The year is 1794. Joseph Dombey, a prominent French botanist, cowers below deck as his ship is boarded by British privateers. While such a thing is not uncommon at the time for ships brave enough to traverse the pirate infested waters of the Caribbean, this particular commandeering would have rippling ramifications on a certain soon to be superpower’s system of measurement more than two-hundred years down the line.
Dombey (Left) and Jefferson (Right)
Originating in France in the late 1700s, the metric system was created by the French Academy of Sciences as a means to establish a uniform system of measurements employing the Earth’s meridian as a basis for defining length. The system would increase and decrease by scales of ten, a metre for example being 1/10,000,000th the distance of the quarter of the meridian that passed through Paris. Using this method, the academy would continue to designate similar uniform systems of measurement for area, volume, mass, and temperature as well as establishing decimal based prefixes like “centi” for a hundredth and “kilo” for thousand. Prior to this single universal system, units for lengths and weights in France, and the rest of Europe, were given by trade guilds on a city to city basis. An “elle” for example was one a unit of length commonly used throughout Europe, however it’s actual length varied city to city. As the means for international trade in Europe grew more efficient however, the demand for a uniform system of measurement grew as well. Once created and applied in France, the metric system spread rapidly and over the next two hundred years metrication, or the conformation to the metric standard, swept across the world until nearly every country on the planet had converted.
As of 2018, of all existing countries, only three have resisted conversion to the metric system also known as the International System of Units (SI). According to CIA World Factbook the only countries that have not yet adopted the metric system as their standard unit of weight and measurement are Burma, Liberia, and the United States; the US being the only industrialized nation in the world not to do so. Despite the SI being sanctioned into law by the Mendenhall Order of 1866 which allowed, but did not require, the use of the metric system within the United States, the US has stubbornly refused to adopt it in an unofficial capacity, continuing to favor the severely outdated and non-uniform imperial system. This continued refusal was nearly avoided, however, almost 200 years ago by none other than Thomas Jefferson.
Having served as Minister to France in 1784, Jefferson held an excellent relationship with the French and as such was elected to negotiate with France to strengthen their economic ties with the US after their support in declaring independence from Great Britain. Jefferson chose to deal with a French physician and botanist by the name of Joseph Dombey. Jefferson would offer grain exports to France while in return Dombey would bring with him on his passage to Philadelphia the new French standard units of measurement in the form of a metal bar exactly one metre in length and a metal object exactly one kilogram in weight called a grave (this name would later be changed to kilogram) to be considered for adoption by the US. Dombey was chosen for this endeavor as he had already made several transatlantic trips to South America for the purpose of botanical research. His background as a physician and botanist also provided him a certain insight into the need for a uniform system of measurement which Jefferson believed would be integral in convincing Congress to get behind the conversion. Unbeknownst to either party however, the voyage was destined to come to an unexpected and disastrous end.
A standard grave
Some weeks into their crossing of the Atlantic, a large storm diverted the ship’s course and the passengers found themselves much farther south of their intended destination: in the Caribbean. Soon, and unsurprisingly, the ship was boarded by British privateers, essentially parliament sanctioned pirates that terrorized that part of the world at the time. Despite his best efforts in dawning the clothing of one the Spanish sailors aboard the vessel and speaking in only the Spanish he had picked up in his earlier voyages, the privateers quickly took notice of the man speaking broken Spanish with a poorly concealed French accent. Shortly after discovering his true identity, the privateers brought Dombey to the Caribbean island of Montserrat on which he was held prisoner until his death before the privateers were able to ransom him back to the French. As a result, the metre and grave never made their way to the hands of Jefferson in Philadelphia or before Congress.
A standard metre
It would certainly seem that had it not been for the unfortunately doomed fate of Dombey’s voyage the United States may well have made the conversion to metric units all the way back in the 18th century. Today, more than two hundred years later in the 21st century, there has yet to be another significant push to convert to the inarguably superior metric system on a nationwide level, despite the majority of scientific institutions within the US choosing to use this system. While it might certainly represent a temporary inconvenience to make the switch, in the long term it only makes sense to adopt a uniform system that is already shared by the rest of the world.