The Meter: How A Measure Came To Be

James Kirk
Author James Kirk
Collection StoriaTech

9MÈTRE.10

“Measurement is one of the most banal and ordinary things, but it’s actually the things we take for granted that are the most interesting and have such contentious histories,” said Dr Ken Alder, history professor at Northwestern University and author of The Measure of All Things, a book about the creation of the metre.

According to a BBC.com story, we take measure for granted, but before the French Revolution, measure wasn’t standardized.

“In France alone, it was estimated at that time that at least 250,000 different units of weights and measures were in use during the Ancien Régime,” according to the story.

The task of developing a new system of measurement was given to France’s leading scientific thinkers of the Enlightenment. The way these scientists worked to come up with the meter is brilliant and complicated. These scientists wanted to create a new, uniform set based on logic rather than local authorities or customs. They determined that the meter should be based on nature: It would be one 10-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.

When the meter was developed, many people did not embrace it. They were unwilling to abandon their old ways of measurement “inextricably bound with local rituals, customs and economies,” according to the BBC story.

According to Dr Alder, “It took a span of roughly 100 years before almost all French people started using it.”

It’s unthinkable what global trade would be without the standardized measure of the meter. The metre formed the bedrock of our modern economy and helped globalization. Even today, it enables high-precision engineering, and continues to be a vital tool for science and research, advancing our understanding of the universe.

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