A metre, and no more



We often console ourselves according to what happens to others. In fact, we are constantly comparing. What would we do without a framework to indicate what is inside, and what outside, the norm? Such realizations can come about by contemplating real people, or fictional characters; by studying the past, or through lived experience. There are conclusions, too, that can be drawn by looking at one particular Paris wall.

The wall in question is at the end of an arcade on the Rue Vaugirard near the Rue Garancière. Here, just by the Luxembourg Gardens, is one metre, and just that. The measure of all things. Looking at it, you realise how arbitrary our world’s divisions truly are. And here it is, carved in marble, together with the most concise of all possible inscriptions: “MÈTRE”.

Here you can also find a short description of when and why the metre was placed at this site. Between February 1796 and December 1797 a number of examples of this new universal measurement were put up around the city, although this is one of the few that can still be seen in its original location. The reason was that the metre had to be promoted in order for it to gain acceptance among the population. This was a campaign that began with the Revolution in 1789. At that time, political leaders, advised by a board of scientists, drew up a system of weights and measures intended for universal use.

The first results became public in 1792, and the metre was defined as a ten-millionth part of the distance separating the North Pole and the Equator. And so arose the mètre étalon, later installed on what had heretofore been an insignificant wall. Thus the exact measure of all things was established. There have been a couple of later modifications, in 1889 and in 1960, of how long a metre is. For this reason, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures is at pains to point out that this original metre is not a prototype, which is to say, it is not an accurate measurement of what we now call a metre. Nonetheless, it can act as a standard against which to compare our prejudices, concerns and worries.

Photos: Nicolas Bonnell