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    Why metric system measures the world—except U.S.

    In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. Their hope was that all the world’s people would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure.

    Ken Alder, Northwest University historian, recounts the seven-year odyssey of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-Francois-André Méchain to establish a new metric system of measurement that “would belong equally to all the people of the world, just as the earth belonged equally to all of them.”

    Their objective was to make an exact calculation of one-tenth million of the distance between the equator and the north pole, which would be the standard distance of one metre. Their method was to measure distances between selected points on mountain tops, church steeples and fortress ramparts in France and Spain and from these use triangulation to calculate the distance from the equator to the pole.

    Caught in the French revolution and a French-Spanish war, the two astronomers were harassed by hostile mobs which took them to be members of the despised aristocracy, arrested by police, threatened by soldiers and suffered accidents and injury.

    Their metric system ultimately became the official standard for all the countries of the world but three: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States.

    Notes from Ken Alder, The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (2002).

    TAGS Metric system, Standards, Distance, Measurement

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