April 2

Understanding Marine Electrics: AWG Gauge System: Origins and Evolution

Different regions of the world have different systems and conventions for measuring wire size. The European system uses square millimeters of cross-sectional area, while the marine industry in the United States uses the American Wire Gauge (AWG). The U.S. automotive industry has something different! In this blog post, we will delve into the origins and evolution of the AWG system.

Origins of the AWG Gauge System

The AWG system has its roots in the manufacturing of jewelry in ancient Rome. Fine gold wires were made by pulling gold rods through dies with a small tapered hole, with the inlet to the taper large enough to accept the rod. This process is known as drawing wire. It reduces the diameter of a rod or wire by a certain amount, stretching the rod or wire in the process. To reduce a large rod to a small wire without breaking the wire, the wire must be pulled through a series of ever smaller dies. When a wire is given a gauge number (e.g., 18 gauge) it refers to the fact that it has been pulled through this number of successive dies to reach this size. Over the years, there were multiple iterations of this system, with many wire-making companies having their own set of dies and proprietary gauge numbering system. The British finally standardized this.

Evolution of the AWG Gauge System

The AWG gauge system in the United States, derived from the British, was standardized in the 1850s, based on the dies used by a particular U.S. company. The bigger the AWG number, the more dies the conductor has been pulled through, and the smaller the conductor. We end up with a counter-intuitive result: as the wires get smaller the numbers go up!

The gauge system was introduced before the advent of machinery. There was a limit to the size of the largest rod that a person could pull through a die to start the size reduction process. This rod was given the number ‘0’. The first die a rod is pulled through is number ‘1’, and so on. With modern machinery it is possible to begin the process with much larger rods and correspondingly larger dies, but there are no numbers left to give to these dies! As a result, we stack zeros. The AWG system goes up to four zeros (resulting in ‘0000’, or 4/0, or ‘four ought’ conductors), and the British system up to seven zeros. A ‘two ought’ (00, or 2/0) conductor is larger than a ‘one ought’ conductor (0, or 1/0), whereas a two-gauge conductor (AWG 2) is smaller than a one-gauge conductor (AWG 1). 

The AWG system is used extensively in the United States, especially in the marine industry. In Europe and other countries in the world, as noted, conductor sizes are measured in terms of their cross-sectional area (expressed in square millimeters) or sometimes their diameter (expressed in millimeters). Either way, the bigger the number the larger the conductor. In all cases, the AWG number or the millimeter number refers to the size of the copper in the conductor and does not include any insulation.


The AWG gauge system, though somewhat confusing at first, has a rich history and has evolved over time. Understanding this system is crucial to proper conductor sizing in the U.S. marine industry.
To learn more about selecting the right conductors for your boat, check out our wire sizer and our Boat Electrics 101 course!

About the author 

Nigel Calder

Nigel is often referred to as THE guru when it comes to technical systems on boats.

He is a long-time member of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) electrical Project Technical Committee (PTC) which writes the standards for recreational boat systems in the USA, and has also been involved in European standards development.

Nigel is best known for his Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual (now in its 4th edition), and his Marine Diesel Engines (in its 3rd edition), both considered the definitive English-language works in their field.

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