Pirates hate metric

Who keeps the metric system down? In the United States, pirates do.

Unknown author / Public domain

Joseph Dombey was the unluckiest French botanist of the 18th century. (Bet you didn’t think this post would begin that way.) In 1778 he sailed to Peru to collect samples and drawings of American flora – thinking that perhaps they could be cultivated back in Europe. He sent a bunch of samples home but they were intercepted by the British; they’re still in the British Museum today, apparently. Many of the botanical drawings were confiscated by the Viceroyalty of Peru. By 1785 he was in Cadiz, where he lost half of his samples to the Spanish government.

While Dombey was being punished by the fates, the United States of America had a brand new Constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, it granted Congress the right to “coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” I’ve written before about the chaos pre-standardisation (obsolete feet, Australian tablespoons, and confusing ounces), and this was an opportunity to clean up the confusion.

Thomas Jefferson, ever the Francophile, was excited about this new-fangled metric system that was being developed in France. He saw the potential to adopt it in the United States. All he needed was a grave to demonstrate it. No, not that grave: it was a hunk of metal that served as the physical prototype of the kilogram. In 1793 a grave was dispatched from France to the United States, the first physical ambassador of the metric system. The person carrying it: Joseph Dombey.

Finally, we get to the good stuff. Dombey’s run of bad luck continued. His ship, caught in a storm, sailed into the Caribbean. The ship was captured by pirates – privateers actually, pirates legally commissioned by Britain to cause trouble for France. The grave was lost, Dombey was sent to a jail in Montserrat, and Jefferson never had his chance to push for metrication in the States. The final score: pirates 1, metric system 0.

(Montserrat, by the way, later suffered its own mishap: its capital city has no inhabitants.)

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