Measure for Measure: Delambre, Méchain, and the Meter – The Things that Endure (Part 1 of 2)

Dr. David M. Burns once advised his colleagues to “Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life.” This attitude towards success was not always so widespread throughout the scientific community. There was a time in science’s past when any error was unacceptable, when the idea of a bell-curve was a distant blip on the horizon, and outliers was a code word for ‘mistake’.

Science seeks to understand the world we live in by measuring and quantifying it. But how do you decide what is a good measure and what isn't? (Photo by  Jamiesrabbits via Flickr)

Science seeks to understand the world we live in by measuring and quantifying it. But how do you decide what is a good measure and what isn’t? (Photo by Jamiesrabbits via Flickr)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines success as a “favorable or desired outcome; also: the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence”. With a definition that broad, any act may well be categorized as a success. However, if history has taught the world anything it is that such issues are rarely black and white. For instance, there is the story of the metric system and the expedition undertaken by 18th centuryastronomersJean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain to measure the length of the meridian between Dunkirk and Barcelona to discover the meter’s appropriate measurement, whatever was 1 / 10,000,000 of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. These events make up part of a much debated piece of history. While the expedition was eventually completed and the metric system firmly established, questions still linger about its ultimate success. Given the fact that the metric system was in fact rejected by the French government at the time of its inception, is it still a success? The expedition was continually delayed and beleaguered, taking many long years to complete – does its success rest on its timeliness? Or does the fact that one of the expedition heads, Pierre Méchain, falsified his results to cover up an error he had found in his measurements immediately dethrone the expedition from its successful status?

Pierre Mechain, as painted by Hurle in 1882

Pierre Mechain, as painted by Hurle in 1882

It is interesting to note that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides as broad of a definition of failure as it does of success: “Failure: The omission of occurrence or performance; specifically : a failing to perform a duty or expected action”. If we are working with this definition, than certainly failures did occur on the expedition. However the question begged is whether the failures of the moment are sufficient to wipe away the long-term success of a larger undertaking. The answer, it seems, would lie within the phrase “long-term”; for that is how success is truly measured – by the things that last, not the things that pass. Surely, under this kinder definition of success, a definition that allows for failure, the meridian expedition of Delambre and Méchain and the metric system derived from their labor was an immeasurable success, if only for the long-term effects it had on society as a whole.

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre

The metric system expedition was hailed as a success from the first if only because it was lasting proof of what men could achieve, even in the most turbulent of times. When Delambre and Méchain set out to measure the world, their own homeland teetered on the brink of disaster. The French Revolution broke out shortly after their departure from Paris, and the country was in a continual uproar of one kind or another during the majority of their expedition. The obstacles they faced were many, from suspicious peasantry to foreign kings. At times it seemed that the expedition was doomed, its goal to create a universal standard of weights and measures sheer folly. But the savants pressed on, never relenting until their data had been collected and the meter declared by the Academy of Science in France. It was said of them that “Their exactitude in the face of social chaos exemplified what was noble and salvageable from the first great Revolution” (Adler, 328). In a time when the world seemed fractured and falling apart, the two astronomers had created “…a meter based on the size of the earth [that] made every landowner a ‘co-owner of the World’” (Adler, 253). Their fortitude served as an example to scientific minds everywhere, their expedition seen at once as both magnificent and unrepeatable. “In this sense,” as the historian Ken Adler puts it, “the meridian expedition succeeded as a matter of politics, even if it had failed as a matter of science” (Adler, 328).

Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV by Henry Testelin

Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV by Henry Testelin

In modern-day terms, the metric system can hardly be considered anything but a success. It is used as the standard form of weights and measurements in nearly every country in the world, the United States being the only exception of note. In fact, “By the middle of the twentieth century, the vast majority of the world’s nations – with the major exceptions of the British Commonwealth and the United States – had joined the metric system” (Adler 339). Since the goal of the original metric expedition was to create a set of standards and measures based on the earth so that everyone could utilize it, it seems that their success has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, there are some who dispute this point, arguing that because the metric system was in fact, rejected by the French themselves and not adopted until much later in their history the metric system was, in fact, a failure. “The French were not only the first nation to invent the metric system; they were also the first to reject it” (Adler, 261). Even Napoleon, who was outwardly a great supporter of the expedition when it was being carried out, found the new system too alien and complicated for everyday use. “As for Napoleon, he refused to learn the metric system…He said he could not think in the new units” (Adler, 261).

Woodcut dated 1800 illustrating the new decimal units which became the legal norm in France on 4 November 1800, five years after the the metrical system was first introduced.

Woodcut dated 1800 illustrating the new units which became the legal norm in France on 4 November 1800, five years after the the metrical system was first introduced.

On the other hand though, the metric system has become, with time and education of the public, the most widespread system of measurements in the world. If one operates under the belief that success can only be seen in those things that endure, than how the original metric system was received is not relevant; only the long-term effects we can examine today remain important. Take, for example, the case of the euro. “[Delambre’s and Méchain’s] goal was to make productivity the visible measure of economic progress…In many ways, their vision has triumphed. The euro, the common currency of much of Europe as of 2002, is a direct heir of the metric system” (Adler, 350). Similarly, historians today are able to “…trace the impact of [this] work in the globalization of economic exchange, and in the way ordinary people have come to understand their own best interest” (Adler, 9). Although the metric system met with considerable resistance at its inception, it is clear that it has become a world-wide success in its application despite that.

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About rsjeffrey

A thinly published author who is widely read. No type of fiction is off limits, and I even enjoy plunging into the odd, well-written nonfiction tome as well. I am driven by a need to continuously move forward, so expect to see a lot of activity from me!
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One Response to Measure for Measure: Delambre, Méchain, and the Meter – The Things that Endure (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Measure for Measure: Delambre, Méchain, and the Meter – The Things that Endure (Part 2 of 2) | Simple Complexities

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