Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Metric Systems' Meter/Metre: Once Based on Geography

The modern form of the Metric System, the International System of Units (SI), is the default measuring system for almost all communication, scientific, and military operations. In the past there were different forms of the Metric System which came and went. Few people know that the original Metric System's measurement of distance, the meter (aka metre) was based on the geographical distance between the equator and North Pole.

During the French Revolution the Enlightenment, with its rational drive and desire for universal standards, was driving science. Members of the French Academy of Sciences decided that a new measurement system was needed and one based on ten would make logical sense. The contemporary French measurement system was based on old, arbitrary customs and varied region by region.

The academy commissioned an effort measure the distance from the pole to the equator to form the new distance measurement unit. Two astronomers measured the distance from Barcelona to Orleans because they calculated this as being a certain fraction of the pole-equator distance. Once the measurements and calculations were done the scientists divided the calculated distance by ten million and created the standard meter bar. However, due to an error in calculating the curvature of the earth (the scientists assumed the planet was a perfect sphere) the meter was off by about twice the thickness of a piece of paper. This led to another two thousand some meters being necessary to travel from the pole to the equator.

Through a series of later reforms the metric system moved away from geography and more to physics. Now a meter is defined as the distance traveled by light in vacuum during 1299,792,458 of a second (yeah).


Part 2: Catholicgauze and the Metric System

Being a proud American I am a combination of weary and unfamiliar with the metric system. However, as a large portion of my readership does use the metric system. Therefore, all measurements given in the blog will be in the American system with metric given in parentheses.


Part 3: Meter or Metre

The official SI guidelines state the distance unit is spelled metre. However, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology states the spelling is meter. Look for me to bounce back and forth on spelling because I have no dog in the fight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the item on the origin of the meter. NatGeo has also taken a step toward a friendly introduction to the metric system--as student of mine who reportedly saw this on a NatGeo documentary pointed out, the Europeans refer to 500g as a "pound". USAmericans could call it a "metric pound" and we'd be well on the way to acceptance of a "friendly metric" system.
-Mr. P., Science Teacher
(with Seattle Public Schools)