Abstract: P. G. Agnew and the Consensus Principle for American Industrial Standards

Andrew L. Russell

Abstract

You have probably never heard of Paul Gough Agnew, but he played an important role in one of the decisive aspects of the twentieth-century phase of America's Second Industrial Revolution. From 1919 to 1948, Agnew served as secretary of the American Engineering Standards Committee (AESC). The AESC, founded in 1918 by representatives from five professional engineering societies, was a private organization that coordinated the standardization activities of private firms, technical societies, and trade associations. For the next thirty-five years, Agnew was a leading spokesman and administrator for the American industrial standards movement. In 1928, the AESC refined its mission and changed its name to the American Standards Association (ASA). As part of this reorganization, the ASA defined its "consensus principle," which stipulated that all parties with an interest in a proposed standard should have a voice in the standardization process. This paper considers the governance aspects of standardization; in other words, it analyzes the standardization process as a political process. For historians, Agnew and the consensus principle are significant because they provided a viable strategy for high-tech firms to exchange technical information. The ideas and institutions of industrial standardization were important instances of cooperation that sustained the American style of competitive managerial capitalism.