"The Battle of the Standards": Great Pyramid Metrology and British Identity, 1859-1890 (1)

By Reisenauer, Eric Michael | The Historian, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Battle of the Standards": Great Pyramid Metrology and British Identity, 1859-1890 (1)


Reisenauer, Eric Michael, The Historian


FOR the past few years, one of the most vigorous debates in Britain has been that surrounding membership in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Should the nation decide to join the union it would require abandoning the British pound in favor of the euro. To date, twelve nations have made the switch from their national currencies and now share a common monetary unit with their European neighbors. The British have hesitated. In fact, Britain has been reluctant about forming closer ties with Europe since the first steps toward European Union began in the 1950s. Britain finally joined the Common Market more than a decade after its formation and has remained one of the few eligible nations to resist adoption of the common currency. The Labour government under Tony Blair has made full membership in the EMU (including embracing the euro) one of its top goals. Yet the nation has continued to drag its feet in the process. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has shown little eagerness for Britain joining the euro zone in the foreseeable future. (2) In recent months, even Blair, an avid Euro-enthusiast, has backpedaled on his promise of a referendum this year on the single currency. (3) This hesitancy to call for a national vote is, in all likelihood, in response to the fact that all the polling numbers on the question indicate that it would fail. (4) The British public, it would seem, is not yet ready to give up the pound. The advantages and disadvantages of EMU membership are a matter for serious and sober debate and, indeed, both the pro-euro and anti-euro camps have marshaled numerous monetary facts and economic arguments to support their position. Each side seems to make its case to the point where it is possible to conclude that abandoning the pound is an issue over which reasonable people can disagree. Such questions, however, are rarely about reasoned argument and analysis alone. Stripping away all the economic predictions and logical reasoning, one finds that the debate over the euro is also an emotional one involving highly-charged questions of national identity. (5) These can exercise great influence on public opinion, often overshadowing the more quantifiable considerations and consequences involved in such a change. This has been the case in the past as much as today.

The current clash over the euro is something of a distant echo of a controversy from the latter half of the nineteenth century. This dispute centered around the curious and remarkable theory of Great Pyramid metrology (the study of weights and measures). Like its modern counterpart, the debate involved the potential ousting of a traditional British system in favor of a Continental scheme--in this case British imperial weights and measures for the French metric system. Just as in the euro debate, fears over the loss of British identity played a defining role. The dynamic of the two situations is similar and its study, therefore, may prove instructive. This article will explore this dynamic and show that the investigations into, and debate over, Great Pyramid metrology were less about the measures themselves than the manifestations of anxiety over British sovereignty and identity in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

The process of identity formation found in the Great Pyramid theory operated in two ways. One involved the incitement of fear in response to a foreign system seeking to challenge and displace a national tradition--the quintessential Other. While important, however, simply vilifying the Other is not enough. A nation's identity is also validated through its own merits and, if possible, with the sanction of God. The second method did this by asserting and demonstrating an inherent superiority, based in both science and religion, of the traditional system over its potential rival. This article will describe the development of Great Pyramid metrology in the last half of the nineteenth century, with special attention being given to the years between 1859 and 1890. …

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