Where does the word "benchmark" come from?

Why do we actually call comparing levels "benchmarking"?

Where does the word "benchmark" come from?
Image illustrating level differences. 

As a digital professional, it is always important to keep abreast of the latest technologies and trends. But certainly it is also valuable to look back at the history of technology to understand how we got to where we are today. In my daily practice, the word "benchmarking" certainly comes up a few times. In this article, I explain how the literal concept of "benchmarking" originated and figuratively incorporated into standard language.


In the past, a benchmark was a strut for a stake, marked to help surveyors determine the height of the terrain. This was a crucial tool for building roads, railways and other infrastructure. The hoof-shaped iron that supported the stake was called the "bench" and placing the stake on the "bench" was called "benchmarking".

Benchmarks, comparing relative heights.
Benchmarks, comparing relative heights.

So in short, there was a mark of relative height, in it a bench was mounted to set the staff on for further comparison.

Here you can see such a bench:

Strut with a bench on top. This thing was fixed in the carved marker. And thus formed the "benchmark".
Strut with a bench on top. This thing was fixed in the carved marker. And thus formed the "benchmark".

And an example of a marking:

Marking where the bench could be attached directly.

Modern use of the term benchmark

Today, benchmarking is a common term in the world of digital technology. Benchmarking refers to the process of comparing performance between competing products or processes. Or against your own past performance. So by setting a relative bar as a height, as a benchmark, you as a company can improve your products and services.

Benchmark template from PowerSlides
Benchmark template from PowerSlides

Benchmarking is also useful in evaluating the performance of digital tools and technologies. For example, comparing the speed of different computer processors, the quality of cameras on smartphones or the usability of software applications.

Useful interactive benchmarks where you can interactively compare your own product with others are very useful. For example, this site where you can benchmark your browser on a number of points:

Speedometer is a browser benchmark

So while the original meaning of benchmarking was in the physical world, today it is a valuable practice for digital professionals. Where absolute numbers do not always properly describe quality, benchmarks come in handy. It can help improve the performance of organisations, products and processes, and drive innovation and competition.

Reference plane

In Dutch, a benchmark is also called a reference plane. The Norm Amsterdams Peil (NAP) benchmark is also called the NAP reference plane. This reference plane is used as the basis for height measurements in the Netherlands and is crucial for construction and infrastructure, among other things.

By the way, there is also a "benchmark" of the NAP hidden under the Dam. Under this worn lid. Photo @AdriaanGijs.
By the way, there is also a "benchmark" of the NAP hidden under the Amsterdam Dam. Under this worn lid. Photo @AdriaanGijs.