Seems like there’s a lot of things you can learn out of books, and this one taught me how metres aren’t as long as they ought to be. They started to begin existing absolutely ages back in 1792, three hundred years after America was invented. But America doesn’t even use metres. Spooky.
Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre was busy being an astronomer, and it was his job to go north to look for metres. Pierre-François-André Mechain was also getting on with being an astronomer, and he got asked to do the same, but to go south. What a race! They both left from somewhere inside France, and were allowed to go all the way to the border, and if they hadn’t worked out what metres were by then, they had to have a long hard think about what they’d done. All they knew was metres were one ten-millionth of the distance between the pole and the equator. They got given some Borda’s repeating circles, and had to promise they knew how to draw triangles all over a map. Is it any surprise their final calculations were about 0.2 millimetres short?
They spent years over it, as well. So many delays, not helped by a cultural mistrust of men with funny measuring equipment doing suspicious stuff during military actions. If your job is to go around catching metres in the wild, it’s pretty impossible to judge how big your traps should be.
Late in the game, deep down in the south, Mechain realized the whole project was in error, for reasons they hadn’t foreseen. This made him very, very, very troubled indeed. Delambre didn’t even find out until after Mechain’s death, while he was reading through his papers. And by then, there was pretty much nothing to be done, as everyone was saying how much they loved these metres they’d come up with, and they’d even made one out of platinum for them. And how do you break bad news to someone who’s made you a metre out of platinum?
This gets the author into a discussion of changes brought about in science, error theory, and not trusting everything to the brilliance of individual savants. Precision gets compared with accuracy – internal consistency or factual correctness – and it goes into how this distinction got more explicitly recognized in later times.
I think I liked this bit the best:
The savants said the new measures would be ‘natural’ because they were based on the size of the earth. For these savants, a metric unit was natural when it could be defined without reference to human interests. The meter, they said, would be independent of all social negotiation or temporal change, transcending the interests of any particular community or nation. These men invoked nature as the guarantor that all people would benefit equally because no person benefitted in particular. This spoke to the ideal of justice as blind. Indeed, the Enlightenment project has often been read as an attempt to displace personal relations as the foundation of the social order, and in their stead substitute a universal metric, imported from the natural sciences, by which the social world might be subject to dispassionate analysis – and schemes for improvement. But the people of the Ancien Régime also considered their measures ‘natural’, in that they had been built into the dimensions of the lived world and expressed their needs, their values, and the history of their shared life. Their anthropometric measures sanctified man as the measure of all things, and expressed a different notion of justice, one which governed not only the domain of productive labor, but also the realm of economic exchange.
The Ancien Régime was governed by a ‘just price’ economy, in which basic foodstuffs were sold at a customary price set by the local community at a level which most of the people in that community could afford. The just price was enforced by a moral sanction and ultimately by the threat of violence.
… In such an economy, the diversity of weights and measures greased the wheels of commerce. In an age where bakers dared not charge more than the ‘just price’ for a loaf of bread for fear of precipitating a riot, bakers who wanted to preserve their livelihood when the cost of flour rose simply baked a smaller loaf. The same ruse allowed monasteries to circumvent Christian restrictions against profits by buying wine in large barrels and then selling it (for the same price) in smaller barrels. Sometimes this could lead to accusations of fraud, as when the petitioners of Notre-Damme-de-Lisque complained in 1788 that their abbot’s tax collector had increased the measure of grain. More probably, he was simply trying to maintain his own revenue during a time of rapidly increasing prices.
… In many towns, Ancien Régime officials themselves served as the ‘fair mediators’ who interposed themselves between buyers and sellers, setting the just price for essential foodstuffs like bread, meat, wine, and beer. Indeed, superintending the economy in this way was one of the obligations of a benevolent monarch, and among the principal justifications for his rule. In setting the just price, local officials generally took market conditions into account. The price of bread, for instance, was governed by tariffs, numerical tables that translated the current market price of wheat into the just price for a four-pound loaf of bread of a specified quality (white bread, brown bread, second-class bread, and so on). In major towns, these tariffs were drawn up by aldermen and bakers, who jointly estimated the cost of milling and baking bread, and outfitting a shop, while guaranteeing a modest return for the baker. These regulated prices, however, were ‘sticky’ in the sense that bakers could not fine-tune their prices to meet daily fluctuations in the cost of wheat. Also, bakers tended to set their prices in round numbers because of a persistent shortage of small coins. Instead of adjusting prices, bakers then altered the weight of their loaves of diluted their ingredients. Such practices were illegal, but even consumers who were aware of them generally tolerated them so long as everyone could still afford a ‘pound’ of bread. Equity mattered more than efficiency. Yet in times of dearth any attempt to raise prices or to ‘short’ bread too egregiously could spark violence. Price was not the paramount variable in the Ancien Régime economy, but merely one variable among many, including quantity, quality, the cost of production, and local custom.
In short, the diversity of weights and measures, far from being irrational and unnatural, formed the backbone of the Ancien Régime economy. These measures did not simple define a distinct kind of economy, they defined a kind of human being. Today, we assume ‘the market’ consists of the aggregate of innumerable one-on-one private exchanges, the sum total of which set prices. We might call this the market principle. The Ancien Régime operated according to the idea of the market as a place, which one might imagine as a kind of bazaar or village fair in which buyers and sellers met in public to conduct exchanges under the watchful eye of a third party. That third party – typically an emissary of the king, a town alderman, the local lord, or the nearby abbot – justified the taxation of these transactions by ensuring that the needy did not go hungry and the producer got a fair return for his troubles. Thus, in addition to providing peasants and artisans with a ready guide to the value of their land and labor, the weights and measures of the Ancien Régime also provided shopkeepers and consumers with some guarantee that their marketplace transactions would be fair.
In this context, the French savants’ scheme to reform weights and measures was a revolutionary rupture, far more radical than the sort of translation involved in the switch from, say, Anglo-American units to the metric system. Indeed, the revolutionaries intended the metric system to eradicate the assumptions underlying the old just-price economy. Their goal was to make productivity the visible measure of economic progress, and to make price the paramount variable in commercial exchange. They saw the metric reform as a crucial stage in the education of modern Homo economicus.