Special Viewpoints

Metrology and the State: Science, Revenue, and Commerce

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Science  19 Nov 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5700, pp. 1314-1317
DOI: 10.1126/science.1102551

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“Natural measures of quantity, such as fathoms, cubits, inches, taken from the proportion of the human body, were once in use with every nation,” taught Adam Smith in his lecture “Money as the measure of value and medium of exchange,” delivered in 1763. “But by a little observation,” he continued, “they found that one man's arm was longer or shorter than another's, and that one was not to be compared with the other; and therefore wise men who attended to these things would endeavour to fix upon some more accurate measure, that equal quantities might be of equal values. Their method became absolutely necessary when people came to deal in many commodities, and in great quantities of them (1).” Smith's comments and the rationale underpinning them became increasingly urgent toward the end of the eighteenth century.

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