We speculate on the consequences if there had been a different outcome at the Battle of Waterloo.
On the morning of 18 June, 200 years ago, 140 000 men from six countries waited in fields beside the main road south of Brussels preparing for battle. By evening, around 32 000 would be dead or wounded, and Napoleon would be hurrying to Paris and ultimately to exile.
Wellington, commander of the victorious allied armies, was heard to say that the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”. But just suppose the outcome had been different, if perhaps the Prussians had arrived on the battlefield too late and subsequently the Russians and Austrians had agreed peace terms with France. What might have been the consequences for the fledgling metric system?
We need first to look back to 1799, when a coup d’état in France led by Napoleon resulted in the replacement of the revolutionary Republic by a “benign dictatorship”. How many of the republican innovations would survive under this new, middle-class and meritocratic regime, in particular, the metric system, until then widely disliked by the general population?
It was twelve years before Napoleon turned his attention to this issue. In 1812, he introduced mesures usuelles for commerce and retail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesures_usuelles
Mesures usuelles relied on metric standards, but relationships between units had a familiar feel: 12 pouces (inches) to one pied (foot); 16 onces (ounces) to one livre (pound), and so on.
The metric system continued in use for all government and legal business and was taught at all levels of education – a situation strangely similar to that in the UK today.
Forward to 1820. The Netherlands, then including Holland and Belgium, was the first country to adopt the metric system and to stick with it until the present day. Ken Alder* writes: “The people of the Low Countries may have resented French rule, but the restored (Dutch) monarchy saw the advantages of its centralised form of administration, especially for a fractious territory that thrived on commerce. King William I of Orange ordered the decimal metric system obligatory throughout the Low Countries by 1820. And when Belgium separated from Holland in 1830, it not only retained the metric system but reverted to the original nomenclature.”
The Dutch were the second largest force in the allied armies at Waterloo: 25 000 British and Irish, 17 000 Dutch, 11 000 from Hanover and 9 000 from Brunswick and Nassau. If the Allies had been defeated at Waterloo, then the Low Countries might have been occupied again by France, and mesures usuelles imposed. The metric system would not have received that vital boost in 1820 which ensured its survival in at least one country as the primary system of measurement used for all purposes. Perhaps mesures usuelles would have been widely adopted on the continent; Imperial and US Customary might have prevailed in much of the rest of the world, as seemed possible until some time after after World War 2.
As we know, this was not to be. Mesures usuelles were never adopted outside France, and in 1840 were abandoned there too. Clearly, measurement muddle was not as popular in France then as it is in the UK today. The measures themselves had lasted officially for only 28 years, although the words survive to this day.
And the rest, as they say, is history. The metric system is now the primary measurement system for 98% of the countries of the world and is used regularly by 95% of its population.
The paradox is that the UK, which made the largest contribution to the allied armies at Waterloo, has adopted, de facto, Napoleon’s compromise of “usual measures” for some purposes and metric for others, as described in our article “50 years on”.
How long will this muddle last? It has already exceeded the official lifespan of mesures usuelles. But the public opinion survey carried out in 2013 by YouGov on UKMA’s behalf suggests that the UK’s version of mesures usuelles could be with us for some time to come. Alas.
If he were still around, Napoleon would probably be flattered but not surprised. He was reported as saying during his exile on St Helena, “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers.”
* “The measure of all things” by Ken Alder. First published in the UK by Little, Brown. 2002.
For details of the 2013 YouGov survey, see this article on Metric Views.