Setting the Metre Standard: innovation needs the resources of a large organisation
This morning I took my youngest to 36 rue de Vaugirard in Paris, to show him the last original public display of the Metre Standard dating back from the 1790s when the meter was officially adopted. The story of the metre offers a good illustration of the gap between ideation and innovation. It also illustrates that, as much as common wisdom makes them responsible for killing innovative ideas, large organisations can also be instrumental in turning an idea into a full-scale mainstream product.
Schoolchildren in France learn in their science and history classes that the metre was invented by the French Revolution. In fact, the case for change had been brewing for centuries, for everyone could see that there was no sense in having old metrics such as foot, palm, coudée varying from province to province. The case for change intensified in the 17th century with the avent of modern science. Several scientists throughout Europe discussed methods, mostly based on pendulums, to arrive at a commonly accepted standard. As early as 1668, English philosopher John Wilkins proposed to define the metre as the length of the arc drawn by a pendulum with a one second half-period. Interestingly, that would have made his meter worth 0.997 of today’s official metre.
But in spite of an overwhelming case for change and a number of realistic proposals, it took another century and a different method. In 1791, the French Academy of Sciences argued – correctly – that slight variations of the force of gravity across the surface of the Earth would affect the period of a pendulum, thereby introducing too much of an approximation in the standard. Instead, they adopted what they considered – perhaps incorrectly – a more robust approach: defining the metre as one ten-millionth of a terrestrial quadrant (the distance from a pole to the equator along a meridian). A scientific expedition was commissioned to measure by successive triangulations the distance of an arc of meridian between Dunkirk and Barcelona, correct it for the fact that the surface of the Earth is not as smooth on land as it would be on the surface of the ocean, and from there establish the length of a quadrant or half meridian. Wars perturbed the expedition, which means that by 1793 only provisional results could be obtained. But the Academy of Sciences, with the political endorsement of the Convention, pressed on and standardized the definition of the metre despite the inevitable errors of measurement of a rather complicated method.
To familiarize the population with the new standard, metres were displayed in public places. There are four such original metres surviving in Paris, with the one 36 rue de Vaugirard, by the Jardin du Luxembourg, being the only one in its original location.
1. In the end, it did not matter which method – pendulum or meridian – was the most robust. As it turned out, scientific progress required and enabled more precise methods using electromagnetic wave-length and eventually speed of light. What mattered was setting the definition – ie signing-off on the design in today’s innovation speak – and deploying it across the whole country – taking it to market, in innovation speak – whatever its imperfections. In hindsight, it was a case of just do it.
2. Instances of large organisations nipping new ideas in the bud are well documented, such as Kodak and Nokia actually discovering but instantly discarding technologies that eventually led to digital cameras and smartphones. But these spectacular failures tend to hide the fact that, more often than not, innovative ideas do need the mighty resources of a large organisation. Digital cameras and smartphones eventually came to dominate the market because Fuji and Apple recognized their potential and threw their weight behind them. Likewise, the definition of the metre finally took hold when a government seized upon an idea that had been discussed in scientific circles for more than a century, and used the resources of the state to drive change across the land.