Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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WEIGHTS AND MEASURES. It is with proposals to adopt the metric system that this subject now mainly comes up before legislative bodies; and we shall treat it chiefly in this aspect—The English standards for many years subsequent to 1760 were a certain brass weight constituting a troy pound, and a certain brass bar, the distance between two points on which, at a temperature of 62°, constituted a yard. Accurate copies of these were obtained for America in 1827, and have since constituted the standards for the United States. The English standards were destroyed by fire in 1834, but were carefully replaced; subsequently the troy pound has been done away with, and a standard pound avoirdupois substituted. The old unit of capacity was the gallon. It was supposed that a gallon, of whatever commodity, ought to weigh eight pounds; hence the variation of liquid and dry measure, while the further variation of wine and beer measure bears an almost exact proportion to the difference of the troy and avoirdupois pounds. All these standards are still in use in America, but are defined in cubic inches; in England the reforms of 1826 substituted a common "imperial" measure for all the three. Besides these there are more than seventy different units in general use, verified as being determinate multiples or fractions of some one of these standards.


—Up to the end of the last century the systems in use in other parts of Europe were equally chaotic, and bore no relation to one another. Most of them had indeed their foot and their pound, representing somewhat the same length or weight; but there was too much difference in them to be available for anything like exact comparison.


—In the year 1790 the French assembly undertook to lay the foundations of a system in which all the parts should have the simplest mathematical and practical relations to one another, and which should rest ultimately upon some fixed natural standard. Neither of these ideas was new; but they had never—in modern times at least—been put in practice. It was at first proposed to adopt the length of the seconds pendulum as the unit, but finally the ten-millionth part of the earth's quadrant was selected instead, and attempts at determining this were at once instituted. After some preliminary legislation the system was established in France in its present shape in 1799. Its details are familiar; it is only for us to consider the history of its adoption in different countries, whether sudden or gradual, and the advantages and difficulties attending the change.


—In France itself it was not carried through with the completeness which the legislators had expected. The opposition of the lower classes was so great that Napoleon in 1812 adopted a compromise, returning to a certain extent to the old names, but making the pound exactly half a kilogramme, and the foot exactly one-third of a metre. This compromise continued in use till 1840, when, by a decree passed three years earlier, the metric system went into effect in its original form.


—The French conquests at the beginning of this century had extended the use of the system beyond the permanent frontiers of France. In the Netherlands, both Belgium and Holland, its use continued without interruption after the separation from France. Its use for government purposes continued in parts of Italy; and its effect was never lost in Baden. A large part of the states which had been led to introduce it temporarily under French domination, had adopted it permanently before the middle of the century. Neither there nor elsewhere has the change as a general rule taken place suddenly. Either the use of the metric system has been optional for a time and afterward made obligatory; or it has been first introduced in certain departments, such as coinage, postage, customs, or railway freight charges, and afterward made general; or, very commonly, as a transition measure the old standards of the country have been slightly modified so as to be commensurable with the metric system, as in the case of the metric foot and metric pound above mentioned. The dates of these changes in different countries are shown by table in following column, based largely upon the report of J. K. Upton, 45th Cong., 2d Sess., Ex. Doc. 71, which contains many additional details.

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.


—The growth of the system has been so gradual that it is hard to divide it into periods. The decisive points in its history were its partial adoption by the German zollverein in 1852; its complete adoption by Germany and Austria, 1868-76; and the establishment in 1875 of the international bureau of weights and measures at Paris, with representatives of all the leading nations, except England and the United States; even including Russia, which has otherwise done nothing in this direction.


—Both in England and in the United States the metric system is used in scientific work; and in the United States the smaller coins have metric weights; but the act making its use permissive has had no effect upon ordinary business. The subject of making its use compulsory has been agitated in both countries. The British standard commission, in 1869, while admitting the desirableness of the change, deprecated hasty legislation in that direction. In 1877 the house of representatives passed a resolution that the heads of executive departments be asked what objections there were, if any, to making the use of the metric system compulsory. The answers varied exceedingly in their tenor, but the majority were decidedly conservative. The arguments in favor of making the change as soon as possible are the practical convenience of the metric system for calculation and business, the confusion of names under the old system, and the importance of common units in international trade. Against the change is urged the fact that our present standards are well established, that the people are satisfied with them, and that the inconvenience and expense of a hurried change outweigh any practical advantages likely to be felt at present. They are the arguments of conservative feeling, in a case where that feeling is unusually strong.


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