A Revolutionary Change: The French Revolution and the Metric System

The Metric system is one of the most lasting and least thought of impacts of the French Revolution. In their attempts to revolutionize all parts of society, the French revolutionists created a system of measurement that would stand the test of time and come to be the predominant system of measurement in the world.

A Revolutionary Time

The French Revolution was aimed to be more than just a revolution in government. It was meant to become a revolution in all areas of life. In the midst of the Enlightenment, those behind the Revolution thought that they could have the power to enact the changes they felt needed in society at large. They believe that they should remove the old ideas, and implement the new ideas into place through the force of law. They had the power and the drive to make whatever changes they wanted, and changes they would make. They replace Christianity with a new religion, founded on the Goddess of Reason rather than the archaic Judeo-Christian God. A new, better-designed calendar would replace the Gregorian calendar that people use since the Dark Ages. A new system of measurement would be designed to replace the antiquated and difficult to use methods of measurement that had developed over the centuries.

Of these things, the most lasting change came from the French Revolution’s changes to the system of measurement. Metric system first implemented during the French Revolution and put into place, and it has grown over the last two centuries to become the most widely used system of measurement in the world.

On the 8th of May, 1790, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, a Bishop who had sided with the Revolutionists, proposed before the National Assembly a change to the measurement system. It would be an entirely new system, one that was both more scientifically accurate as well as easier to use. The National Assembly accepted this proposal and set to work creating a new method of measurement. Talleyrand, the man who had arranged this change in motion, would later seek refuge in England during the Reign of Terror.

The National Assembly decided to create what is known as a decimal system. It means that each unit of measurement would be divisible by ten. Unlike in the American system, where 12 inches equals a foot, 3 feet equals a yard, and so on, each unit of measurement in the newly proposed system would be equally divisible by 10. 10 centimetres in a decimeter. Ten decimeters in a meter. And so on. It would include not only measurements of length, but also other measurements as well, such as volume, mass and temperature. Its name comes from the essential analysis of distance, however, the meter, named after the Greek word metron meaning “a measure.”

It was not the first time in history that such a decimal system gets implemented. In the 17th century, the French mathematician Gabriel Mouton had proposed a similar system. Thomas Jefferson of the United States also wanted such a system. However, it was under the whirlwind of change of the French Revolution where the system first came into existence. It is a significant change to switch from one measurement system to another.

For this system to work, however, there had to be a base measurement, on which everything else they could base. The metre had to have a definition. It wasn’t easy to find a meaning that everyone could agree with. The first proposal was for the meter to be defined by the length that a pendulum swings in one second. After some time though, it was thought that this would not be accurate enough. It was not an utterly constant distance, and so a new definition was proposed. The Academy of Science recommended that the new definition for a meter be equal to 1 10 millionth (1/10,000,000) of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator, and the National Assembly accepted this in 1791. It would provide a scientifically accurate and constant measurement for the meter and the basis of their new system. But after all of this work, the National Assembly failed to put their new system into place.

The Metric System Becomes Law

Many big changes took place in France during the Revolution. In 1791 a Constitution was put into place, making France a Constitutional monarchy. It meant that there was a governing Constitution which even the King must follow, as well as a legislative body, called the Legislative Assembly. France began a war with Austria in 1792, which would lead to a series of battles across Europe. In October of 1792, they abolish the monarchy, and the Republic of France created. This would become Year 1 of the new French calendar, which they develop the next year. The Legislative Assembly was removed, and a new National Convention became the primary governing body of France. It would be the National Convention who would first make the metric system law, five years after its first proposal by Talleyrand. While the people of France were not required to use the metric system, it became the official system of measurement of the Republic of France. The move to make the use of the metric system required by all would not come until many years later when many other changes had come to France.

In August of 1795, the National Convention came to its end. The Reign of Terror, directed by Maximilien Robespierre, was ended and they write a new Constitution. The new legislative body was called the Directory and would be in power until 1799 when Napolean Bonaparte took over France. In December of 1799, Napolean made the metric system compulsory, so that everyone in France must use it.

Unlike the attempts to create a new religion of the Goddess Reason, which never found a strong foothold or the Republican calendar which they removeĀ in 1806 with the old Gregorian calendar restored, the metric system became a permanent fixture in France and later almost the entire world. Except for the United Kingdom and the United States, almost every country in the world uses the metric system. And even in these countries, the metric system is used in science and other aspects of life. Of all of the events of the French Revolution, the development of the metric system was one of the most important and the most lasting, not only for France but everyone.

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