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In this part, “wretched matter” begins to assert itself.

If we want to measure length, we need a unit of length. Given such a unit, not only lengths, but areas and volumes as well, can be expressed in terms of it: foot, square foot, cubic foot. The founders of the new system desired a natural unit, one that would not depend upon an arbitrary choice, and that would be perpetually available in the natural world, so that it could readily be consulted in case of doubt. Neither criterion would be satisfied by (for example) the length of the king’s foot.

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Milton explained that rhyme was “the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meter,” so of course he didn’t need it. No more do I need his explanation, only his phrase, to introduce a delightful book, Les Origines du Système Métrique (The Origins of the Metric System), by Adrien Favre, Professeur au Lycée du Toulouse—which means a high-school teacher in a provincial city, then of a couple of hundred thousand people, far from Paris—published in 1931.

“Before the establishment of our Metric System,” he begins, “there reigned in France, among the units of measure, an incredible confusion.” Naming twenty-two of them, he invites us to think of Rabelais’s lists, and then reveals that the twenty-two were merely the subdivisions of the agrarian measures in one area of the country, Haute-Garonne—a place where, while the measures themselves had only five different names, these designated forty-three different actual measures.

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