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uni'wissen 02(4)-2011_ENG

What is more, a liter of milk or a liter of water? Today, every child knows that a liter is al- ways a liter, no matter what the content is, but in the 18th century people were just as convinced that this is not so: A gallon of beer can’t have the same volume as a gallon of wine, because these are two different kinds of liquid. In 1750 a gallon of beer in England was about 800 milliliters more than a gallon of wine. The introduction of the metric system put an end to this way of thinking in the space of just a few generations. The units meter, kilogram, and liter brought about a revolution in the way we think about distance, mass, and volume. Dr. Pe- ter Kramper is conducting research for his ha- bilitation thesis at the Department of History and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) on how new systems of measurement shaped the European nations between 1750 and World War I. His thesis focuses on standardiza- tion in Europe, with an emphasis on Germany, France, and Great Britain. He asks what units of measurement existed, how they developed, and why they ended up being standardized. He is not only interested in the scientific and administra- tive side of the problem, but also in economic, social, and cultural aspects: “There was an eco- nomic and a cultural logic of measurements in the early modern period that changed radically in the 19th century.” He unearths answers to his questions at archives and libraries: in pamphlets, scientific publications, or administrative acts. Also informative is the literature of the Enlighten- ment: Arguments for or against standardized measurements took on propagandistic qualities, says the historian – particularly in France. Units Based on Nature The French revolutionaries introduced the metric system in 1789. Kramper calls it “a sys- tematically constructed system of units of a ratio- nalistic simplicity.” It was based on nature – a meter was originally the ten-millionth part of the distance from the North Pole to the equator along the degree of longitude on which Paris is located. The liter and the kilogram were derived from the meter. The elements of this system have a logical connection with each other based on the number ten. The decimal system makes the units scal- able: The Greek prefix “kilo” makes the unit larg- er, the Latin “milli” makes it smaller. The idea comes from the Enlightenment and follows the theory of natural law, says Kramper: “All people have the same rights and the same foundation.” The units should thus be the same for all goods – whether wine or beer, bread or coal. Enlightenment intellectuals were delighted with the new system, but the majority of the pop- ulation simply ignored it. Paris had to take “great pains to get its civil servants to implement it.” In retrospect, it was only logical to bring order into the confused mess of units for area, weight, and length. It seems illogical and impractical to us Emblem of standardization: The International Bureau of Weights and Measures was founded in 1875 in ­Paris to oversee the installation of ­standard measurements and weights. Image: Wikimedia Commons 9uni'wissen 04