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STANDARDS OF WEIGHTS, MEASURES, AND
BY JOSEPH NEWTON.
LAST year saw carried into effect certain recommendations in reference to the above-named subject, which had been earnestly made and frequently reiterated many years previously, By virtue of an Act of Parliament, which received the Royal assent, on the 6th of August, 1866, the custody of the Imperial standards of length and of weight, together with all secondary standards of weights and measures, all balances, apparatus, books, documents, and things relating thereto, and of the Trialplates for testing the purity of the coin of the realm, was transferred from the office of the Exchequer to the Board of Trade. The change of arrangement thus ordered to be made was in all respects a remarkable one, for it disturbed a system which had existed from the days of William the Conqueror, when the Exchequer Court formed part of the well-known Aula Regia.
The actual transfer of the custody of the standards, etc., and the determination of his powers and duties connected with them were reported by the Comptroller-General of the Exchequer on the 31st August, 1866, to the Treasury. The same communication made reference, also, to the speedy transfer of the coinage trial-plates to the Board of Trade. Thus the Exchequer was quietly denuded of important duties associated with it from a remote period of English history, whilst a great amount of extra responsibility was imposed upon its more modern and, it must be added, more active successor, the Board of Trade. It would be interesting to trace the annals of the Court of Exchequer from its origin to its partial demise, but it is no part of our present purpose to do so.* We have no intention either to say one word in disparagement of the venerable institution, or of those who filled offices in it. It is, nevertheless true that for many years past the Court of Exchequer, which had charge and care of the national standards of length, weights, and measures, paid no attention whatever to their exactitude. The legislature, and not the Exchequer, must be held accountable for the neglect, for in reality there existed, up to last year, no legal authority whatever for verifying the standards. They had remained, therefore, exactly
Those who wish to obtain authentic and quaint information of the early history of the Exchequer are referred to the “Dialogus Scaccrario," written by Richard Fitz-Nigel, Treasurer to King Henry II., and printed at the end of Madox's “ History of the Exchequer.”
as they were constructed in 1824, plus certain alterations made in them by climatic influences, and the hand of time. Oxidation and other deteriorating powers were, of course, not idle, and the standards suffered accordingly. It was nobody's business to attend to their periodical verification, and nobody did attend to it. Hence, the fountains of justice, as it were, became tainted at the source, the so-called standards were no standards at all, and the primary instruments upon which depended (by comparison) the accuracy of all subsidiary weights and measures of the United Kingdom were false guides-blind leaders of the blind. Even in 1853, when new theoretical standards of weights and of length were legalized and promulgated, no comparisons of the old material standards were instituted.* It may seem passing strange that such an omission should have been permitted, but it is for us at present simply to record it as a fact, without further comment.
From these premises it will be readily conceded that the reformatory movement of last year was not made one moment too soon, and, doubtlessly, the interests of the public will be largely promoted by it. There now exists in connection with the Board of Trade, and, of course, subordinate to it, a distinct branch, known as the Standards Department, with an efficient staff of officers, and all necessary appliances, for the express purpose of verifying and maintaining in exact order the imperial standards, primary and secondary, of Great Britain and Ireland. To ensure and facilitate the comparison and verification of provincial, colonial, and local, with and by aid of the master standards, the abolition of all fees and of the stampduty payable hitherto for the operations, has been decreed. At the head of the new department, the office of which is in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, is Mr. H. W. Chisholm, whose title-a very appropriate one-is that of Warden of the Standards. Under his energetic and practical guidance it is tolerably certain that the important duties of the whole department will be zealously and efficiently performed, and that the standards will shortly be in as perfect a condition as such arbiters should be in the first commercial nation of the world.
In fact, the Warden has, during his first year of office, just closed, evinced a considerable amount of activity, and caused thereby many valuable improvements as compared with the compulsory “let-it-alone" system of the Exchequer.
* A perfect standard is only found in nature, and is, therefore, immutable; but a measure is variable at the will and pleasure of man. In France, a standard of length is found in the 400,000,000th part of the earth's circumference, which is equal to 39,370 English inches, and is known as a metre. In England, the philosophical standard of length is a pendulum, vibrating seconds in the latitude of Greenwich, and this is, by a law of nature, invariable. From this standard comes the yard and all other measures of length.
searching inquiries have led to the elicitation of some rather startling revelations. For example, it has been discovered that out of three hundred and one cities and towns in Great Britain, which have in times past been furnished with so-called authoritative and judicial standards, one hundred and twenty have now only illegal ones. This amounts to thirty-six per cent. of the whole number. Out of fifty-seven manors or liberties similarly supplied with official arbiters of weights and measures, not less than forty-four, or seventy-seven per cent. (of said standards) have been condemned as quite unreliable. It is feared that further examinations will lead to the elimination of further discrepancies; and in Ireland it is known that the proportion of defective standards is very large. The consequences of these circumstances to the community at large, are very serious. The conviction of dishonest traders in any locality where illegal standards exist, is an impossibility. The Weights and Measures' laws are in such " dead letters,” for they distinctly specify that the standards shall be legal by which comparisons are to be made.
The significance of these statements is augmented in presence of the known increase of the species of fraud just indicated, namely, the giving of short weights and measures among shopkeepers and others. It is of the highest moment that local standards should be periodically adjusted and reverified, so that thereby the majesty of the laws of England shall be upheld.
From a consideration of the foregoing statements, it is hoped that a clear conception of the importance of the task of the verification of the standards of length, weight, and capacity,* will be gained. Of the value or otherwise of the standard trial-plates for testing the purity of coins, a word or two shall be said hereafter.
In view of the momentous issues involved in the re-adjustment of the standards, the Government has nominated a commission to assist the warden in the performance of the work. That commission is composed of the following gentlemen—the Earl of Rosse, Lord Wriothesly, Sir John Shaw Lefevre, Lieutenant-General Sabine, the Astronomer-Royal, the Master of the Mint, and Professor W. H. Miller. The labours of this eminently scientific body are to be confined mainly to an inquiry into the condition of the old Exchequer Standards, and to ascertain in how far these agree with the Imperial Stand
* It may be stated that the standards of weight and capacity are based upon principles coincident with those which govern the standard of length, namely, the laws of Nature, while their corresponding measures are mere artificial arrangements. The thermometer illustrates these distinctions very well. The boiling and freezing points of water constitute standards of heat; the intermediate gradations are measures of it.
ards, and with each other. They are also to report from time to time the results of their examinations and experiments, and to recommend such further changes, modifications, and renewals of standards as they may see fit. In short, the Commissioners have undertaken an exhaustive inquiry into the whole subject, of a most minutely scientific character. Up to the present time, we believe, the preliminary official comparisons of the Standards of Avoirdupois and Troy weights only have been effected. The errors in regard to the Avoirdupois Standards, are found to be the greater of the two, and this arises from the fact of their having been much more frequently used. It is only by innumerable weighings, testings, calculations, and comparisons, that anything like absolute truth can be arrived at. The changes of temperature in our variable climate affect not only the dimensions, but the weight of all metallic bodies. A sovereign, for example, held for a minute between the finger and thumb, expands in size and increases in weight. It imbibes heat and has moisture imparted to its surface. Hence the changes. The same principle affects, more or less, all simple or compound metallic substances. It is a point, therefore, in the construction of standards, to employ such admixtures of metal as are least influenced by atmospheric variations.
The Standard Commission, it is understood, are about to institute comparisons of the remaining official standards of "bullion-weight, capacity, length, and gas measures of volume," as well as to the re-verification of the standard of length—the yard. This latter will be effected by a new micrometrical comparing apparatus of great delicacy. ratus is to be adapted for longer measures than the yard, as well as to its subdivisions. A totally new standard bar of greater length than the yard, is indeed, in course of preparation, and this will answer a double purpose. Upon it will be indicated not only the yard, with its subdivisions into feet and inches, and the minute subdivisions of the latter, but the French metre with its subdivisions also. This is the more essential, since in very many of the mechanical and engineering establishments of the kingdom, the metrical system of measurement is constantly employed; and the probability being that in time the plan will be widely extended.
In reference to the verification of measures of capacity, the authorities of the Standards' Department have adopted an elaborate mode originally suggested by Captain Kater. Its main feature consists in weighing the exact contents of each measure
- those contents being distilled water. In order to accomplish this effectually, accurate observations of the pressure and the temperature of the atmosphere have simultaneously to be
The appataken. The furnishing of the department with the most perfect apparatus and scientific appliances which it is possible to obtain is very properly insisted upon by the warden, for without these and their most scrupulously careful use errors would be generated and multiplied.
It has been suggested as points of importance for the consideration of the Standards' Commission :-1st. The proposed addition to the present number of official standards, and, consequently, to the number of weights and measures in common use, and which may involve the serious question of the establishment or the continued prohibition of metric standards, and weights, and measures in this country.* 2nd. The question of extending the powers and functions of the Standards' Department in relation to the duties performed by the numerous local inspectors of weights and measures throughout the kingdom.
As regards the first of these points, it is to be desired that the commission will give it consideration, and should their deliberations result in a recommendation in favour of the establishment of metric standards and weights throughout Great Britain and Ireland, so much the better. Less importance attaches itself to the custody of the standard trial-pieces of gold and silver, used for determining the justness of the gold and silver coins of the realm issued from the Royal Mint, than to that of the imperial standards of length, weight, and capacity. The INTELLECTUAL OBSERVERT has demonstrated the utter inutility of such a mode of determining the purity of gold and silver coins as the standard trial-pieces furnish. When these latter were transferred from the custody of the Exchequer Court, their proper destination was the Royal Mint, and its crucibles. Perhaps they may yet reach that destination.
As an instance of the confusion which now obtains as to the legality or otherwise of metric weights and measures, the following is adduced. One of the inspectors of weights and measures for the county of Surrey seized some metric weights in a tradesman's shop in Southwark last year. On his bringing the matter before the magistrates, the defendants alleged that the Metric Act, 1864, 27 and 28 Vict. c. 117, permitted the use of metric weights, but gave no power to the inspector to examine them. The magistrate dismissed the summons, observing that the Act was loosely drawn, and that the defendants were justified in using metric weights. The Board of Trade consulted the law officers on this case, and they decided that, notwithstanding the provisions of the Metric Act, a person using metric weights or measures is liable to have them seized and forfeited under the Act 5 and 6 Will. IV. c. 63.
+ Vide No. lxi., p. 10, February, 1867.