The earliest standards dealt with units of linear measurement, weight, and time. They were developed by the great civilisations of the ancient world into systems from which the origin of all corresponding European and Middle Eastern standards can be traced. But an industrial or commercial standard is not a standard of length, weight, or measurement in the sense of the standard yard or ounce – which are fundamental standards of measure. A standard may be defined as a carefully thought out method of performing a function, or as a carefully drawn specification of material, equipment, or commodities. A standard method is simply the best method that can be devised for performing a function.
The strict codes of the medieval merchant guilds are the first standards of quality in trade. The confusion of the industrial revolution in Britain had by the nineteenth century enforced the need for industrial standards on which to base business. There were no standard names for products; the goods of one manufacturer differed from those of another in unimportant details; users' specifications had multiplied; and industry itself recognised that it could no longer remain haphazard and trade successfully.
The first move was the standardisation of screw threads on the basic form of thread devised (after a wide survey and analysis in 1841) by Sir Joseph Whitworth. By 1901 the British Engineering Standards Committee was formed – the first standards organisation in the world established to develop national standard specifications. Since then standards organisations have been developed in nearly every country, and a world organisation (the International Organization for Standardization, ISO), has been established to coordinate national standard specifications. The New Zealand Standards Institute is a member of this organisation and at the present time is serving on the ISO Council for a three-year term.