A life devoted to Standards

Interview with Jan Ollner

Jan Ollner was Executive Secretary of the Swedish National Committee (NC) from 1948 until 1956. This was a time of rapid change for the IEC, with Central Office moving from London to Geneva and a number of new Technical Committees established in various fields, including IEC TC 34: Lamps and related equipment or IEC TC 35: Primary cells and batteries. The 97-year-old talks to us about the merits of standardization, his years as Swedish NC Executive Secretary and his work for ASEA (now ABB).

Jan Ollner reading his book "The Company and Standardization"

As Executive Secretary of SEK, the Swedish National Committee, you met Charles Le Maistre, the first IEC Secretary General, in the years after the war. How did that come about?

In 1948, I was the General Secretary of the IEC General Meeting (GM) which took place in Stockholm. That’s where I met Charles Le Maistre, together with Assistant Secretary General Louis Ruppert, who succeeded him in 1953. To the young fellow that I was then Charles Le Maistre was a very impressive man– at that point he had been IEC Secretary General for more than 40 years! He had held the IEC fort in London during the war. Thanks to him, the IEC was able to emerge from the Second World War relatively unscathed and pick up where it left off, so to speak.

What were the changes you witnessed during your time as Swedish NC Secretary?

It was a very exciting time to be around. New Technical Committees (TCs) were created on a regular basis. The number of IEC delegates increased greatly. A total of 150 delegates spread across 30 TCs attended the 1948 General Meeting. As it so happens, I was involved in organizing the 1958 General Meeting which also took place in Stockholm, even though I was no longer Secretary of the Swedish NC. Around 1200 delegates attended the 1958 GM. That gives you an idea of IEC growth over that period of time.

It was also an era defined by the Cold War. How did that impact the work of the IEC?

Despite the Cold War we worked with our Russian colleagues in a spirit of cooperation which I think has always been one of the hallmarks of the IEC. I have fond memories of the 1957 General Meeting which took place in Moscow when Nikita Khrushchev had just got into power. I remember that there was a reception at the Kremlin which turned out to be quite a lavish affair with lots of caviar and vodka. The Russian delegates certainly made the most of the buffet! During my time as Secretary of the Swedish NC, a GM was held in Opatija, in former Yugoslavia, which was also part of the Eastern bloc at that time.

You visited IEC Central Office during that period…

Yes, I came to Geneva to prepare for the 1958 General Meeting. In those days, Central Office was located in a nice house on Route de Malagnou, in the countryside outside Geneva. The IEC shared the office with ISO and only six people worked there. Mr Ruppert’s Secretary was Jean Marshall and funnily enough she had a namesake in ISO, Mr Roger Maréchal, who worked under ISO Secretary General Henry St. Leger. The relationship between IEC and ISO was pretty close in those days, so much so that Jean Marshall and Roger Maréchal actually got married! Both of them became very good friends of mine. I am still in touch with Jean Marshall-Maréchal who lives in Lyon.

(nb: The two organizations have indeed always been close. IEC Secretary General Charles Le Maistre was instrumental in the founding of ISO. He led the effort to establish the International Federation of the National Standardization Associations (ISA) in 1926, which was ISO’s precursor. In 1944 he became Secretary General of the United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC), an interim organization which led to the founding of ISO in 1946.)

You were also an expert in one of the IEC’s first TCs, IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery. Can you tell us more about your work with that TC?

Yes, I was Secretary of a now disbanded Subcommittee (SC) 2B: Mounting dimensions and output series. We were dealing with the standardization of electric motors used in machinery and factories. We had to make sure that all electric motors driving electric machinery had the same sizes and specifications. The thinking was that if all electric motors met the same Standards, then they would be easier to export and that would boost trade.

(nb: TC 2: Rotating machinery is still going strong today. It prepares International Standards regarding specifications for rotating electrical machines used in motors, with the exception of traction motors for railway equipment, and motors and generators used in electric road vehicles, industrial trucks or aeronautics and space applications. The TC developed the IEC 60034 series of International Standards  which, among other things, rank electric motors according to their efficiency classes. Regulators everywhere in the world have taken on board this classification system and made it part of their policies.)

You were an engineer for ASEA at the same time?

Yes. The company was called ASEA, before becoming ABB after the merger with Swiss company BBC Brown Boveri in the 1980s. Initially I joined the company in 1946, a couple of years before my stint at SEK. The Chairman of the ASEA board in those days was Sigfrid Edström. He attended the International Electrical Congress in St. Louis in 1904, which led to the founding of the IEC in 1906. I then went back to work for ASEA in 1957. I wrote a book about my years at ASEA, called The Company and Standardization. I explain how we set up the company’s own standardization department which I managed. Its purpose was partly to simplify and facilitate the design and manufacture of ASEA products. As Senior Engineer, I eventually became Head of Technical Coordination Services. I retired in 1968 and became director of the Swedish Standards Institute (SIS). So you could say that I have always worked in and around Standards.