20 October 1999
MECHAIN, Pierre Franois Andr (1744-1804) and Jean Baptiste Joseph DELAMBRE (1749-1823). Base du systme mtrique dcimal, ou Mesure de l'arc du mridien compris entre les paralllles de Dunkerque et Barcelone excute en 1792 et annes suivantes. Paris: Baudouin, January 1806-November 1810.
3 volumes, 4 (254 x 185mm.) 28 engraved plates including 20 folding. (Some foxing or browning.) Contemporary French blue half roan, flat spines (expertly rebacked, corners slightly bumped).
FIRST EDITION OF THE SEMINAL WORK WHICH LED TO THE INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED METRIC SYSTEM. In 1790 the Acadmie des Sciences in Paris set up a commission, including Laplace and Condorcet, to consider the question of an internationally uniform system of measurement which could replace the various systems in use throughout the world. The commission recommended in 1791 that the unit of measure should derive from a dimension of the earth: a ten-millionth part of a quadrant of the earth's meridian extending between Dunkirk and Barcelona. The corresponding unit of weight would be the gram: the weight of one cubic centimetre of water at 4 C. The Constituent Assembly then set up a commission under the astronomers Mchain and Delambre to put the proposals into practice. The French Revolution hindered their work -- Mchain was once arrested at one of the measuring points at Essonne near Paris by citizens who thought his activities were counter-revolutionary -- but in 1799 they completed their task of measurement. The original platinum bars on which they marked the length of a metre and the weight of a gram survive in Paris.
Although Mchain and Delambre were both responsible for collecting all the information during their project of measuring the meridien between Dunkirk and Barcelona, it was Delambre who put these notes into words. "Mchain died in 1804, and it became Delambre's sole responsibility to complete the computations and to write up the final report. This constituted three volumes containing the history of the enterprise, the observations, and the calculations. The third volume was finished in 1810, some twenty years after the project was begun. When Delambre presented a copy of this work to Napoleon, the emperor responded 'Conquests pass and such work remains' (DSB). PMM 260. (3)
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