GENEVA -- What's in a screw?
Well, there's ISO 272, ISO 4757, ISO 7721. And that's just for starters.
The humble screw, along with bolts, nails and all other types of fasteners, is subject to a mind-boggling 160 size and quality controls under an internationally coordinated system intended to make our everyday life safer and simpler.
It's no accident, for instance, that credit cards are the same size from Wilmington, Delaware to Wellington, New Zealand. An elaborate system of standards has seen to that. It's why an American renting a Japanese-made car in Liechtenstein will see the same dashboard symbols as at home, and find batteries for his camera at a store in the Alps.
"Standards are all around us but nobody sees them," says Anke Varcin of the International Standards Organization, which coordinates the work of national institutions and organizes World Standards Day every Oct. 14 to increase awareness of the 20,000 or so standards that harmonize everything from air quality control through anticorrosion devices for underwater oil pipelines to the sweat resistance of a shirt.
There are no laws to force compliance - just the power of the market and the commonsensical fact that life is easier when your hair dryer plugs in everywhere on the globe.
So how come it doesn't?
Because even though dozens more standards are added every year in the relentless march toward harmonization and globalization, plugs are one of the stubborn holdouts.
Discussions on a common standard for a plug started in the 1930s, yet it's still a hodgepodge, the most common of which are American plugs with flat copper prongs, continental European plugs with round prongs, British ones with rectangular prongs.
"We don't have the power to say to countries, 'you have to rip out all your sockets and replace all the plugs from your household appliances,"' says Dennis Brougham of the International Electrotechnical Commission. The organization, which represents manufacturers, says it doesn't even know how many varieties of plugs exist.
Many national standards have the effect of stopping competitors. The French, for example, chose the Secam television system and imposed it on its colonies in Africa at the expense of Germany's PAL system and the United States' NTSC.
You still can't watch an American-made video on a European TV set or vice versa. But things are changing. CD-ROMs and DVDs are all being standardized because industry agreed to do so at the outset.
Much of the standardization work is split between the ISO, the electrical commission and the International Telecommunications Union. All of it is numbingly technical - over 400,000 pages of standards drawn up by some 30,000 experts from 140 countries.
Take screws: ISO 272 specifies widths across flats; ISO 4757 deals with cross recesses, ISO 7721-1 deals with countersunk heads. Separate standards deal with the diameter of washers, the tolerance of bolts, the coating of nuts. The list goes on and on, saving a fortune for industries worldwide.
The United States generally uses millimeters and centimeters to measure nuts and bolts for cars and planes, but sticks to feet and inches on most other products.
"Business would like the trans-Atlantic cooperation to move forward at a much greater speed," said Michael Treschow, chairman of cellphone manufacturer Ericsson. "Instead of moving forward inch by inch it is time to go metric and start measuring success in meters."
Clothing and shoe sizes still differ from Europe to America, but the labels in quality garments include ISO standards on "weight, color and light-fastness, piling, water-resistance and reaction to acidity (sweat stimulation)." And a working group has been set up to set new standards for shoes - the quality of buckles and laces, the strength of the heel and toecap and so forth.
Standardization is a global game in which anyone can play. The Iranian cosmetics industry, for instance, is a driving force behind setting common standards on chemical analysis.
It's too soon to say whether this means that all future lipsticks will always stay shiny for 12 hours, but "Iranian cosmetic manufacturers are determined to export in a big way," according to Iran's Mojdeh Rowshan Tabari.
She is secretary of the International Standards Organization's cosmetics committee. Or ISO/TC 217 in standards-speak.
On the net:
International Organization for Standardization: http://www.iso.org