Enfilade

Inches or centimeters?

Posted in the 18th century in the news by Editor on January 1, 2018

A New Year’s Resolution (the sort that I regularly make and rarely keep) . . . This object seems like a perfect way to introduce my (largely) American students to the utility of the metric system in thinking about the sizes of works of art in centimeters rather than inches. Yes, I realize this is specifically a measure of weight rather than distance, but it nicely takes the story back to the 1790s.

To all of you who keep reading, warmest wishes for a very happy 2018!CH

As reported by Joe Palca for NPR’s All Things Considered (28 December 2017). . .

This 1793 grave is an early version of the kilogram. It is possible this object, now owned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology museum in Gaithersburg, MD, was once pirate treasure.

Jefferson knew about a new French system and thought it was just what America needed. He wrote to his pals in France, and the French sent a scientist named Joseph Dombey off to Jefferson carrying a small copper cylinder with a little handle on top. It was about 3 inches tall and about the same wide.

This object was intended to be a standard for weighing things, part of a weights and measure system being developed in France, now known as the metric system. The object’s weight was 1 kilogram.

Crossing the Atlantic, Dombey ran into a giant storm.

“It blew his ship quite far south into the Caribbean Sea,” says [Keith] Martin, [of the research library at the National Institute of Standards and Technology].

And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? . . .

The pirates took Joseph Dombey prisoner on the island of Montserrat, hoping to obtain a ransom for him. Unfortunately for the pirates, and for Dombey as well, he died in captivity. The pirates weren’t interested in the objects Dombey was carrying. They were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of his ship. . . .

Would it really have made any difference if Dombey had been able to deliver his kilogram to Jefferson?

“We don’t know for sure, but it seems like there was a missed opportunity there,” says Martin. . .

The full article is available here»