Imagine what commerce would be like without shared weights and measures.
In 18th century France, there were 250,000 different units and some even had the same name. Assorted fabrics, grain, wood all had their own metric. Traveling from one village to another, you could have seen a 20% difference in the size of a pint.
Shared Weights and Measures
We could say the story of shared weights and measures starts with two scientists who, during the 1790s, identified the size of a meter by calculating the distance from the North Pole to the Equator and dividing it by 10 million. The task was actually a huge trigonometry problem as each one traveled from one place to the next creating huge imaginary triangles to measure the distance. Once they knew the size of a meter, they said the kilogram was “a cubic decimeter of rainwater at 4 degrees Celsius” and then fabricated a platinum kilogram cylinder.
Today, in the U.S., the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the place to go for an inch or a second or any definitive standard for measurement that is used in commerce and research.
Preserved in a vault, this is the standard kilogram:
Not preserved in a vault, this is the standard peanut butter:
Called Standard Reference Material 2387, in 2003, 2800 jars of peanut butter were created as a “calibration standard for nutritional information.” Now, with 80 percent having been sold, you can buy three 170g jars for $761 from NIST. The peanut butter standard was made by a commercial manufacturer with sugar, salt, hydrogenated fat and roasted peanuts, While the contents sound rather like Skippy, the analysis process involving dozens of technicians and scientists and perhaps gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers was the pricey part.
As for taste, then NY Times food critic William Grimes said, “… [it] tastes a lot better than it looks, which is like dark-brown industrial paste. I wasn’t sure whether to eat it or lay down some new bathroom tile. As a food product, it seemed to aim for dead average. The peanut flavor was muted, and it lacked the creamy, unctuous quality of storebought brands. If you like peanut butter to stick to the roof of your mouth, this is one for you.”
Our Bottom Line: Standard Weights and Measures
Invisible because we are so used to having universally accepted standards, shared weights and measures are a basic requisite for commerce…even for peanut butter.