Precision, Tolerance, and Consensus: Local Cultures in German and British Resistance Standards

  • Kathryn M. Olesko
Part of the Archimedes book series (ARIM, volume 1)


Standards, Witold Kula tells us, have social meaning.1 Bound to dimensions found in everyday life and labor, potently symbolizing the centralizing tendencies of authorities large and small, and setting guidelines for just practice in commerce and trade, standards are strategic loci on which converge several different dimensions of human behavior. But for Kula, that convergence is rich to the degree it occurs in the deeper past of the early modern period when anthropomorphic measures confined to local cultures dominated. In his view, matters changed following the introduction of the metric system at the end of the eighteenth century. Increased precision and accuracy in measurement expanded the geographic range of standards and diluted to the point of eliminating the subjective connotations and associations of standards found in more local cultures. Hence, for Kula, the metric system helped to destroy feudalism and instill modernizing tendencies. More precise standards became, in Kula’s opinion, one foundation for large-scale political unity, a conclusion shared by other historians.2


Precision Measurement Constant Error Social Meaning Absolute Unit Measure Reform 
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  1. I am grateful for the assistance of Dr. Helmut Rohlfing of the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek and Dr. Regina Mahlke of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Haus Zwei. For their comments, I thank Larry Lagerstrom, Myles Jackson, Jed Buchwald and audiences at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Oklahoma; and the History of Science Society. I would like to thank the National Science Foundation (DIR-9023476) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (RH-21005–91) for their support.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathryn M. Olesko
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre for German and European StudiesGeorgetown UniversityUSA

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