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uni'wissen 02(4)-2011_ENG

Dr. Peter Kramper studied early modern and modern history, political science, philosophy, and the history of economics in Mainz, Freiburg, and London. In 1999 he com- pleted his master’s in the history of economics at the London School of Econom- ics. From 2000 to 2006 he worked as a research assistant under the Chair for Economic and Social History at the University of Freiburg. He received a prize for his dissertation from the Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Wirtschafts­ geschichte (Association for Social and Economic History). In fall 2006 he be- gan work on his habilitation thesis: “The Battle of the Standards: Measuring, Counting, and Weighing in Western Europe, 1750– 1914.” Between October 2010 and September 2011 he was a junior fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS). In 1875 Paris founded an international institu- tion to oversee the installation of standard mea- surements and weights: the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. In the same year, rep- resentatives from 17 countries signed the Meter Convention. Nations from all over the world met in Paris to discuss the final definition of metric standards. In 1889 a prototype kilogram and a prototype meter were made. Even workers and farmers now supported the adoption of the met- ric system: Their original rejection of the new system stemmed from the fact that they had of- ten been disadvantaged by changes made in the past. Now they profited from the change, be- cause their products could be controlled with standardized devices calibrated by the govern- ment. When a check weigher is used to record the amount of cloth a weaver produced in a day, for instance, it is more difficult for his employer to cheat him out of part of his pay. Fixed Units Replace Rough Estimates The “societal transformation process” had be- come irreversible by the 20th century, says Kramper. Not only did the meter, the kilogram, and the liter replace the old units, they also her- alded in a new way of thinking. “Premodern units of measurement were often based on estimates,” explains the historian. Using hectares to define land ownership, for instance, would have been too abstract and wouldn’t have revealed anything about the composition of the land. A farmer who measured land in morgans – an old German unit of measurement based on the amount of time it took to plough a certain area – knew right away how much of a plot of land he could till in the space of a morning and could estimate how diffi- cult it would be to cultivate. Further Reading Crease, R. P. (2011): World in the Balance. The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement. New York/London. Alder, K. (2003): The Measure of the World. Washington, D.C Kula, W. (1986): Measures and Men. Princeton. Thus, agrarian societies did not think in fixed units measurement: If a farmer sold a bushel of wheat, the amount was only a rough estimate. A bushel was larger in good times and smaller in bad times, it could be added to or taken away from – and still remained a bushel. People asso- ciated units of measurement with particular prod- ucts rather than with amounts. “Early modern units of measurements were always thought of in concrete terms,” says Kramper. “I still have trou- ble understanding this concept.” The people had a picture of a loaf of bread, a vat of butter, a pile of apples in their imagination. “Today, on the oth- er hand, we see the things already packaged in our minds.” Whether we are thinking about a liter of milk, a half a kilo of sugar, or a kilo of muesli, the terms we think in are standardized and ab- stract – and we thus find it completely logical that a liter is always a liter. So have we lost the art of concrete thinking? Not entirely: When we ride on the train, we think in hours rather than in kilome- ters. “And I of course don’t measure my coffee break in minutes but in the amount of time I need to enjoy my coffee.” Used almost everywhere: The map shows when each nation adopted the metric system (light areas: no data available). Only Liberia, Myanmar, and the USA (black) have yet to adopt the system. Image: Wikipedia Commons 11