Charles Le Maistre
Charles Le Maistre
Some material used with permission from JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy, “Charles Le Maistre: Entrepreneur in International Standardization,” Entreprise et Histoires, 51(2008), pp. 10-27.
Charles Delacour Le Maistre, C.B.E. and Knight Commander of the Order of Vasa, was born, the seventh son of a poor country parson, on Jersey, off the coast of Normandy, France. He died in Surrey, England, soon after receiving news that France was about to make him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
Le Maistre was educated privately between 1882 and 1885 at Brighton College, where his father was a tutor. In the 1890s, he spent three years qualifying for entry to the IEE (Institution of Electrical Engineers) at the Central Technical College in South Kensington, England. Afterwards he worked for six years in the electrical department of the Thames Ironworks Company.
In 1901 he found his vocation when he was appointed Electrical Assistant Secretary of the British Engineering Standards Committee; known since 1931 as the British Standards Institute or BSI. For his work as its boss from 1916 (until 1942), he was made Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1920. Yet it was upon a much bigger stage that Le Maistre made his most significant impact.
In 1906, Le Maistre was installed as the first General Secretary of IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commission), a position he held until 1953. For more than forty years, he attended its every meeting, managed its activities, and travelled the world as the ambassador of international standardization. Within a few years, his innovative work became so synonymous with the IEC that he became known as “the deus ex machina (god from the machine) of international standardization”. (1)
Place in history
Le Maistre’s contribution to the IEC was as critical to the creation of the modern world as the work of scientists such as Max Planck, Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein. His contribution was also as significant as that of innovators and entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. However, sadly, Le Maistre’s part in the electronic revolution is the least known and least celebrated.
Einstein, Planck and Bohr developed relativity, quantum physics and mechanics in the early decades of the 20th century. In essence, they revealed the laws of motion governing electromagnetic radiation and subatomic particles. Their theoretical breakthroughs made possible the engineering of solid-state devices such as semiconductors, transistors and fibre optics, which are some of the essential ingredients of our information age.
What is not so well understood is the role Charles Delacour Le Maistre played in transforming scientific abstractions into materials that industrialists could use to manufacture things en masse.
Le Maistre’s work built on the principles of industrial progress first discovered in the 18th and 19th Century. For instance, it was Henry Maudslay’s new screw-cutting lathe in 1797 that introduced mass production of identical screws. This seemingly simple invention transformed Britain into the world’s commanding machine-driven workshop. But the complexities involved in harnessing electromagnetic radiation for industrial purposes posed problems on a scale never before encountered.
The need for standards recognized early
The electrical industry recognized this challenge from the very beginning. It understood that the exploitation of electrical power depended upon the standardization of the nomenclature, symbols and ratings of electrical apparatus and machinery. Hence its founders sought to develop commonly accepted and voluntarily adopted standards, as opposed to ones imposed by regulation.
Their focus on standards began in 1861 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting of telegraph engineers. It was there that it was first proposed to unify the measures of electrical resistance; there were then at least a dozen in use globally. This moved them to form the British Association Committee of Standards of Electrical Resistance. It was led by some still renowned names such as William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), James Clerk Maxwell, James Joule and William Siemens.
At several international congresses between 1861 and 1908 (though the last few were IEC meetings), they coined the designations and definitions for electrical units such as ohm, volt, coulomb, farad, Kelvin, ampere, watt, joule and the unit for self-inductance, otherwise known as the henry.
But their work was rooted in the 19th Century age of Michael Faraday and Newtonian physics, before it was subsumed by new paradigms.
20th Century disruption
In contrast, Le Maistre’s work took place in a different era. His major gift to global innovation was informed by the disruptive influence of relativity (1905), quantum physics (1899/1900) and, no less significantly, the Giorgi system (1901).
Le Maistre also had the advantage of being able to study the lessons from the railway age (1840 – 1913) regarding the importance of standardizing specifications.
One of Le Maistre’s most important achievements was the procedural reconciliation of the difference between international electrical units and mechanical ones.
In 1935, following Le Maistre’s instigation, the IEC adopted the Giorgi system. In essence, Giovanni Giorgi’s (1870 – 1950) methodology overcame the division between physical scientists and material technicians by bonding together the laws governing electromagnetical and mechanical units. Since 1961, this unified system has been better known as the International System of Units (IS). This ever-evolving body defines, among other things, the meter, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela as the basic units of length, mass, time, electric current and temperature.
It was due to LeMaistre’s innovative endeavours on technical committees that our modern efficient energized machine-driven world progressed: from power generation, transmission and distribution to home appliances, office equipment and the World Wide Web. In other words, it was the development of internationally accepted measurements, processes and specifications that built the bridges that connected electromagnetic and quantum science to economic and manufacturing realities.
Le Maistre encouraged, in ways that were then novel, the involvement of multiple stakeholders in the development of new standards for new technologies.
Le Maistre popularized the practice of inviting the best experts from manufacturers and their competitors, retailers, academia and government bodies to become immersed in the decision-making process. It is for this that he deserves recognition as being the person who recognized and organized “the community of interest of producer and consumer” in developing mutually agreed and universally endorsed technical solutions.
Based on his advisors impartial input, Le Maistre established democratic consensuses on the general principles relating to accepted industrial standards and processes. Together they tackled everything from stipulating specifications for electrical apparatus and screw threads to safety-related solutions that were both technically and socially acceptable.
Le Maistre also oversaw the development of the methods and ratings for testing and comparing the efficiency and performance of electrical machines. This nontrivial advance enables us today to assess, for instance, the attributes of digital devices such as smartphones produced by different manufacturers. In his words:
"Standardization, after all, is no more and no less than proper coordination. To effect it may necessitate the sinking of much personal opinion, but if its goal, through wideness of outlook and unity of thought and action, is the benefit of the community as a whole, standardization as a coordinated endeavour is bound increasingly to benefit humanity at large." (2)
He insisted that in the public interest every country’s electrotechnical committee should be represented at the IEC as an equal partner. So he ensured that the IEC’s constitution gave none of its members more rights or votes than any other.
Le Maistre’s robust institutional framework, methodologies and decision-making processes remain relevant today at the IEC. In addition, his ethos and principles are also widely emulated by similar bodies in different fields.
Visionary and still relevant today
In 1926, for instance, under Le Maistre’s leadership, the IEC established the first international organization that pooled the wisdom of the world’s national standards bodies into a permanent voluntary forum. Known as the ISA (the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations) initially prioritized mechanical engineering-related issues. But in 1947, following Le Maistre’s advocacy, it widened its brief, changing its name to ISO (the International Organization for Standardization).
Hence, he really earned the right to be known as “the father of international standardization”. (3)
- C. Sharp, Discussion on Standardization, AIEE Transactions, Vol.35, Part 1, 1916, p. 491, as cited in P. Van Den Bossche, The Electric Vehicle: Raising the Standards, doctoral dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, April 2003.
- R. McWilliam, “The Evolution of British Standards,” doctoral dissertation, University of Reading, September, 2002, p. 252
- Friendship among equals: Recollections from ISO’s first fifty years, Geneva, ISO, 1997, p. 16.