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Child of Science: a modern upbringing?

door Floris Boudens

Figure 1: A cartoon commenting on the average English person’s shaky understanding of the metric system (World History Archive, 1888).

“It speaks for itself, that uniform measurements and weights, for every country, wherein such [metrication] takes place, have essential uses and advantages, indeed, may be considered a blessing.”1

— J.H. van Swinden, 1802.

Today we take the metric system for granted. We easily forget that the development of the international standards we know today took over a century. During this time a multitude of measurement-systems co-existed. Indeed, throughout nineteenth century Europe ancient régime measurements and locally idiosyncratic metric systems competed for supremacy.2 The Dutch metric system used pre-metric nomenclature, the former ‘el’ (in Utrecht: 0.685m), for example, became the ‘Dutch el’ (1m).3 The purpose of this essay is threefold. Firstly, by means of primary source analysis it aims to explain how the Dutch metric system was implemented and enforced in the early nineteenth century, specifically in Utrecht. Secondly, it is argued that metrification could be considered an agent of modernity. Finally, this essay will showcase that the Dutch metric system has not been given its rightful historical recognition.

The history of the metric system is extensive, but francocentric. Alder’s The Measure of all things is centred upon the birth of the metric system, and the methodology of its founding fathers. Cox focusses on the diffusion of the standardized metric system (1851 – 1876), internationalism being his primary concept.4 Van Lunteren follows a quarrel in Dutch academia surrounding the question whether or not to adopt said international system.5 The key publication on Dutch metrication is Maenen’s dissertation. In his view ‘going metric’ (1793 – 1880) was a process of civilization.6 All of these studies uphold the idea that metrication can be viewed as ‘modern’, albeit oftentimes implicitly. The novel contribution of this essay consists of combining the history of the Dutch metric system with the concept of modernization. While doing so I exclusively focus on the Netherlands during the former half of the nineteenth century, something that has not been done before.

Although the precise definition of the concept ‘modernity’ is subject to permanent debate, we cannot do away with it. 7 Politically, modernity constitutes – according to some – rationalism, progress and democracy.8 Van der Woud’s book on nineteenth century technological modernization in the Netherlands identifies the following characteristics: systemization, centralization, rapid change and ideals of civilization. Here, I take modernization to be the combination of the above-mentioned italicized concepts. This essay aims to explore in how far those concepts apply to the introduction of the Dutch metric system during the early nineteenth century.

Grand Narrative

Although a complete history of the metric system is beyond the scope of this paper, it is still useful to concisely summarize it for the sake of historical context. French scientists decided to create a decimal measurement system. The metre was defined as “the 10.000.000th part of the quarter of the earth meridian”.10 The intent was to create universal standards that were derived from nature, and therefore deemed objective.11 The meridian was measured between 1792 and 1798. The creators invited scientists from neighbouring countries to confirm their findings.12 The Dutch delegates were astronomer Jean Hendrik van Swinden and physicist Hendrik Aeneae, key figures in the history of Dutch metrication.13

Implementation, however, was not primarily a scientific desire but rather a political affair, and increasing socio-economic readiness. Louis Napoleon, King of the Netherlands (r. 1806 – 1810), attempted to introduce the French metric system in 1810. He failed, in part because his brother Napoleon Bonaparte (r. 1810 – 1813) took over power in the Netherlands.14 In 1812 Napoleon decriminalized usage of the ancien régime measurements, in effect partially reverting the metric system.15

The Napoleonic era was followed by a period characterized as ‘the restauration’; throughout Europe pre-Napoleonic monarchic dynasties were restored to power.16 King William I (r. 1813 – 1840) was ‘restored’ to the throne of the Low Countries after the battle of Leipzig in 1813.17 In 1816 he decreed the – ultimately successful – implementation of the Dutch metric system by 1820. Consequently, the Netherlands became the first country to legally oblige metrication.18 The following paragraphs are dedicated to the reconstruction and interpretation of the turbulent times between 1815 and 1830, when the Dutch metric system was being implemented.

Figure 2: Van Swinden and Aeneae at the international convention in Paris (NCRD/ Nationaal Gevangenismuseum, 1789).

Decree and Practice

Primary source analysis will result in an answer to the question how implementation of the Dutch metric system was achieved. Texts of law such as royal decrees, provincial and city government decisions will be starting points, complemented with archival sources related to implementation and law enforcement. All local sources originate from Utrecht.

Contrary to historiographical dominant views the metric system was not “imposed” upon the Netherlands.19 Van Swinden and Aeneae had propagated the metric system as soon as they came back from Paris in 1799. Van Swinden extensively published on the subject in 1802.20 They were both appointed high advisory positions. Van Swinden became the first chairman of the Royal Institute of Sciences (precursor of the KNAW) and later Councillor of State.21 Aeneae became Inspector-General of Measurements and Weights.22 In 1816 King William I ordered the implementation of the Dutch metric system by 1820.23 The law was passed in parliament one month prior.24 A commission that included van Swinden and Aeneae advised the government about implementation.25

Figure III: The standard metre and kilogram (photo) that Van Swinden and Aeneae took back from Paris are currently held by the Utrecht University Museum (Universiteitsmuseum, 1799).

Of course, successful implementation necessitated cooperation of local authorities to enforce the law, and willingness of citizens to abide by the law. In the province of Utrecht administrative police raided markets and shops in search of pre-metric units, according to Aeneae this happened in 1820.26 Especially in Amersfoort the transition “did not meet the expectations”.27 Utrecht City, “yielded much more … it is [therefore] suspected that later standardizations [herijk] in this year [1822] will yield considerably less.”28 Offenders were not yet penalized however; between 1820 and 1824 provinces, cities and judges tolerated usage of pre-metric units.29 It did not go unnoticed by Aeneae: “shopkeepers display new measures and weighs but tend to use older units. … The police thus far have not been very active to prevent or rein in these wrongdoings. … Without control the residents will be exposed to fraud. … This requires the cooperation of the judiciary. This last part the Provincial Executives [Ged. Staten] say is the crux. Without their help all efforts of law and local authorities are fruitless.”30

Perhaps the above-mentioned report is what inspired the King to issue another decree, only several months later, that obligated local governments to enforce the law.31 In 1824 Utrecht City answered this command (Figure IV) with a pamphlet warning its citizens of persecution.32 Between 1824 and 1828, however, zero people were convicted by the Utrecht court for illegal use of pre-metric units.33 In 1827 the King forced the provinces to yearly raid shops and markets in search of pre-metric units and standardize (herijk) the Dutch metric units.34 This finally resulted in prosecutions. In 1829 a staggering 90 individuals were charged and convicted of violating one or both of above-mentioned decrees.35 All convicted had to pay a fine of 10 guilders, most of them were shopkeepers or merchants.36


The implementation of the Dutch metric system, then, was as much dependent upon political- scientific desire as it was upon the willingness of the local economy, government, law enforcement and judiciary branch to share that desire. That process was gradual and slow. Indeed, in 1867 a local newspaper reported that: “In practice it is still common to use the old units … For years, [local authorities] turned a blind eye and tolerated these malpractices, though now that there is more sympathy for the metric system, and the attention has been drawn by the newspapers to these malpractices, a few of the aforementioned acts has been brought to the notice of the judge.”37 King William I had one trump card that could foster that sympathy: education. The 1816 law had mandated that by 1817 all schoolchildren would be educated in using the metric system, no exceptions.38 Possibly, this is why by the 1860s, a majority of the population was sympathetic.

Figure IV: Pamphlet of the Utrecht City Government warning its residents of the risk of using pre-metric units. (HUA, 1824).

This process of the technocratic elite forcing the metric institution upon the population is why Maenen has dubbed metrication ‘a process of civilization’.39 Although ‘ideals of civilization’ is one of the characteristics van der Woud ascribes to modernity, he has not included metrication in his book.

He explicitly excludes the period King William I was in power: “the earlier projects from the time of William I were too fragmented and too limited”. Though the nomenclature can be considered aligned with restauration-thought, the Dutch metric system was nevertheless systematic, rational, progressive and a product of the centralized nation-state. Noteworthily, Belgium, after gaining independence in 1830, reinstated the original French nomenclature.40 The metric system is modern in and of itself.

The crux here is the process. Specifically, the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘rapid’ are problematic.King William I was a notorious administrator who consolidated his power through royal decree.41 Although the 1816 law was ratified by parliament, the King furthered metrication on his own accord. Ironically, undemocratic decision-making sped up the process. The King used his sovereignty to speed up metrication, sometimes against the will of local government and the judiciary branch.

Historical recognition

Taken into account that the Dutch metric system is the first instance of nationwide implementation by law, it is surprising that the history of the Dutch metric system has been neglected by historians. Perhaps this period has been largely unrecognized precisely because the story of the metric system is a better read against the context of revolution (Alder) or the rapid modernization during the decades following 1848 (Cox, Van Lunteren, Van der Woud). Maybe the idiosyncratic nomenclature resulted in disinterest. Conceivably, most historians of the metric system do not master the Dutch language. Perhaps the story of Dutch metrication goes unrecognized in history because it is a story of implementation by law, and gradual acceptance, not of war and diplomacy.

There are numerous examples of historian’s disinterest. Cox simply writes: “[F]amiliarity with it [metric system] led the Dutch quite early (1816- 18I7) to readopt it in a modified form”, only to turn to the French spearheading the diplomatic convention of 1875.42 Controversy over that convention is the main research topic of Van Lunteren, although he does briefly summarize the developments from 1798 to 1875 in one page.43 Alder’s account is francocentric, he seems uninterested in the period between 1812 and 1840, when the French were not involved with metrication. The Measure of All Things dedicates one paragraph to the Dutch metric system. “France was not the first country to convert to the new measures”, Alder writes, somewhat perplexed.

He insists that the Dutch metric system was a French accomplishment: “This was a consequence of the French empire – and of its defeat.” 44 Alder’s argument is that France had introduced centralized power and monarchy in the Netherlands and therefore the accomplishments of King William I are also French accomplishments. This argument is problematic. Although it is not unusual for historians to view the restoration as contra-Napoleonic, in this case that view does not do justice to the power position of the Orange-Nassau dynasty. Well before Waterloo or the Vienna conference, which decided the fate of European monarchs in 1815, the Dutch had already revolted against the French and Dutch politicians had asked William to be their monarch.45 But most importantly, not only had Napoleon and his brother Louis failed to impose the metric system on their subjects, the many transitions of power during the French occupation had hindered that process.

Slowly but steadily, King William I succeeded, and is therefore worthy of historical attention. This total lack of historical recognition is of course the raison d’être of Maenen’s dissertation. The English summary is insufficient to make a historiographical difference in the international research community. The entire work should be translated.


In conclusion, the Dutch metric system was implemented by law. Even though local authorities were not quick to enforce it, the King’s fortitude and authority eventually resulted in law enforcement and convictions by the late 1820s, which was relatively early. Still, socio-economic acceptance and widespread use of the Dutch metric system was a gradual process. I have suggested that education might have played a role herein, but more research into the role of education in metric history is required to provide a definitive answer.

The metric system can be considered an agent of modernity in and of itself. But because implementation was neither undeniably ‘rapid’ nor a good example of democratic decision-making, the technocratic-royal efforts that lead to the implementation of the Dutch metric system in the early nineteenth can be characterized as ‘early modern’, or ‘between restoration and modernity’ at best.

Finally, I have pointed out that the Dutch metric system is worthy of more historiographical attention. Let us end with a metaphor Cox uses to describe the metric system. “[T]his child of science, born of the dread French Revolution, had been transformed from a predominantly French national system of weights and measures into the formally acknowledged international system …”46 The argument here is that the ‘child of science’ was adopted, educated, and disciplined throughout childhood and puberty, not by France, but by the Netherlands.

[1]: J.H. van Swinden, Verhandeling over volmaakte maaten en gewigten, 2 vols. (Amterdam, Petrus den Hengst, 1802) vol. II, p. 540. Subsequently: Van Swinden, Verhandeling. All translations are my own.

[2]: K. Alder, The Measure of all Things. The Seven-Year Odyssey that Transformed the World (London: Little Brown and Company, 2002) p. 5. Subsequently: Alder, The Measure of all Things.

[3]: J.M. Verhoeff, De oude Nederlandse maten en gewichten (Amsterdam: Meertens Instituut, 1983) p. 80.

[4]: E.F. Cox, ‘The Metric System: A Quarter-Century of Acceptance (1851-1876)’ Osiris 13 (1958) 360 Subsequently: Cox, ‘The Metric System’

[5]: F. van Lunteren, ‘’Beati Possidentes’:The Royal Dutch Academy and the Standard Metre’ in: B. Grob and H. Hooijmaijers (eds.), Who Needs Scientific Instruments? Conference on Scientific Instruments and their Users, 20–22 October 2005 (Leiden: Museum Boerhaave, 2006) 17 – 27. Subsequently: Van Lunteren, ‘Beati Possidentes’

[6]: J.M.A. Maenen, De invoering van het metrieke stelsel in Nederland tussen 1793 en 1880. Aspecten van een beschavingsproces (Nijmegen: Dissertation, 2002) p. 227. Accessed 22 October 2019. Subsequently: Maenen, De invoering van het metrieke stelsel in Nederland

[7]: J. van Eijnatten, E. Jonker, W. Ruberg and J. Segal, ‘Shaping the Discourse on Modernity’ International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 1 (2013) No. 1, 3 – 4.

[8]: Ibidem. 12.

[9]: A. van der Woud, Een nieuwe wereld. Het ontstaan van het moderne Nederland (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2013) pp 12 – 14. Subsequently: Van der Woud, Een nieuwe wereld.

[10]: Maenen, De invoering van het metrieke stelsel in Nederland p. 228.

[11]: Alder, The Measure of all Things, p. 100.

[12]: Ibidem. pp 226 – 227.

[13]: Maenen, De invoering van het metrieke stelsel in Nederland p. 48.

[14]: Ibidem. p. 7

[15]: Ibidem. p. 50

[16]: J. Koch, Koning Willem I. 1772 – 1843 (Amsterdam: Boom, 2013) p. 273. Subsequently: Koch, Koning Willem I

[17]: Ibidem. p. 233.

[18]: Alder, The Measure of all Things, pp 347 – 348.

[19:] Maenen, De invoering van het metrieke stelsel in Nederland p. 59. For those ‘historiographical dominant views’ see e.g. Cox, ‘The Metric System’ 361 or Alder, The Measure of All Things, p. 343.

[20]: Van Swinden, Verhandeling.