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A little history

By Chuck Newcombe

Chuck Newcombe

As you no doubt know, if you've read some of my previous columns, I have an interest in the history of measurements. It first came to light in the early 1960s, while I was working in the aerospace industry.

I worked in a calibration standards laboratory for a major aerospace contractor in the San Francisco Bay area, and my peers in the lab and I belonged to a local professional organization known as the Precision Measurements Society.

The world of test instrumentation was a key element in the beginnings of the space race, and we were right in the thick of it. It was decided at one of our meetings that we could bring some education on the subject to those who were working in what was a new field for many. That turned into an ambitious project to present a series of twelve lectures on the history of measurements. My part was to explain to some 200 attendees how the standard for the dc volt was then established by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology - NIST.)

Without going into great detail, the process involved relating electrical units to the basic world standards of length (the meter), mass (the kilogram) and time (the second.) In the case of the volt, that began with an experiment to "weigh" the force resulting from the flow of one amp in a precisely wound solenoid using a beam balance scale. The process is much simpler and more accurate today. The volt is now derived using principles of solid state physics, and a device known as a Josephson Junction. It can be reproduced in any lab that can afford one of these devices.

Back in our lab, however, we used much more practical devices for day-to-day measurements, including the very popular Fluke differential voltmeter. This was a manually operated multi-dial electronic meter that gave us the ability to quickly determine voltages to accuracies of 0.005% or so. We also used early digital voltmeters, but those were expensive - costing maybe six times as much as the Fluke meters, and they weren't as yet very reliable. We only used them when processes were automated.

Among other lab duties, I was involved in training our technicians on the servicing methods to be used in maintaining the Fluke meters, and it was this task that led me to visit and then join Fluke just a few years later. That's when I learned something about the history of the Fluke Company itself, which included its humble beginnings in a basement in Connecticut in 1948.

One of the stories I found most interesting was the process that led to the invention of the Differential Voltmeter in 1955. At the time, Fluke was producing several devices - many of them were power supplies used to power radiation detectors.

The company found it had a need to quickly measure high voltages with a great deal of stability and precision, and the methods available at the time hardly qualified for use in a production environment.

Necessity is the mother of invention
That's right, in 1955 a bright engineer came up with the idea for the differential voltmeter as a means to solve a production problem - to improve production efficiency. Just eleven years later I joined the company.

In 1966, Fluke had a fairly broad product line based on electronic adaptations of laboratory measurement standards, as well as the power supplies from their past. And, one of the ways we learned of new needs in the markets we served was to build special modified versions of our products at the request of a customer. As you might imagine, this was a relatively inefficient way to discover new markets and measurement needs.

The marketing process that evolved was to use these suggestions as beginning points to discover if there was a more general need among other customers. In this way, we found we could sometimes improve on the original idea, and could then develop a tool with larger market potential. That process has been fine-tuned and improved to become the market research process used by the company today.

What we've discovered over the years is that those who used our measurement tools also use many tools which we didn't make. And so, as a result, you now see Fluke tools which can measure temperature, pressure, air quality, humidity, and power quality, just to name a few.

Every one of these tools has been developed with the needs of engineers and technicians in mind. And, in many cases, different measurement functions have been combined to make them conveniently available for common applications without having to carry multiple tools.

It's all a complex process that begins and ends with you, our customers. And now you have some idea why the company is so driven to learn of, and to meet your needs.

It's in our blood!
To read about the development of Fluke handheld multimeters, take a look at this previous article »