A Revolution in Measurement (1989-1995)

Presentation Date: 

Monday, March 20, 1989


Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Chicago, IL

Kobel surveyors pole

An exhibit on the development of the metric system, illustrating how the zeal for reform during the French Revolution extended beyond the political arena to the worlds of commerce and science.  Topics included:

  • The social construction of weights and measures
  • Early conventions based on ready-to-hand objects such as barley corns or body parts
  • Scientific and commercial pressures for standardized measures
  • How the hatred of old class distinctions perhaps spurred French reformers to replace the pied du roy with a measure grounded in nature rather than royal authority
  • Delambre's and Méchain's expeditions to measure the arc of the meridian
  • The slow acceptance of the new metric system and rejection of reforms to calendars and clocks

Two interactive components compared the old and new systems of measurement.  Opening of exhibition coincided with the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

See also: 1980s, 1990s