John Wolfe Barry’s eagerness to standardise engineering components was spurred by his work as an international consulting engineer and his connections with the National Physical Laboratory. This resulted in the first meeting of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) Engineering Standards Committee in April 1901, on which he subsequently served as Chairman from 1905 to 1918.
What started as a committee with sub-panels of leading engineers, industrialists and civil servants focusing mainly on creating design/material norms for British transport and construction parts, would develop into the British Standards Institution (BSI) – the current BSI Group has almost 11,000 committee members and 37,000 current British Standards covering a huge range of products, processes and quality assurance systems.
Dr Robert McWilliam, former Curator for Technology at the Science Museum, is the acknowledged expert on the early history of BSI:
These late-Victorian and Edwardian civil engineers regarded themselves as above any conflicts of interest. Such individuals often held public office and private advisory roles concurrently. At first sight it was their networks of relationships with suppliers, particularly the many British steel rolling mills which influenced the initial studies. However, the early decision to publish the outcomes of these studies as “Standards” was a consequence of the almost immediate interest of the British Government, particularly those parts of government concerned with purchasing components for public works.
Wolfe Barry’s close friend, steel manufacturer John Strain, was often attributed by the former as having been the deciding influence on the establishment of ICE’s Engineering Standards Committee. Strain had two successful careers; as a consulting civil engineer working on railway and harbour projects, and as the founder and chairman of the Lanarkshire Steel Company. His evidence to the Tariff Commission on the Iron and Steel Trade in 1904 confirmed he had witnessed more efficient practice overseas, particularly in the United States.
In 1902 Kenneth Alfred Wolfe-Barry, John’s second son, married Helen Mary, one of Strain’s daughters.
Strain would write Wolfe Barry’s effusive obituary in 1918 .