Little Bits of History

Meter or Metre – Or Yard

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 20, 2015
Pavillon de Breteuil

Pavillon de Breteuil

May 20, 1875: The Metre Convention or Treaty of the Metre is signed at the Pavillon de Breteuil. The international treaty was signed in Paris by representatives from 17 nations. The purpose was to coordinate international metrology (the science of measurement) and to develop the metric system. In England, in 1215, clause 25 of the Magna Carta set out standards of measurement throughout the realm. In 1707 when Scotland and England were joined into one kingdom, the Scots agreed to follow the prevailing British measuring system. Later in the century, Peter the Great, in order to facilitate trade between Britain and Russia, also adopted the British measurement system. Abuse of the units of measurements was one of the causes of the French Revolution.

Talleyrand, at the orders of the National Assembly of France, invited both British and American scientists to participate in establishing a new measurement system but was snubbed and so the Assembly introduced both the meter and the kilogram – the beginnings of the metric system – on their own. They made prototypes and in 1799 they were admitted to the Archives. Over the course of the decades, many other nations also adopted the metric system including Spain, the Netherlands, many South American republics and many of the Italian and German states. The International Postal Union adopted grams for permitted weights in 1863.

By the 1860s the prototypes were showing wear and some flexibility making them less than completely accurate. Napoleon III invited scientists from all over the world to participate in a conference concerning measurements but unfortunately, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and while they met, they did so without any German presence and decided to postpone any changes. A conference was convened in 1875 and members were tasked with defining international standards and prototypes created. They also created three organizations: the General Conference on Weights and Measures, the International Committee for Weights and Measures, and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.

At the sixth meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures held in 1921, it was decided to cover all physical measurements instead of just length and weight. At the eleventh meeting in 1960, the system of units was overhauled and resulted in new criteria presented as the International System of Units or SI. SI covers the measurement of temperature, time, length, mass, luminous intensity, amount of substance, and electric current. Printing of symbols used in descriptions are also standardized with clarification for languages not using an alphabet (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) as well how these should be displayed while printing.

I think that a particle must have a separate reality independent of the measurements. That is an electron has spin, location and so forth even when it is not being measured. I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it. – Albert Einstein

Accurate and minute measurement seems to the non-scientific imagination, a less lofty and dignified work than looking for something new. But nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement and patient long-continued labour in the minute sifting of numerical results. – Lord Kelvin

Cold! If the thermometer had been an inch longer we’d all have frozen to death! – Mark Twain

Thus the metric system did not really catch on in the States, unless you count the increasing popularity of the 9mm bullet. – Dave Barry

Where’s … Waldo? – In 1570, the first modern atlas was published.
We Believe – In 325, the Council of Nicea opened.
I Feel the Need for Speed – In 1899, a NYC cabbie was jailed for speeding.
Sonnets – In 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets were published.
From Disaster to Inspiration – In 1896, a chandelier fell at Palais Garnier.


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