An old lady with modern thoughts

Twenty years before the founding of a standards organization in Switzerland, the first provisions were already being put in place to define some of the relevant rules. In 1898, representatives of several countries met in Zurich to discuss standardization for a metric screw thread.

A cross-sectoral requirement for standards
In July 1919, the Schweizerischer Normalien-Bund (Swiss Standards Federation) was founded in Baden. Its name would change several years later to the Swiss Association for Standardization (SNV): a name still in use today. The first meeting took place following the initiative of the Swiss Association of Machinery Manufacturers (VSM) with the aim of exchanging views on the need for joint efforts in normalization work.

An important role on the global stage
Right from the very start, Swiss standardization activities were also instrumental on an international level. As early as 1926, standards experts from Switzerland played a part in founding the International Federation of National Standardizing Associations (ISA). Switzerland provided the first president of the ISA, Curt Hoenig, who took the reins from 1928 to 1931. Around 20 years later, this would become what we now recognize as the International Organization for Standardization ( ISO).

After the Second World War, Switzerland became a founding member of the ISO, which established its headquarters in Geneva. In 1947, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung paper reported that “... these decisions demonstrate the esteem in which our country, and furthermore our Swiss standards, are held in international circles”. And in 1961, when the European Committee for Standardization was founded as the Comité Européen de Normalisation ( CEN), the groundbreaking ceremony took place in Zurich.

Organization according to professional standards
In 1962, the SNV was constituted as an association and around 10 years later, its structure and working methods were arranged into different departments, which is still the case today. Now, in 2019, the SNV is organized into the following seven departments:

  • Interdisciplinary standards range (INB)
  • Mechanical, electrical and metal engineering industries (SWISSMEM)
  • Construction (SIA)
  • Roads and transport (VSS)
  • Watch industry (FH)
  • Electrical engineering (Electrosuisse)
  • Telecommunications (asut)


An old lady with relevant concerns
Anyone believing that the 100-year-old SNV has grown old and irrelevant over the years has surely not heard about its latest moves. Over the last 10 decades, it has kept up with requirements across a wide range of industries, and still considers its main remit today to fall in the area of standardization. Swiss, European and international standards are developed in direct collaboration with the users. This ensures that the guidelines generate lasting benefits for the economy and society, producers and consumers, and provide security. This standardization process is accessible to all and suitable for all areas of life. And since our world continues to develop apace, the SNV remains young in spirit: for example, it is currently dealing with issues such as Industry 4.0, smart technologies, blockchain, climate protection and sustainability.

As an information hub and independent competence centre, the SNV ensures efficient access to national and international standards. It enables and promotes the development and harmonization of new standards through the active influence of its members as experts in national and international standards committees.

DIN A4 – the grandfather of all standards

Every school child recognizes the A4 paper format – it fits in every printer, envelope and folder. The long story of its evolution is rather less well known.

One hundred years ago, the question of a global standard for stationery was very much unresolved. Calls for a standardized paper format became more insistent, but the plethora of existing formats rendered the task of standardization less than straightforward. The minutes of the 1919 founding meeting of the Schweizerischer Normalien-Bund (Swiss Standards Federation) stipulate that “... the most frequently occurring letter format, which measures 220 × 280 mm and is suitable for all folders, has been selected.”

The decisive moment came in 1922 in Germany, when engineer Walter Porstmann popularized the idea of a single aspect ratio and finally enforced it as a DIN standard. The base paper size is DIN A0, which is defined as having an area of one square metre. All other formats are derived by halving or doubling the area, so a constant aspect ratio of 1:√2 is maintained. Applying this formula eventually results in the DIN A4 format at 210 × 297 mm.

The Swiss Association of Machinery Manufacturers (VSM) followed the German example and used the A4 format for commercial documents, referring to it as “VSM letter format”. Swiss Post also standardized its paper formats, and in 1924, the Swiss Federal Council decided to implement the new formats as the standard within the federal administration. The transitional period, during which existing stocks and forms were used up, lasted 12 years. At the beginning of 1941, as raw materials were in short supply due to the war, the Swiss Federal Government’s war industry and employment board issued an order for the production of ready-to-use paper from the A series only. With this decision, the DIN format finally established itself as the standard format in Switzerland.

«Do it once, do it right, do it internationally!»

Dr Hans Zürrer was director of the SNV from 1987 to 1999. We had a brief chat with him as part of our jubilee year celebrations, and he recalls some highlights and episodes from his tenure.

1) Which of the standards that the SNV worked on during your time as director stands out most for you?

The ISO 9000 family of standards for quality assurance, testing and certification were developed during my tenure. This important new series of standards, which had a major impact on quality management across industries, is now considered indispensable. All those who worked on it back then were highly dedicated as they rose to the challenge: not least because numerous new terms needed to be translated into the three languages of the ISO, as well as German, to allow for adoption in what was then the European Community ( EC).

2) How difficult was it for you to explain the remit of the SNV to outsiders?

That was never easy, and that remains the case even now. It is particularly challenging when these «outsiders» are the superiors of the standardization experts. In standardization work, above all, an understanding of the need to give the volunteer experts time off and financing them is key. In addition, financial resources are required for the infrastructure, i.e. for organizations such as the SNV, CEN and ISO. It is particularly difficult when the removal of technical barriers to trade is not clear for certain products and industries. The director would often be consulted for mediation talks.
It also took a great deal of effort before the Swiss government, through what was then the Federal Office for Foreign Economic Affairs (FOFEA; now the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO), recognized the importance of the removal of technical barriers to trade for the Swiss export industry and supported the SNV with a mandate. Up to that point, Switzerland was the only member of the ISO not to receive state subsidies.

3) What was the attitude among standards experts to the Swiss EEA «No» vote?

A few years previously, I had been a member of the CEN, European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization ( CENELEC) and European Telecommunications Standards Institute ( ETSI) presidents’ group, and had regular contact with EU executives and government officials. The EEA «No» vote was unexpected, and was generally perceived as a rejection of Europe on the part of the Swiss. However, it actually had relatively little influence on standardization work in European committees. The removal of technical barriers to trade remained a high priority for Switzerland as an EFTA member. For the export-oriented economy and various political authorities, however, many things would have become easier.

4) What did you enjoy most about international collaboration?

The directors of the national standards organizations mainly participated in steering committees. International conferences allowed not only heads of standards organizations to meet with one another, but also government delegates and representatives of industry and business. From these personal acquaintances arose many useful relationships and indeed friendships, which have lasted into my retirement. This, of course, was associated with travel, and all the advantages and disadvantages that entails.
The joint efforts in the fields of technology, business and politics and the development of consensus among them have always impressed me. The principle was that not everyone would always be in favour of something at a given time, but nobody was against it.

5) Did all the countries have the same understanding of the requirements of international standardization?

Large countries usually have an extensive set of standards, as well as corresponding resources. They also tend to set the tone in standardization work and seek to assert their national interests at regional and international levels. The pursuit of the greatest possible common denominator also supports international standardization work, in line with the slogan «Do it once, do it right, do it internationally!».

Another special feature at the European level was the «new conception» approach created by the European Commission. Its aim was to coordinate technical harmonization in both standardization and regulatory affairs. Regulatory directives contain only basic health, environmental and safety requirements and refer to standards in which the technical details are determined by the established private-sector standardization. Once approved by a qualified majority vote, the member states of the EU and EFTA are required to withdraw any conflicting national regulations or standards.
The reference to international standards once again rings true with the slogan «Do it once, do it right, do it internationally!».

The new approach also piqued the interest of other ISO members, and experts were delegated through mandates from the European Commission. In totalitarian states, the new conception meant a complete departure from the status quo, as standardization was not privately organized. I can well remember the ISO missions in Russia, China and Colombia, as well as Eastern European candidates for EU membership. My visit to the Soviet ISO member in Moscow was particularly impressive. My Russian colleague was the head of a ministry and had responsibility for several thousand employees. Despite Russia being an enormous country with many branch offices, all the relevant official bodies, and all the different standardization departments, from certification to testing, metrology, telecommunications, and all the rest, were united under a single roof.

6) Is there an episode or anecdote from your time as director that you particularly like to relate?

Immediately after the EEA «No» vote, a CEN meeting was held in Brussels. Since my flight was delayed, I arrived a little late to the meeting and the chairman teased: «We thought you weren’t going to join us at all!» Of course there was a lot of discussion during the break, and the «cantonal majority» rule in particular had to be explained again and again. The former EU Commissioner Martin Bangemann was also very interested, especially because I had previously expressed my conviction to him that the EEA vote would be a yes.

Dr Zürrer, thank you for this discussion.

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