The first use of the words "calibration" and "calibrate" can be traced back to the American Civil War. During this period, the words officially entered the English language in artillery descriptions. Back then, early examples of measuring devices were perceptive and relatively easy to verify.

The actual term "calibration" was first used when describing the exact division of linear distance and angles – using a dividing engine and the calculation of gravitational mass using weighing scales. These measurement types were used for practically all technology developments and commerce – from the first fledgling civilizations until approximately 1800AD.

With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, indirect measurement techniques were used much more frequently. During this period, recorded instances of the measurement of pressure can provide us with a good example of how indirect measurement processes were used. Previously, the hydrostatic manometer was a more commonly used pressure measurement device – a device that was less than ideal when measuring high pressures. The need for high pressure measurement was practically addressed by Eugene Bourdon with the Bourdon tube pressure gage.

Modern-day measurement techniques

Moving forward in time – direct measurement techniques were still being used to verify the validity of measurements. A great instance of this can be found in the earliest days of US automobiles. When people purchased gasoline, they wanted to see it in a large glass pitcher – this was a direct way of measuring the volume and quality of a substance using appearance verification.

By around 1930, indirect measurement techniques also became widely accepted, with the implementation of rotary flow meters. Using a hemispheric viewing window, the consumer was able to see the blade of the flow meter turn as their gasoline was being pumped. As the 1970’s arrived, the windows had been removed and all measurements were then completely indirect.

The need for calibration

However, although indirect measurement processes are now commonplace (most modern day measurement techniques are indirect), they always involve conversion or linkages in one form or another. Because of this – the need for calibration is greater than ever. Put simply - calibration is the process of comparing sets of measurements for accuracy i.e. comparing one measurement of known, verified magnitude or ‘correctness’ on one device with another similar measurement on a second device. Calibration can be used in a number of scenarios, including; the testing of a new instrument prior to its use, the re-testing of instruments following periods of non-use, testing following a specific period of use, to re-verify calibration following shock to an instrument, after sudden changes of weather and/or whenever observations or calculations of an instrument or device come into question.

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The process of calibration is now used across multiple sectors, and for a range of purposes. Perhaps the most widely-known use of calibration can be found during the building and servicing of cars and other vehicles. Calibration is often used to test vehicle components such as speedometers. As standard, speedometers on all new cars must be calibrated to ensure that the torque produced by the magnetic field accurately depicts the speed of the car.