A revolution in measurement

Precision watch movement
  Precision watch movement
  Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

At the beginning of the 1800s there were innumerable systems of weights and measures in Europe. But the economic and technological impact of industrialisation created a need for internationally agreed units of measurement. The development of new measurement standards became a central concern that drove science forwards, towards specialisation and precision.

As early as 1795, the revolutionary government in France attempted to solve the problem by introducing unified systems for weights and distances – kilograms and metres. But it was not enough: the need for additional standard measures continued to grow during the 19th century, especially when infrastructure such as train, telegraph and electricity systems were connected across regional and national boundaries.

Science needed to be able to compare measurements
Science also faced challenges. How could researchers agree that they were measuring the same things? How could they compare their results? The answers were not obvious when they used instruments that they had built themselves or ordered from a local instrument maker.

In the fields of astronomy, natural history and meteorology it was essential that researchers in different countries should be able to collaborate. Phenomena such as the climate, the weather or the northern lights needed to be investigated in many different locations. The development of scientific measurement techniques thus became a shared international concern.

The Metre Convention of 1875
After the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris, a committee was appointed that advocated the adoption of international standards based on the decimal system. The Metre Convention was signed in 1875 and in Sweden the old measures of feet and inches were finally abandoned in 1889. Physics professor Robert Thalén represented Sweden and travelled to Paris to collect the ”national standards”, the prototypes for the metre and the kilogram.

Standardisation fuels the progress of science
The work to develop new measurement standards required research focused on precision and measurement technique. Even if the initial goal was simply to allow more accurate measurements, it led to technical specialisation, which in turn opened up new areas of scientific endeavour. Standardisation became a motor of scientific progress and remains so to this day.