George Washington on Standards

As you read this document you are — though you may not appreciate it — making use of thousands of conventions and practices that have been created over the last several decades. Some are informal, but most are formal, in that they have been written down, and are available in the form of documents called standards, or specifications.

For example, there are standards for the power and voltage of the electric current that is used to run computers; the number of wires and connectors that connect various devices such as disk drives, keyboards and displays together; the instructions in the microprocessor that does the computing; the number of pins and function of each that connect the microprocessor to the motherboard; the format of the cd drives; the format and electrical signals sent to and from a hard drive; the conventions that enable your browser to display the billions of documents available on the web; the way you can use a credit card to buy hardware parts; and so forth.

In brief, standards matter.

So if you are ever asked to participate in writing a standard, or to assess the quality of a proposed standard, I suggest you pay careful attention to some observations on the standards process written within a single month over two centuries ago, by George Washington in May, 1787, as he was about to begin his service as the president of the Constitutional Convention, the body whose work resulted in the standard that defined the United States: the document we know as the Constitution of the United States.

The first was part of his opening remarks to the delegates, Washington and the Constitutional Convention:

When sufficient delegates had arrived in Philadelphia to make up a quorum for the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was unanimously elected its president. He accepted the honor reluctantly, protesting his lack of qualification. His opening remarks were addressed to the pride and idealism of the members: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

I first saw these words when I was a graduate student at New York University. One day, while walking across nearby Washington Square Park, I saw them engraved in stone on the top of the monument from which the park takes its name:


The second was written in the same month, but in a private letter that was only recently discovered, early in 2007, George Washington Letter Found in Scrapbook (emphasis added):

“The happiness of this Country depend much upon the deliberations of the federal Convention which is now sitting,” reads the second paragraph of the quill-and-ink letter. “It, however, can only lay the foundation — the community at large must raise the edifice.”

That the delegates heeded his words and understood the importance of an open community in creating an enduring standard can be found in the first words of the document they produced:

We the people …

Wise, Honest, Community. That is the essence of an open standard — all the rest is detail.


One Trackback

  1. By HTML is Many Things « The Wayward Word Press on September 4, 2007 at 09:03

    […] to read this document had to read it very carefully. You can only read this document because a wise, honest community created that standard and another wise, honest community went to great lengths to implement […]

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