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Weights and Measures

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES. Weights and measures throughout Europe during the early modern period were characterized by complexity and confusion and dominated by customary practices. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they arose originally from Greek, Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and other roots and multiplied on local, regional, and state levels at a rapid pace after 1450. Among the principal causes for this proliferation were economic development, commercial competition, population growth, urbanization, taxation manipulations, territorial expansion, and technological progress. Contributing also were ineffective governmental decrees and legislative acts, the paucity and inferior workmanship of the physical standards manufactured to serve as prototypes, and the overwhelming number of poorly trained officials entrusted with inspection, verification, and enforcement duties.

Central governments contributed to weights and measures proliferation by promulgating multiple state standards for individual units, depending on where they were used and by whom. Sizes of units in capital cities were often different from those in the provinces or in rural areas. They even differed among social classes. On the other hand, common local units occasionally became so popular that they gained unit standardization. They then competed with state units, producing further confusion.

With the rapid growth of cities, weights and measures frequently separated into different standards depending on whether they were employed within the cities or outside their walls. A sharp division arose between urban and suburban measures. Similarly, some measuring units differed according to their use on land or on sea. A general rule throughout Europe was that measures always increased in size or distance once land was no longer in sight.

Product variations were the most important source for metrological proliferation. Those based on quantity measures varied by number or by an odd assortment of human, animal, and other capabilities. Even when these measures had standardized counts, capacities, or weights, the actual sizes depended on the characteristics of the products involved. Compounding this situation was the centuries-old practice of dividing existing units into halves, thirds, and fourths or into an irregular assortment of diminutives. Similar problems were assigning the same name to different units, basing one unit on a multiple or submultiple of another, bestowing more than one name on the same unit, and authorizing various methods of submultiple compilations for a given unit.

Further examples were units of account that were simply computational units for record keeping and other business purposes. Similarly, there were measures reserved for wholesale trade that referred to any number of other better-known units without any correlation to existing standards. Measures were also based on the monetary values of coins, on units of income derived through production, on crop yields and tax assessments, and on work functions, dimensions, and time allotments of humans and animals. The sizes of such units rested on a myriad of imprecise factors.

Regardless of such conditions, Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced a climate of change ushered in by the age of science and the Enlightenment. During this critical period, a number of developments occurred that altered metrological history profoundly, and eventually led to the creation and implementation of the metric system in France in 1793 and the imperial system in England in 1824.

First, there was the dynamic of scientific and technological invention and innovation that overthrew the rigid reliance on past traditions. The introduction of numerous new concepts, instruments, and procedures linked theoreticians with craftsmen for the first time and led to profound advancements in lenses, magnification glasses, microscopes, navigational, astronomical, and triangulation instruments, and clocks. These and hundreds of other breakthroughs, spearheaded chiefly by English, French, and Italian scientists, played a critical role in the reformation of weights and measures.

Second, many of these successes received stimulus and support from the European scientific societies that developed rapidly during the 1600s. By the end of the century, most serious scientists in Europe had become members of these societies, and their journals disseminated knowledge of new discoveries and inventions. In Italy the Roman Accademia dei Lincei and the Florentine Accademia del Cimento made significant scientific strides, the latter especially in its technological apparatus.

The most important societies for the future development of metrology, however, were the Royal Society of London and the Academy of Sciences of Paris and their offshoots, the Greenwich and Paris observatories. The English organizations cast their scientific net far and wide and made giant advancements in physics, astronomy, chemistry, and natural science which, coupled with their pioneering work in technological instruments, helped create a new era in weights and measures. Even more important were the Parisian groups whose scientists introduced the practice of using telescopes in conjunction with graduated circles for the precise measurement of angles. This led to measurements of the meridian arc and the computation of the radius of the Earth. This seminal work provided metrologists with possibilities for a natural physical standard that eventually became the basis for the metric system.

These and other advances led to the creation of hundreds of metrological reform proposals. In England the pendulum was given special emphasis. Since the second unit (of time) is determined by the motion of the earth, it was believed that the length of the second's pendulum in a given latitude would be an invariable quantity that could always be recovered or duplicated. Others proposed altering the existing system to conform to a decimal scale, eliminating all units except for a select few, and coordinating all units to a strict series of ratios. Unfortunately, the revamped English system of 1824 excluded any natural standard and opted only for streamlining the old system and establishing more accurate physical standards. The French proposals concluded far more successfully. After numerous experiments, France settled on a standard determined by the triangulation measurements of that portion of the meridian arc that ran from Dunkirk through Paris to Barcelona. In the process they established a new measurethe meteras one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Even though there eventually were some problems with the final measurements, a new era in world metrology had begun.

See also Enlightenment ; Mathematics ; Scientific Instruments .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berriman, Algernon E. Historical Metrology. London, 1953. An excellent study of the major issues in European metrological history.

Daumas, Maurice. Scientific Instruments of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century. New York, 1972. Shows the impact of technology on numerous metrological developments.

Kula, Witold. Measures and Men. Translated by Richard Szreter. Princeton, 1986. Important for the historical correlation between metrology and society.

Zupko, Ronald E. Revolution in Measurement: Western European Weights and Measures since the Age of Science. Philadelphia, 1990. Extensive coverage of medieval and early modern European weights and measures with a comprehensive bibliography on all issues.

. "Weights and Measures." In Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. Vol. 6. New York, 1999. Tables of principal European units of measurement.

. "Weights and Measures: Western European." In Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 12. New York, 1989. Europe-wide in scope with tables of equivalents; see also author's metrological articles in the other eleven volumes.

Ronald Edward Zupko

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"Weights and Measures." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Weights and Measures." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/weights-and-measures-1

weights and measures

weights and measures, units and standards for expressing the amount of some quantity, such as length, capacity, or weight; the science of measurement standards and methods is known as metrology.

Crude systems of weights and measures probably date from prehistoric times. Early units were commonly based on body measurements and on plant seeds or other objects from agriculture. As civilization progressed, technological and commercial requirements led to increased standardization. For example, because the length of the human foot or the width of the palm varies from individual to individual, it probably became necessary first to specify a particular individual (e.g., the king) and later to reproduce standards based on this commonly accepted unit of length. Units were usually fixed by edict of local or national rulers and were subdivided and multiplied or otherwise arranged into systems of measurement.

Standards varied greatly in different localities, although conquest and trade stimulated some correspondence between systems, e.g., between the systems of Egypt, Babylon, and Phoenicia. A high degree of standardization was achieved in the Roman Empire, but after its fall considerable diversity returned. The foot, which was one of the earliest units, is believed to have had as many as 280 variants in Europe as late as the 18th cent. Today the chief systems are the English units of measurement and the metric system.

The United States is one of the few countries still using the English system; all other major nations have either converted to the metric system or committed themselves to conversion. The English system is much older and less practical than the metric system, and in the United States there has been considerable discussion in favor of adopting the metric system as the principal system. However, attempts to legislate such a change in the U.S. Congress have failed. The basic units of the English system, the yard of length and the pound of mass, are now defined in terms of the metric standards, the meter of length and the kilogram of mass.

Before 1960 the meter was defined as the distance between two scratches on a prototype bar kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (est. 1875) at Sèvres, France, near Paris. In 1960 it was redefined in terms of an atomic standard. This new standard is more stable than the old meter bar, is indestructible, and is easily reproduced, eliminating the need for periodic comparison with a single standard. The kilogram is defined in terms of a prototype cylinder kept at the bureau.

In the United States, Congress has the constitutional right to fix standards, but except for purposes of customs and internal revenue, weights and measures legislation has been, for the most part, permissive. Sets of official weights and measures were sent to the states in 1856, but legislation and enforcement are largely state prerogatives. The federal government permitted the use of the metric system in 1866 and established a conversion table based on the yard and the pound; in 1893 the yard and the pound were redefined in terms of the metric prototypes of the meter and the kilogram. The major arguments against total conversion to the metric system in the United States are that it would involve great expense in industry and would cause widespread confusion among the general public.

See the table entitled Common Weights and Measures.

See M. Blocksma, Reading the Numbers (1989).

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weights and measures

weights and measures. The history of weights and measures in Britain is dominated by efforts at standardization, nationally and locally, for many variations existed for measures in the different countries of the British Isles.

In England, Saxon weights and measures, based roughly on the standards prescribed by Offa, king of Mercia, were used for centuries, being confirmed after the Norman Conquest by William I and subsequently in 1215 by Magna Carta. The ounce was approximately 450 grains, i.e. slightly heavier than the modern one. An ordinance of Henry III in 1266 defined both coinage and commercial weights for the first time. There was some effort to relate English weights to those of the cities of the Hanseatic league, the principal market for wool, the country's major export. This act established a 16-ounce pound for commercial weight.

A new standard of bulk weight was enacted by Edward III in 1340, when the treasury at Winchester became the repository for weights with denominations of 7, 14, 28, 56, and 91 lbs. The standard corresponded roughly with that of Florence, another major market for English wool, indicating that one stone should weigh 14 lbs. During the reign of Henry VII, weights and measures were put on a statutory basis by an Act of 1497 and later under Elizabeth I a series of ordinances culminated with that of 1588 aimed to standardize bulk and precious metal weights. The hundredweight and the ton were standardized at 112 lb. and 20 cwt. (2,240 lb.) respectively. These Acts also set standards for liquid and linear measures, which were distributed to all the main cities and boroughs in England and Wales, though adoption was gradual and inspection difficult.

North of the border, despite similar attempts to disentangle the confusing system of Scottish weights and measures, there was no serious attack on the problem until the Restoration. In 1661 a parliamentary commission proposed the introduction of national standards with certain burghs having custody of particular weights and measures. Accordingly, Edinburgh would keep the ell for linear measure, Linlithgow the firlot for dry measure, Lanark the troy stone for weight, and Stirling the jug for liquid capacity.

The Union of 1707 should have brought standardization throughout Great Britain but in reality it was not until an Act of 1824 that the uniformity recommended by the Carysfort parliamentary inquiry in 1758–60 was statutorily established. British standards then became known as imperial measure. More precise instruments, particularly for use in scientific experiments and in cartography, led to greater standardization of both weights and measures.

While many attempts have subsequently been made to substitute metric for imperial measure, the former, though widely used in industry, and scientific and professional spheres, has not yet replaced traditional standards. A further step towards standard metrification with Europe was taken in 1995, though, as an act of kindness, the British people were allowed to continue to drink pints of milk or pints of beer, and to travel, if they wished, in miles.

Ian Donnachie

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Weights and Measures

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES

A comprehensive legal term for uniform standards ascribed to the quantity, capacity, volume, or dimensions of anything.

The regulation of weights and measures is necessary for science, industry, and commerce. The importance of establishing uniform national standards was demonstrated by the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, who gave Congress in Article 1, Section 8, the power to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." During the nineteenth century, the Office of Standard Weights and Measures regulated measurements. In 1901 it became the National Bureau of Standards, and in 1988 it was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The states may also regulate weights and measures, provided their regulations are not in opposition to any act of Congress. Legislation that adopts and mandates the use of uniform system of weights and measures is a valid exercise of the police power, and such laws are constitutional. In the early twentieth century the National Bureau of Standards coordinated standards among states and held annual conferences at which a model state law of weights and measures was updated. This effort has resulted in almost complete uniformity of state laws.

Though U.S. currency was settled in a decimal form, Congress has retained the English

weights and measures systems. France adopted the metric system in the 1790s, starting an international movement to make the system a universal standard, replacing national and regional variants that made scientific and commercial communication difficult. thomas jefferson was an early advocate of the metric system and in an 1821 report to Congress, Secretary of State john quincy adams urged its acceptance. However, Congress stead-fastly refused.

Despite hostility to making the metric system the official U.S. system of weights and measures, its use was authorized in 1866. The United States also became a signatory to the Metric Convention of 1875, and received copies of the International Prototype Meter and the International Prototype Kilogram in 1890. In 1893 the Office of Weights and Measures announced that the prototype meter and kilogram would be recognized as fundamental standards from which customary units, the yard and the pound, would be derived.

The metric system has been adopted by many segments of U.S. commerce and industry, as well as by virtually all of the medical and scientific professions. The international acceptance of the metric system led Congress in 1968 to authorize a study to determine whether the United States should convert. Though the resulting 1971 report recommended shifting to the metric system over a ten-year period, Congress declined to pass appropriate legislation.

further readings

Bartlett, David F., ed. 1980. The Metric Debate. Boulder: Colorado Associated Univ. Press.

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weights and measures

weights and measures Agreed units for expressing the amount of some quantity, such as capacity, length or weight. Early measurements were based on body measurements and on plant grains. The French introduced the metric system in 1799, in which the unit of length, the metre, was taken as one ten millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. A litre was the volume occupied by one kilogram of water. SI units, proposed in 1960, have expanded and replaced the metric system for scientific purposes. The British system of imperial units, has almost entirely been replaced by the metric system for everyday measurements, but not in the USA.

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