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Instrumentation is a collective term for measuring instruments and associated processing systems used for monitoring and control in science, technology and engineering.

An instrument is a device that measures a physical quantity, such as flow, temperature, level, distance, angle, or pressure, and the collective term instrumentation may refer to something as simple as direct reading hand-held thermometers or, when combined with many other sensors and a powerful data processing system, become a complex Industrial control system.

The control of processes is one of the main branches of applied instrumentation, and instrumentation is always part of any control system in such as manufacturing industry, vehicles and transportation. Sensing instruments attached to a control system provide signals used to operate a variety of output devices such as valves or solenoids and to support either remote or automated control capabilities. These devices are referred to as final control elements. Instrumentation can be found in the household as well. A smoke detector or a heating thermostat are examples.


A local control panel on a steam turbine.

The Oxford English Dictionary says (as its last definition of Instrumentation[1]), "The design, construction, and provision of instruments for measurement, control, etc; the state of being equipped with or controlled by such instruments collectively." It notes that this use of the word originated in the U.S.A. in the early 20th century. A traditional use of the word was associated with writing of music scores for multiple musical instruments. While the word is traditionally a noun, it is also used as an adjective (as instrumentation engineer, instrumentation amplifier and instrumentation system).

History and development[edit]

The history of instrumentation can be divide into several phases.


Early pressure gauge - the manometer. H would give a direct indication, such as "inches water gauge"

Elements of industrial instrumentation have long histories. Scales for comparing weights and simple pointers to indicate position are ancient technologies. Some of the earliest measurements were of time. One of the oldest water clocks was found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep I, buried around 1500 BCE.[2] Improvements were incorporated in the clocks. By 270 BCE they had the rudiments of an automatic control system device.[3]

In 1663 Christopher Wren presented the Royal Society with a design for a "weather clock". A drawing shows meteorological sensors moving pens over paper driven by clockwork. Such devices did not become standard in meteorology for two centuries.[4] The concept has remained virtually unchanged as evidenced by pneumatic chart recorders, where a pressurized bellows displaces a pen. Integrating sensors, displays, recorders and controls was uncommon until the industrial revolution, limited by both need and practicality.

Early industrial[edit]

Electronics enabled wiring to replace pipes. A transmitter is a device that produces an output signal, often in the form of a 4–20 mA electrical current signal, although many other options using voltage, frequency, pressure, or ethernet are possible. The transistor was commercialized by the mid-1950s.[5]

Instruments attached to a control system provided signals used to operate solenoids, valves, regulators, circuit breakers, relays and other devices. Such devices could control a desired output variable, and provide either remote or automated control capabilities.

Each instrument company introduced their own standard instrumentation signal, causing confusion until the 4-20 mA range was used as the standard electronic instrument signal for transmitters and valves. This signal was eventually standardized as ANSI/ISA S50, “Compatibility of Analog Signals for Electronic Industrial Process Instruments", in the 1970s. The transformation of instrumentation from mechanical pneumatic transmitters, controllers, and valves to electronic instruments reduced maintenance costs as electronic instruments were more dependable than mechanical instruments. This also increased efficiency and production due to their increase in accuracy. Pneumatics enjoyed some advantages, being favored in corrosive and explosive atmospheres.[6]

The pneumatic and electronic signalling standards allowed centralized monitoring and control of a distributed process. The concept was limited by communication line lengths (perhaps 100 meters for pneumatics). Each pipe or wire pair carried one signal.

Automatic process control[edit]

In the early years of process control, process indicators and control elements such as valves were monitored by an operator that walked around the unit adjusting the valves to obtain the desired temperatures, pressures, and flows. As technology evolved pneumatic controllers were invented and mounted in the field that monitored the process and controlled the valves. This reduced the amount of time process operators were needed to monitor the process. Later years the actual controllers were moved to a central room and signals were sent into the control room to monitor the process and outputs signals were sent to the final control element such as a valve to adjust the process as needed. These controllers and indicators were mounted on a wall called a control board. The operators stood in front of this board walking back and forth monitoring the process indicators. This again reduced the number and amount of time process operators were needed to walk around the units. The most standard pneumatic signal level used during these years was 3-15 psig.[7]

Large integrated computer-based systems[edit]

Pneumatic PID controller,

The next evolution of instrumentation came with the production of Distributed Control Systems (DCS) which allowed monitoring and control from multiple locations which could be widely separated. A closely related development was termed “Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition” (SCADA). Signals can be used for informational purposes, or sent to a PLC, DCS, SCADA system, LabVIEW or other type of computerized controller, to be interpreted into readable values and used to control other devices and processes in the system. A process operator can sit in front of a screen (no longer a control board) and monitor thousands of points throughout a large complex. Control instrumentation plays a significant role in both gathering information from the field and changing the field parameters, and as such is a key part of control loops. These technologies have been supported by the development of personal computers, networks and graphical user interfaces.

Analysis of development[edit]

Ralph Müller (1940) stated "That the history of physical science is largely the history of instruments and their intelligent use is well known. The broad generalizations and theories which have arisen from time to time have stood or fallen on the basis of accurate measurement, and in several instances new instruments have had to be devised for the purpose. There is little evidence to show that the mind of modern man is superior to that of the ancients. His tools are incomparably better."[8][9]:290

Davis Baird has argued that the major change associated with Floris Cohen's identification of a "fourth big scientific revolution" after World War II is the development of scientific instrumentation, not only in chemistry but across the sciences.[9][10] In chemistry, the introduction of new instrumentation in the 1940s was "nothing less than a scientific and technological revolution"[11]:28–29 in which classical wet-and-dry methods of structural organic chemistry were discarded, and new areas of research opened up.[11]:38

As early as 1954, W A Wildhack discussed both the productive and destructive potential inherent in process control.[12] The ability to make precise, verifiable and reproducible measurements of the natural world, at levels that were not previously observable, using scientific instrumentation, has "provided a different texture of the world".[13] This instrumentation revolution fundamentally changes human abilities to monitor and respond, as is illustrated in the examples of DDT monitoring and the use of UV spectrophotometry and gas chromatography to monitor water pollutants.[10][13]


In some cases the sensor is a very minor element of the mechanism. Digital cameras and wristwatches might technically meet the loose definition of instrumentation because they record and/or display sensed information. Under most circumstances neither would be called instrumentation, but when used to measure the elapsed time of a race and to document the winner at the finish line, both would be called instrumentation.


A very simple example of an instrumentation system is a mechanical thermostat, used to control a household furnace and thus to control room temperature. A typical unit senses temperature with a bi-metallic strip. It displays temperature by a needle on the free end of the strip. It activates the furnace by a mercury switch. As the switch is rotated by the strip, the mercury makes physical (and thus electrical) contact between electrodes.

Another example of an instrumentation system is a home security system. Such a system consists of sensors (motion detection, switches to detect door openings), simple algorithms to detect intrusion, local control (arm/disarm) and remote monitoring of the system so that the police can be summoned. Communication is an inherent part of the design.

Kitchen appliances use sensors for control.

  • A refrigerator maintains a constant temperature by measuring the internal temperature.
  • A microwave oven sometimes cooks via a heat-sense-heat-sense cycle until sensing done.
  • An automatic ice machine makes ice until a limit switch is thrown.
  • Pop-up bread toasters can operate by time or by heat measurements.
  • Some ovens use a temperature probe to cook until a target internal food temperature is reached.
  • A common toilet refills the water tank until a float closes the valve. The float is acting as a water level sensor.


Modern automobiles have complex instrumentation. In addition to displays of engine rotational speed and vehicle linear speed, there are also displays of battery voltage and current, fluid levels, fluid temperatures, distance traveled and feedbacks of various controls (turn signals, parking brake, headlights, transmission position). Cautions may be displayed for special problems (fuel low, check engine, tire pressure low, door ajar, seat belt unfastened). Problems are recorded so they can be reported to diagnostic equipment. Navigation systems can provide voice commands to reach a destination. Automotive instrumentation must be cheap and reliable over long periods in harsh environments. There may be independent airbag systems which contain sensors, logic and actuators. Anti-skid braking systems use sensors to control the brakes, while cruise control affects throttle position. A wide variety of services can be provided via communication links as the OnStar system. Autonomous cars (with exotic instrumentation) have been demonstrated.


Early aircraft had a few sensors.[14] "Steam gauges" converted air pressures into needle deflections that could be interpreted as altitude and airspeed. A magnetic compass provided a sense of direction. The displays to the pilot were as critical as the measurements.

A modern aircraft has a far more sophisticated suite of sensors and displays, which are embedded into avionics systems. The aircraft may contain inertial navigation systems, global positioning systems, weather radar, autopilots, and aircraft stabilization systems. Redundant sensors are used for reliability. A subset of the information may be transferred to a crash recorder to aid mishap investigations. Modern pilot displays now include computer displays including head-up displays.

Air traffic control radar is distributed instrumentation system. The ground portion transmits an electromagnetic pulse and receives an echo (at least). Aircraft carry transponders that transmit codes on reception of the pulse. The system displays aircraft map location, an identifier and optionally altitude. The map location is based on sensed antenna direction and sensed time delay. The other information is embedded in the transponder transmission.

Laboratory instrumentation[edit]

Among the possible uses of the term is a collection of laboratory test equipment controlled by a computer through an IEEE-488 bus (also known as GPIB for General Purpose Instrument Bus or HPIB for Hewlitt Packard Instrument Bus). Laboratory equipment is available to measure many electrical and chemical quantities. Such a collection of equipment might be used to automate the testing of drinking water for pollutants.

Measurement Parameters[edit]

Instrumentation is used to measure many parameters (physical values). These parameters include:

  • Chemical composition
  • Chemical properties
  • Properties of light
  • Vibration
  • Weight


Control valve.

In addition to measuring field parameters, instrumentation is also responsible for providing the ability to modify some field parameters. That means the instrument is not only for measuring purposes, but also for changing and modification of the process system, these instruments are generally referred to as actuators. In industries, actuators are used to regulate fluid, control flow, moderate temperatures and open/close electric circuits.

Instrumentation engineering[edit]

Instrumentation engineering is the engineering specialization focused on the principle and operation of measuring instruments that are used in design and configuration of automated systems in electrical, pneumatic domains etc. They typically work for industries with automated processes, such as chemical or manufacturing plants, with the goal of improving system productivity, reliability, safety, optimization, and stability. To control the parameters in a process or in a particular system, devices such as microprocessors, microcontrollers or PLCs are used, but their ultimate aim is to control the parameters of a system.

Instrumentation engineering is loosely defined because the required tasks are very domain dependent. An expert in the biomedical instrumentation of laboratory rats has very different concerns than the expert in rocket instrumentation. Common concerns of both are the selection of appropriate sensors based on size, weight, cost, reliability, accuracy, longevity, environmental robustness and frequency response. Some sensors are literally fired in artillery shells. Others sense thermonuclear explosions until destroyed. Invariably sensor data must be recorded, transmitted or displayed. Recording rates and capacities vary enormously. Transmission can be trivial or can be clandestine, encrypted and low-power in the presence of jamming. Displays can be trivially simple or can require consultation with human factors experts. Control system design varies from trivial to a separate specialty.

Instrumentation engineers are commonly responsible for integrating the sensors with the recorders, transmitters, displays or control systems. They may design or specify installation, wiring and signal conditioning. They may be responsible for calibration, testing and maintenance of the system.

In a research environment it is common for subject matter experts to have substantial instrumentation system expertise. An astronomer knows the structure of the universe and a great deal about telescopes - optics, pointing and cameras (or other sensing elements). That often includes the hard-won knowledge of the operational procedures that provide the best results. For example, an astronomer is often knowledgeable of techniques to minimize temperature gradients that cause air turbulence within the telescope.

Instrumentation technologists, technicians and mechanics specialize in troubleshooting, repairing and maintaining instruments and instrumentation systems.

Typical Industrial Transmitter Signal Types[edit]

Current Loop (4-20mA) - Electrical

HART - Data signalling often overlaid on a current loop.

Foundation Fieldbus - Data signalling

Profibus - Data signalling

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Home : Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ "Early Clocks". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  3. ^ "Building automation history page". Retrieved 1 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Multhauf, Robert P. (1961), The Introduction of Self-Registering Meteorological Instruments, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, pp. 95–116  United States National Museum, Bulletin 228. Contributions from The Museum of History and Technology: Paper 23. Available from Project Gutenberg.
  5. ^ [1] Archived May 18, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Anderson, Norman A. (1998). Instrumentation for Process Measurement and Control (3 ed.). CRC Press. pp. 254–255. ISBN 0-8493-9871-1. 
  7. ^ Anderson, Norman A. (1998). Instrumentation for Process Measurement and Control (3 ed.). CRC Press. pp. 8–10. ISBN 0-8493-9871-1. 
  8. ^ Katz, Eric; Light, Andrew; Thompson, William (2002). Controlling technology : contemporary issues (2nd ed.). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1573929837. Retrieved 9 March 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Baird, D. (1993). "Analytical chemistry and the 'big' scientific instrumentation revolution". Annals of Science. 50: 267–290. doi:10.1080/00033799300200221. Download the pdf to read the full article. 
  10. ^ a b Baird, D. (2002). "Analytical chemistry and the 'big' scientific instrumentation revolution". In Morris, Peter J. T. From classical to modern chemistry : the instrumental revolution ; from a conference on the history of chemical instrumentation: "From the Test-tube to the Autoanalyzer: the Development of Chemical Instrumentation in the Twentieth Century", London, in August 2000. Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry in assoc. with the Science Museum. pp. 29–56. ISBN 9780854044795. 
  11. ^ a b Reinhardt, Carsten, ed. (2001). Chemical sciences in twentieth century (1st ed.). Weinheim: Wiley-VCH. ISBN 978-3527302710. 
  12. ^ Wildhack, W. A. (22 October 1954). "Instrumentation--Revolution in Industry, Science, and Warfare". Science. 120 (3121): 15A–15A. doi:10.1126/science.120.3121.15A. Retrieved 9 March 2016. 
  13. ^ a b Hentschel, Klaus (2003). "The Instrumental Revolution in Chemistry (Review Essay)". Foundations of Chemistry. 5 (2): 179–183. doi:10.1023/A:1023691917565. Retrieved 8 March 2016. 
  14. ^ Aircraft Instrumentation - Leroy R. Grumman Cadet Squadron

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