Please activate JavaScript!
Please install Adobe Flash Player, click here for download

uni'wissen 02(4)-2011_ENG

that, for instance, in 1850 a mile was around seven-and-a-half miles long in Prussia, more than nine in Saxony, and less than five in Switz­ erland. 250,000 Local Units for Length The profusion of different systems of mea- surement for length was particularly confusing: 800 different ones were in use in France alone, and on top of that there were over 250,000 varia- tions of units like cubit, mile, foot, and fathom. Local differences were sometimes enormous: The cubit, for instance, could be between 40 and 120 centimeters long. The standard measure- ments were described at central locations in the cities, such as on the northwest buttress of the spire of the Freiburg Cathedral, where the town’s old measurements are chiseled into the stone. Even neighboring cities often used different units with the same name. But that didn’t bother peo- ple in the slightest: They knew the system in use at their local market, explains Kramper, and mer- chants used large collections of weights and measures and conversion handbooks. The measurement system introduced by En- lightenment thinkers had trouble gaining a foot- hold at first. England and Prussia introduced their own standards – the Prussian foot and the British yard simplified the situation to some ex- tent. The system finally began to gain wide- spread acceptance around the middle of the 19th century due to the convergence of econom- ic, political, and societal developments. Uniform standards brought advantages for in- dustrialization. In the mid 19th century the use of machines and the division of labor were becom- ing more and more important for production pro- cesses; companies were producing mass prod- ucts for growing markets. “For things like coal, it was not absolutely necessary to have standard- ized units,” explains Kramper, “but the mechani- cal production of cotton fibers or chemicals was a completely different story.” Having a unified numbering system for the thickness of strands of cotton greatly simplified production, as did fixed units for electrical energy or standardized screws. Many companies based their units on the systematic metric system. Meter and Kilogram as Symbols of Indepen- dence Science also demanded a unified and exact system of measurement. “Precise measure- ments were especially important for measuring the earth,” says Kramper. As this involved enor- mous distances, small errors in the basic unit could distort the results of measurements in a big way. “Even in the 19th century, precise mea- surements weren’t a matter of millimeters but of hundreds of thousandths of millimeters.” In addi- tion, many young nations adopted the metric sys- tem as a way to distance themselves from the old regime: for example former Spanish or Portu- guese colonies in Latin America or Japan, which succeeded in making the transition from a feudal to a constitutional state after the Meiji Restora- tion in 1868. In Germany, the smaller states de- manded the introduction of the metric system af- ter the formation of the German Empire in 1871 in order not to have to adopt the units of the pow- erful state of Prussia. Before the introduction of standardized units of measurement people used local units, like the 54-centimeter-long “Freiburger Elle” (left) or the “Freiburg Zu­ber- Maß,” which corresponds to 182.26 liters. The inscription over the drawing reads: “Eight Zuber (= tubs) in a heap should make a Karren (= cart) of charcoal”; the “Karren” was the next larger unit in the system. The two units of measurement can be found on the northwest buttress of the Freiburg Cathedral. Photos: Klaußner “Even in the 19th century, precise measurements weren’t a matter of millimeters but of hundreds of thousandths of millimeters” 10 uni'wissen 04