Beyond Newton · The Secret Of Systems

Painting By Numbers: The German RAL Colour System.

A Look At Standardization.

There is no connection between the nature of the colour and the number it was given.
We all know what colour this is: do you know what RAL number it is? 😉

Germany is well known for its ability to organize; its bureaucracy is legendary. There are downsides to this, though, and it is the German mind applied to colour that I wish to examine in this post. Standardization in German industry led it to be more effective at producing things, and one of the things needed to produce something is the need to paint it. It is the “Imperial [read centralized] Commission for Consistency and Quality Assurance”; the Reichs-Ausschuß für Lieferbedingungen und Gütesicherung.

One Example Of Standardization.

The Reichsbahn, the German railways, painted its locomotives in black and red. Easy enough to say quickly; only if you look at what ‘red’ can mean… carmine, scarlet, vermillion or crimson! The Reichsbahn had locomotives stationed in Aachen and Tilsit, a thousand miles apart: the red had to be “Reichsbahn” red and no other! The directors chose a “fire red” and made some basic statements as to how to form the colour. In those days, it was quite common for people to still mix their own paint from linseed oil, various pigments and increasingly, some additives to hasten the curing process. Germany was one of the first to see this practice exterminated. The free minded – and inefficient – British were still at it in the 1950s and 60s.

The front of the tank engine that I painted. (Note: this is Bundesbahn red!)

Standardization means making things easier to make: more efficient, cost effective. By extension, this usually means centralized, too. If any economist is going to have a stab at threefolding, they will get nowhere unless they have grasped the underlying processes upon which one can anchor one’s economic reasoning.

Standardization, is a process of contraction, which should speak to at least a few of you. Contraction is not a process that allows extraneous elements to remain in place, and the first things to be lost are those with the weakest hold on the material. But then, to the dull mind of the bureaucrat, such things go unnoticed.

Local traditions – such as the colour of the Wurttemberg or Bavarian locomotives – were lost in the face of their amalgamation into the Reichsbahn and its attendant standardization. What were red, brown or green all became a uniform black. The newly formed Reichsbahn could not show a partiality to one or other of the previous companies, as was the case when British Rail was formed in 1948 – the British allow partiality where the Germans are even handed. This, by the way, is key to understanding why the British have a poorly performing economy.

Nobody's quite sure of what improved engine green looked like, it's probable that each local shed mixed their own paint according to a written schedule.
The (in)famous “Improved Engine Green” the deep, ochre of the London, Brighton and South Coast railway.
My book suggests the possible origin of the colour.

The Reichsbahn locomotives had to be black because no German railway company had black locomotives. My own choice would have been the deep, ochre of the London, Brighton and South Coast railway, the LB&SCR. The (in)famous “Improved Engine Green.” For the Reichsbahn,  black pigment was far cheaper and in the throes of the inflation problem of the early twenties, money talked. When money talks like this, it is always an expression of Rudolf Steiner’s ‘Purchase Money’ thinking.

Incidentally, there is much discussion in historical circles as to the exact colour of Improved Engine Green. It seems likely that individual sheds made up their own pigment according to a written schedule…

Industrial Pigments.

Pigments had changed too: from being dug out of a particular place, it was now possible to formulate colours according to the new colour chemistry. With Germany far in the lead of this technology, as they were in so many things, it’s not surprising that they should be the first to standardize their pigments – and thus the paints that are derived from them. So, the bureaucrats set to work, and did what bureaucrats do best: they chose from the cheapest pigments and formed a set of colours around them. No surprises that these colours aren’t the nicest, and the RAL colours today are far from pretty. Choosing something on the basis of cost is to embrace the contractive forces.

A few colours escaped the net, the presentable chrome dioxide green, a standard colour for European railway carriages from the dawn of time, was cheap enough to produce to be included in the RAL series.

The problem for the bureaucrat was they weren’t really interested in the colours; they wanted a swift and accurate way of stating what colour should be painted where. You can’t just say ‘red’ because there is a mini rainbow of reds…

The bureaucrats chose the number three, 3, for red. No doubt this was influenced by the colour red being the first colour in the sequence of colours in the spectrum. No, bureaucrats don’t think like that, do they? Even bureaucratic scientists codify their colours according to their position in the spectrum. Here, the intellectual mind of the scientist still has a faint link to reality. For the bureaucrat who knows nothing of such things, they have no possible anchor for their reasoning.

That RAL 9023 is a dark grey leads one to wonder why the numpties included a dark grey in the 9 series rather than the 7 series for grey... but that really is the problem with colour
Is this RAL 9023?
How would you tell if you didn’t actually know the specific number?
Yet we can all describe the colour, can’t we?

So it came about that green was codified as 6, red as 3 and grey as 7. So you’ll know that RAL 3000 is a red and RAL 6020 is a green. So far, so good. It’s immediately obvious what colour RAL 9023 is…

It should be obvious, because to any bureaucrat, it is obvious.

Well, it’s obvious to any bureaucrat who has anything to do with RAL colours, and any other bureaucrat would tell you to speak with the bureaucrat who knows about them. In the world of the intellect, either you need to know something or you don’t know anything about it at all.

That RAL 9023 is a dark grey leads one to wonder why the numpties included a dark grey in the 9 series rather than the 7 series for grey… but that really is the problem with colour – and it’s a problem scientists haven’t properly addressed either. But then, they don’t need to, do they?

System And Reality.

The problem with a system like the RAL colour scheme is that, as we have seen, it has literally no foundation in reality of any kind. In that it is the result of the imaginations of a group of people this means that if you are going to learn about it, you literally have to learn it by rote.

But then, in a world where most people learn by rote because the things they learn are taught in a way that has no bearing on reality, there’s really no problem. It’s how they were taught, and they were taught that this was the only way to learn. In being taught it, they had no reason to think any differently. With this in place, they didn’t know there was any different way to think… it’s as common a problem in anthroposophy as it is in the factories making RAL pigments. Yet seeking the foundations to reality are what anthroposophy is all about – and most, if not all of its adherents are blissfully unaware of this.

The Deeper Meaning Of The RAL Colour.

The problem here is of abstraction, that is to say, forcing the imaginary concept onto nature’s reality. The people who developed the RAL colour system needed to codify colours and in their innocence, came up with a Frankenstein.

At that time, the early 1920s, Rudolf Steiner had precisely two Waldorf schools in the country. Today there are around three hundred – a pitifully small number – but their influence is still palpable to those who know what they’re looking for. Those who didn’t have the benefit of such a schooling that was based on reality would be, by and large, to be lost to the overwhelming forces of abstraction.

I have to reiterate here that it is astonishingly hard – and painful – to overcome these abstractions. People would prefer to call me names than deal with their own inability to draw away the veils of their own thinking.

One such veil is the concept of the RAL number. There is and can be no reason for calling a pink by the number RAL 3033.

Yet thousands, millions of people think it quite reasonable to do so. For the simple reason that they know nothing else. Why should they, if they’ve worked in industry all their lives and the RAL colours to them are as meaningful as the words written in the bible?


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