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Mike Richman

CMSC

A World Without Measurement

What if the Metre Convention had never happened?

Published: Thursday, May 23, 2019 - 21:22

On May 20, 1875, representatives from 17 of the leading industrial nations of the world met in Paris to set precise international standards for the meter and kilogram. Coming out of the meetings, the signatories to the Treaty of the Metre agreed to maintain internationally accepted standards and formed the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) as a governing body. This is why we celebrate World Metrology Day each year on May 20.

Without the Metre Convention, there would never have been the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) here in the United States, or the Coordinate Metrology Society (CMS).

Accurate measurement undergirds modern society. Think about it next time you go out to run errands. Does your car operate properly? If it weren’t measured and assembled correctly, it would not. Need gas? The pump is carefully calibrated to ensure you get just the amount you paid for—no more and no less. Want to pay quickly and efficiently? Without slick routing of your data request and subsequent approval via robust and validated digital networks, you’ll be either waiting a long time or searching underneath the passenger seat for coins. Want to get where you’re going and back home again safely? You’d better hope that those traffic lights work as intended and change at the correct intervals.

Now imagine a world without precision measurement (and its just-as-necessary sibling, standardization). In the above example, our cars wouldn’t run well, our gas would be alternately cheap and expensive, cash would still be king, and we would be dodging other poorly made cars at intersections. But we would have bigger problems, too:
The Internet wouldn’t work. Computer networks would not be able to talk to one another, and financial data, consumer purchases, and peer-to-peer communication networks would grind to a halt.
Scientific discoveries would never be made. For just one of many, many examples, ponder the incredible level of precision needed to position radio telescopes across the world to image a black hole in a galaxy 52 million light years away.
Robotics and automation would not exist. Highly repetitive work requires the ability to execute actions in the same way, at the same pace, every time, all the time. Without that we’d have machines crashing into machines on a regular basis—and of course, there would be practically no human-machine interface in robotics because you would not want people anywhere near the equipment.
Waste would soar. Scrap would be so high that manufacturing would be practically impossible to accomplish in anything approaching a cost-efficient way—and that is to say nothing of the potentially devastating environmental concerns. Oh, and recycling would be a huge issue as well. Melting down cans and bottles could still happen, but would we be able to affordably re-fashion those retrieved material into anything of use?

Accurate measurement and standardization also permit a huge and complex supply chain in which nations across the globe can participate. In pre-industrial society (and even through much of the First Industrial Revolution) parts were not interchangeable because they could not be machined to acceptable and consistent tolerances, even within nations. When it came to international trade, it was even more difficult, because different nations had not only different manufacturing processes, but often different measurements altogether.

So as we celebrate World Metrology Week in recognition of the 144th anniversary of the Metre Convention, I’d like to ask you all to stop and think about what our modern, standardized, accurately measured society represents. To me, it stands for progress, and partnership, and a certain unity of outlook. We are all one species on this one small planet, and the ability to share information, measure and weigh goods, and engage in trade relies on the ideas first espoused in 1875 in Paris. A world without measurement is a world without modernity.

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Mike Richman

Comments

Without the Treaty of the Meter

Globalization would perhaps have slowed down to a less invasive state