholder needs irrespective of national borders; it also reflects a standardization environment that incorporates new types of standards development activities, more flexible approaches and new structures.

The past ninety years have brought many changes and improvements to the Institute and the voluntary standards system, many of which are not mentioned here in this brief overview. As the U.S. economy changes so must the Institute continue to evolve to meet the challenges of a global marketplace and the demands of its constituents. ANSI will continue to serve the role for which the American Engineering Standards Committee was created – to coordinate U.S. standards and conformity assessment activities. It will continue to be an organization that is committed to serving the U.S. voluntary standardization system and its members, the backbone of a system that is first among equals.

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