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The International Metre Commission (1870-1872)

    The International Metre Commission, with a French section, was established in 1870 in Paris. It met at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) in Paris from 8 to 13 August 1870, and entrusted the study of the technical questions to a committee of preparatory research, which met from 2 to 14 April 1872.

    The activities of the Commission, animated by General Morin, a member of the Institute and Director of the French Academy, resumed from 24 September to 12 October 1872, to continue its work and to make final decisions, with the participation of about thirty countries, including ten pertaining to the American continent. Their work led to the manufacture of new metric prototypes and later on, to the signature of the Metre Convention and the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (the BIPM).


    Background:

    In 1867 at its meeting in Berlin, the International Conference of Geodesy stressed the importance of a unique system of weights and measures in Europe (the Metric System). They recommended the construction of a new European prototype of the metre and the creation of an international commission. The French Académie des Sciences and the Bureau des Longitudes in Paris drew the attention of the French government to this subject. The Academy of St Petersburg and the English Standards Commission were also in agreement with this recommendation.

    On 1 September 1869, Emperor Napoleon III approved by decree a report of the French Ministry for Agriculture and Trade proposing the creation of an international scientific commission to propagate the use of metric measurements and to facilitate trade and comparisons of measurements between States, and to carry out the construction of an international metre prototype (with lateral lines engraved on the bar of platinum iridium) thereby giving France a leading role.

    On 16 November 1869, the French government sent invitations for members of this commission. Favourable responses were received from: Austria-Hungary, Bavaria, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, the Roman State, the United States of America, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Nicaragua, the Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, Prussia and the Confederation of North Germany, Russia, El Salvador, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Venezuela and Wurtenberg.


    See also:

    On 29 January 1873, the French Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce asked the Monnaie de Paris to cast a bronze medal commemorating the work of the Commission Internationale du Mètre (the International Metre Commission). All the members of the Commission Internationale du Mètre received a copy of the medal in September-October 1875. Copies were also distributed to members of the French section in charge of the construction of the metric prototypes.

    picture of medal: side with figures The design selected for the medal was proposed by Chaplain. The medal was 10 cm in diameter and weighed 500 g.

    One of its faces was decorated with allegorical figures – the figure of Science holding the new metric standard, surrounded by the figures of Europe, America and Asia – and with the Latin text Populorum concordiae sacrum. Paris 1872 (Testimony of the peoples' concord. Paris 1872).
    picture of medal: side with text The other side was engraved with a Latin text on the work of the Commission:

    VIRIS DOCTIS EXEMPLARI METRI CONDENDO DELECTIS OPERIS GNAVITER ET FELICITER EXACTI MEMORIAM UNIVERSIS AC SINGULIS DEDIT GRATA GALLIA PUBLICE MDCCC LXXIIII

    (To the scientists chosen to establish the prototype of the metre; France offers publicly, to each and all of them, this medal to remind them of the work successfully accomplished, as a mark of its gratitude. 1874)


    Around the edge are the words:

    NOVA PONDERUM AC MENSURARUM RATIO IN GALLIA INSTITUTA M GERM A REIP CONDITAE III

    (New standard of weights and measures adopted in France, Germinal Year III of the foundation of the Republic.)
    On 7 October 1872, keen to give the members of the International Commission of the Metre a token of gratitude for their important work, Adolfe Thiers, President of the French Republic, asked the National Manufacture of Ceramics at Sèvres to decorate a piece of art for each of them, carrying the inscription "International Commission of the Metre, Paris 1872", together with their name.

    The resulting egg-shaped vases are 70 cm in height and 28 cm across, with golden decorations and inscriptions and gilded bronze handles on a lapis lazuli background.

    Sèvres vase awarded to E. Péligot

    Fifty five of these vases were given to various scientists, and French and foreign personalities, between March and November 1873. The majority of the vases remained in the family of the recipients, however, some are visible in museums or observatories, to which they were offered. Among the vases that have been traced, we may note:

    • G. Airy (Royal Greenwich Observatory, London);
    • M. de Balcarce (Brunoy City Hall, Essonne, France, offered by the daughter of M. de Balcarce);
    • J. Bosscha (Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, Netherlands, lent by the great granddaughter of J. Bosscha);
    • J. Henry (National Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., lent to the NIST);
    • M. de Jacobi (VNIIM, Saint-Petersburg);
    • E. de Krusper (National Museum of Hungary, Budapest);
    • U. J.-J. Le Verrier (Paris Observatory);
    • E. Péligot (Family Savreux, given to the BIPM in 1988);
    • J. Stas (Laboratories of Chemistry of the University of Brussels);
    • H. Tresca (CNAM Museum, Paris);
    • H. Wild (Federal Bureau of Weights and Measures, now the METAS, Bern).

    Among the French members of the International Commission of the Metre was the chemist Eugène Péligot (1811-1890), who was a member of the French Academy of Sciences and whose family lived in Sèvres, in a house which had belonged to the Duke of Chaulnes on Vaugirard (now Troyon) street.

    On 25 April 1873, Eugène Péligot received from Quai Conti in Paris the vase which was made for him and which was later placed in his housing at Sèvres. At the time of the bombardment of the Renault factories by the Royal Air Force his house was destroyed during the night of 3 March 1942, but the vase was found intact by Maurice Savreux (husband of Marthe, grand-daughter of Eugène Péligot) the curator of the Museum of Ceramics at Sèvres from 1919 to 1926 and Director of the Manufacture in 1946-1947.

    In 1975, the vase of Eugène Péligot was lent by Mrs Savreux to the General Conference on Weights and Measures for the celebration of the centenary of the Metre Convention. After her death, her son, Henri Savreux, took the opportunity of the annual meeting of the CIPM and the inauguration on 5 October 1988 of the Nouveau Pavillon, to give his great-grandfather's vase to Dr Terry Quinn, then Director of the BIPM, pronouncing an address which ended with these words:

      My parents and I have always enjoyed British humour. We couldn't imagine anything better than giving to Dr Quinn, who is the first British director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, a vase which survived the Royal Air Force bombardment of 3 March 1942. This is something that does not lack piquancy.

    Professor D. Kind, President of the CIPM, replied "Where better than with the BIPM, whose creation was the result of the work of the International Commission of the Metre, would it be possible to perpetuate the memory of Eugène Péligot and his actions for the expansion of the metric system? The work continuing here at the BIPM after more than a century, is the logical continuation of that begun by our forebears – yours in particular. This vase will be the permanent witness to their remarkable perspicacity."



    Sources: Letter from the French Ministry of Industry (22 March 1979) on the International Commission of the Metre (1872) and the Diplomatic Conference of the Metre (1875), by Mr Louis Marquet (ingénieur divisionnaire des travaux métrologiques, chargé de la documentation), and an article in the Bulletin Municipal de Sèvres, March 1991, also by Mr Louis Marquet.