Culture: Weights and Measures

Among its many lasting contributions to French and western history, the French Revolution initiated the metric system as a more rational and universally applicable way of conveying weights and measures than the various systems in place across France prior to 1789. For the Directory, which opposed broader political participation and increased social benefits as goals, such cultural changes as those in weights and measures (described in the passage below, excerpted from a decree of April 1795) and in the revolutionary calendar came to embody the gains of the Revolution.


1. The time prescribed by the decree of August 1793, for the use of the new weights and measures is extended, with regard to the obligatory provision, until the National Convention has decreed again thereon, in proportion to the progress of their manufacture; citizens are invited, however, to give proof of their devotion to the unity and indivisibility of the Republic by making use of the new measures henceforth in their calculations and commercial transactions.

2. There is only one standard of weights and measures for the entire Republic; there shall be a platinum ruler on which will be marked the meter, which has been adopted as the fundamental unit of the whole system of measurement.

Said standard shall be executed with the greatest precision, according to the experience and observations of the commissioners responsible for the determination thereof, and it shall be deposited in the neighborhood of the Legislative Body, as well as the procès-verbal of the operations which have served in determining it, so that it may be verified at all times.

3. To each district seat there shall be sent a model conforming to the prototype standard just mentioned, and, moreover, a model of weight exactly deduced from the system of new measurements. Such models shall be used in the manufacture of all kinds of measures in the ordinary use of citizens.

4. Whereas the extreme precision which will be given to the platinum standard cannot affect the exactness of the ordinary measures, such measures shall continue to be manufactured in accordance with the length of the meter adopted by previous decrees.

5. Henceforth the new measures shall be designated by the name of republican measures; their nomenclature is definitively adopted as follows. They shall be called:

Meter, the measure equal to one-ten millionth of the arc of the terrestrial meridian included between the north pole and the equator;

Are, The measure of area for land, equal to a square, ten meters to a side;

Stere, the measure intended particularly for firewood and equal to the cubic meter;

Liter, the measure of volume, both for liquids and for dry material, the capacity of which shall be the cube of one-tenth of a meter;

Gram, the absolute weight of a volume of pure water equal to the cube of one one-hundredth of a meter, at the temperature of melting ice.

Finally the monetary unit shall take the name of franc, to replace the livre hitherto in use.

6. One-tenth of a meter shall be called a decimeter; and one one-hundredth thereof, a centimeter.

A measure equal to ten meters shall be called a decameter, which furnishes a very convenient measure for surveying.

Hectometer shall signify the length of 100 meters.

Finally, kilometer and myriameter shall be the lengths of 1,000 and 10,000 meters, and shall designate principally the distances of roads.

7. The names of the measures of other types shall be determined in accordance with the same principles as those of the preceding article.

Thus, a deciliter shall be a measure of volume one-tenth as large as the liter; a centigram shall be one one-hundredth the weight of a gram.

Decaliter shall likewise be used to designate a measure containing ten liters, hectoliter for a measure equal to 100 liters; a kilogram shall be a weight of 1,000 grams.

The names of all other measures shall be composed in an analogous manner.

However, when tenths or hundredths of the franc, the monetary unit, are to be expressed, the words décime and centime, already accepted by virtue of previous decrees, shall be used.

8. In weights and measures of volume, each of the decimal measures of these two types shall have its double and its half, in order to give every desirable facility to the sale of divers items; therefore, there shall be double liter and demiliter, double hectogram and demihectogram, and so on with the others.

9. In order to render the replacement of former measures less burdensome and less costly, it shall be effected gradually and at different times. Such times shall be decreed by the National Convention, as soon as the republican measures have been manufactured in sufficient quantities and all provisions pertaining to the execution of such changes have been made. The new system shall first be introduced in the assignats and monies, then in the linear measures or those of length, and progressively extended to all others.

10. The work relating to the determination of units of measures of length and weight calculated from the size of the earth, which was begun by the Academy of the Sciences and continued by the temporary commission on measures in consequences of the decrees of 8 May and 22 August, 1790, and 1 August, 1793, shall be continued, until its entire completion, by individual commissioners selected principally from the savants who have collaborated thereon up to the present, and the list of whom shall be decreed by the Committee on Public Instruction. By the virtue of these provisions, the administration called the Temporary Commission of Weights and Measures is suppressed.

11. It shall be replaced by a temporary agency, composed of three members, which shall be responsible, under the authority of the Commission on Public Instruction, for everything pertaining to the renovation of weights and measures, apart from the work entrusted to the individual commissioners mentioned in the preceding article.

The members of said agency shall be appointed by the National Convention on the advice of its Committee on Public Instruction. Their salary shall be regulated by said Committee in consultation with the Committee on Finance.

12. The principal duties of the temporary agency shall be:

1st, To investigate and employ the most appropriate means of facilitating the manufacture of the new weights and measures for the use of all citizens;

2nd, To provide for the construction and dispatch of the models which are to serve for verifying the measures in each district;

3rd, To have compiled and distributed instructions suitable for acquainting people with the new measures and their relation to former ones;

4th, To work on provisions which become necessary for regulating the use of republican measures, and to submit them to the Committee on Public Instruction, which shall make a report thereon to the National Convention;

5th, To settle the statements of expenses on all operations required in the determination and establishment of the new measures, in order that such expenses may be paid by the Commission on Public Instruction;

6th, Finally, to correspond with the constituted authorities and citizens throughout the entire Republic concerning whatever is useful for hastening the renovation of weights and measures.

13. The republican measures shall be manufactured, as far as is possible, by machines, in order to add facility and celerity to precision in the process, and consequently to make possible the purchase of the measures at a reasonable price for the citizens.

14. The temporary agency shall aid the search for the most suitable machines; it shall order some, if necessary, from the most skilled artisans, or offer them at competition, according to circumstances. It may also grant inducements, in the form of advancements, material, or machines, to contractors who take suitable contracts for any important part of the manufacture of the new weights and measures. But, in all such cases, the agency shall be required to obtain the authorization of the Committee on Public Instruction.

15. The temporary agency shall determine the forms of the different kinds of measures, as well as the materials whereof they are to be made, so that their use may be as beneficial as possible.

16. Each of the said measures shall be stamped with its particular name; in addition, each shall be marked with the stamp of the Republic, which will guarantee the exactness thereof.

17. In each district there shall be inspectors for such purpose, responsible for affixing the stamp. The determination of their number and their duties shall constitute a part of the rules which the agency shall prepare for submission to the National Convention by its Committee on Public Instruction.

18. The choice of measures suited to each type of merchandise shall be made in such fashion that, in ordinary cases, there will be no need for fractions smaller than hundredths.

The agency shall investigate the means of accomplishing this purpose, discarding the less feasible commercial usages.

19. Instead of the tables of relationship between the old and the new measures, which were ordered by the decree of 8 May–22 August 1790, graphic scales shall be made, in order that such relations may be estimated without the necessity of any calculation. The agency is responsible for giving them the most convenient form, indicating their method, and distributing them as far as is necessary.

20. In order to facilitate commercial relations between France and foreign countries, a table indicating the relationship between France measures and those of the principal commercial cities of other nations shall be composed under the direction of the agency.

21. In order to defray all expenses relative to the establishment of the new measures, as well as the advances which are indispensable for the success of such work, there shall be granted provisionally a fund of 500,000 livres, which the National Treasury shall hold at the disposal of the Committee on Public Instruction for such purpose.

22. The provision of the law of 4 Frimaire, Year II [24 November 1793] requiring the use of the decimal division of the day and the parts thereof, is indefinitely suspended.

23. The articles of laws prior to the present decree and contrary thereto are abrogated.

24. Immediately after the publication of the present decree, all manufacture of former measures is forbidden in France, as well as any importation of said items from abroad, under penalty of confiscation, and of a fine of double the value of said items.

The Commission on Civil Administration, Police, and Courts, and that on National Revenues, are responsible for the execution of the present article.

25. As soon as the prototype standard of the measures of the Republic has been deposited with the Legislative Body by the commissioners responsible for the manufacture thereof, a monument shall be erected to preserve it and to insure it against injury from the weather.

The temporary agency shall occupy itself in advance with the plan of said monument, destined to consecrate, in the most indestructible manner, the creation of the Republic, the triumphs of the French people, and the state of progress in which enlightenment has come to their midst.

26. The Committee on Public Instruction is responsible for all matters of detail necessary for the execution of the present decree, and for the complete renovation of weights and measures throughout the entire Republic.

It shall propose successfully to the Convention the legislative provisions which are to pertain thereto.

27. The temporary agency shall render an account of its activities to the Commission on Public Instruction and to the Committee of that name, with which it may correspond directly for expediting operations.

28. All constituted authorities, as well as public functionaries, are enjoined to cooperate with all their power in the important work of renovation of weights and measures.

Source: John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 555–60.