Metric system



Entry from the recently released “Historical dictionary of legal-economic concepts”, organized by Andréa Slemian, Bruno Aidar and José Reinaldo de Lima Lopes.

The history of the adoption of the metric system is not only complex, but deeply political and tied to the exponential increase in trade in the XNUMXth century. A history that mixes science, commerce and religion, among other variables, which has often resulted in popular uprisings and dissatisfactions. For a long time, the meter and the kilogram were accused of being systems of weights and measures linked to atheism, to devil worship spoiling God's designs.

The history of the metric system in Brazil also went through several setbacks and pressures until it was completely institutionalized and used in everyday life, at the end of the XNUMXth century – although even today we still have measures such as canadas or alqueires from Goiás and São Paulo. But the history of the adoption of the metro in Brazil begins in the XNUMXth century and mixes with the imperial policy and scientific ideas of the period. Laws, discussions, books, professors, plays, deputies and pressures of various kinds add up to revolts, riots and small daily riots against the metric system. On the part of the imperial government, it was understood that the standardization of measures would imply a substantial improvement in the collection of taxes and international commercial transactions. Measures varied from place to place, causing not only confusion in commercial transactions, but insecurity for merchants and consumers.

For a long time they maintained different ways of measuring and weighing goods – giving rise to all kinds of confusion among the government, merchants and the population. In the XNUMXth century, it was common for these different forms of weight to coexist in everyday life – the old measures, as they were called, only gradually gave way to the metric system. Roberto Simonsen, in História Econômica do Brasil, gives a very enlightening table of how the conversions were made.

He says: “Linear, agrarian and weight measurements were identical in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. The capacity measures used in Rio de Janeiro differed from those used in Lisbon. Thus, the Portuguese moio, alqueire, canada and quartilho were much smaller than those used in Rio. Linear, agrarian and weight measures were identical in Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon. The capacity measures used in Rio de Janeiro differed from those used in Lisbon. Thus, the Portuguese moio, alqueire, canada and quartilho were much smaller than those used in Rio. The Portuguese ton, as for the liquids, had about 840 liters; it was divided into 2 barrels and each barrel into 30 almudes. The almude was worth 12 canadas and the canada 4 pints. As for the measures of capacity for the grains, the Portuguese moio was divided into 15 bushels, the bush into 4 bushels and each bushel into 4 quarts and each quart into 8 selamins. As for the weights, in Brazil, the maritime barrel or maritime ton was worth 2.000 common arrables or Portuguese pounds; the usual ton, with 1.728 dragtiles, corresponded to 796,280 kg. A yard was worth 4 arrobas or 128 arrables; the arroba was worth 32 arrteis; the arrátel 2 marcos, the marco 8 ounces – the common arrátel or Portuguese pound had 16 ounces – the ounce 8 octaves, the octave 3 scruples or 4 carats and the scruple 24 grains. The common weight carat was divided into 18 grains, while the carat for coins and precious stones was worth 4 grains. Despite the Kingdom's Ordinances determining that all Portuguese measures should be regulated by those of Lisbon, those varied in the different councils. In Brazil, the same way. Hence the disparity of information. Canada, for example, appears as having 4,180 l, 2,66 l, or 1,375 l, and even old Canada, with 6,890 l!” (SIMONSEN, 2005, p. 585).

To better understand what happened here, it is necessary to go back a few years before the first law of the meter enacted by D. Pedro II on June 26, 1862. It is necessary to understand how the need to have a measure based on the laws of the nature, in a scientific experiment, and not in divine laws, like the feet, hands and inches of absolutist emperors.

The Decimal Metric System and the French Revolutionary Scientists

The meter was born out of questions about traditional and non-standard measures during the Enlightenment, in France in the 2011th century. For philosophers and scientists of the time, the profusion of weights and measures used by different countries or even regions of France, hindered commerce, science and, ultimately, people's daily lives. It was necessary to find a way to weigh and measure things that was not just a random pattern, as it had been until then. This pattern should come from a natural measure, that is, a measure resulting from an experiment with nature, capable of being reproduced if the original pattern were lost (CREASE, XNUMX).

In 1670, in Lyon, France, the vicar, Gabriel Mouton, of the church of São Paulo, proposed a system of measures whose main unit was a magnitude of the Earth, presenting a set of linear and decimal measures. However, the application of these measures would only come with the French revolutionary Enlightenment who, during the Revolution of 1789, decided to radically change the prevailing standards – both in counting time, with the creation of a new calendar, and in measurement standards. But that's the old story, told to drown out that the meter was really born out of scientific inquiries during the French Revolution – a measure that was linked to a scientific experiment conducted by man rather than by God or royal design.

After a few years of discussion, the French Revolution gave impetus to the creation of a Commission of Weights and Measures formed by eminent scientists and philosophers. Right at the beginning of the process, a standard was arrived at, corresponding to the ten millionth part of the distance from the Earth's Equator to the North Pole measured along a meridian. But it wasn't just any meridian or random, it was the meridian that passed through the city of Paris. The measure would be called meter, a word coming from the Greek, métron, which precisely means “measure”. From there, the commission's scientists established the decimal variations, downwards as millimeters and centimeters and upwards as kilometers.

The same commission worked with a unique weighing system, creating the gram, initially called “serious”. Its scientific definition was based on the mass of a cubic decimeter of distilled water, in vacuum, at its freezing point. The word also came from the Greek, meaning "small weight". The same decimal system was defined for weighing derivatives such as the centigram and the kilogram. King Louis XVI (1754-1793) regulated both the gram and the meter before fleeing the city in one of his last political decisions.

The scientists responsible for the metric system, among many others on the commission, were scientists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, and mathematicians. Among them were Pierre Méchain (1744-1804), Jean Baptiste Delambre (1749-1822) and Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794). The revolutionary process deepened and the commission of philosophers and scientists, headed by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), suffered casualties, among which was Antoine Lavoisier, guillotined in 1794, at the height of the Terror. Even so, the work continued and, in 1799, two prototypes in iridescent platinum were deposited in the Archives of the Republic in Paris, representing the meter and the kilogram, which are still kept at the International Office of Weights and Measures in France. And the process of adopting the meter and the kilogram continued to advance (BELL, 2005).

At the time, French philosophers and revolutionary scientists lived what can be called a true passion for the decimal system, seen not only as more rational, but also, more natural. In this way, a new calendar was created in 1792, more suitable for the new republican times of the Revolution. From it, a new week was derived, which would have ten days instead of seven and also a new way of counting time, based on decimal divisions – which resulted in such a complex day-to-day calculation that it ended up being abolished in 1795 and the hours and minutes went back to the way they were before.

But the revolutionary measures remained. In this way, the meter, the liter, the kilogram became part of French history. Until its full adoption passed a few decades. And in this turbulent political period, the metric system was often adopted in a mixed system of meters and old measures, as the French governments of the time changed.

French travelers spread the metric system around the world, whether in their eagerness to scientifically catalog the world and send the reports of these trips, whether in the form of more informal writing, such as letters, or formal, such as commercial reports. Thus, the first references to the meter and the decimal metric system in Brazil were made by French travelers at the beginning of the XNUMXth century and appear in their reports, books and compendiums.

Auguste de Sainte-Hilaire, in 1816, was passing through the surroundings of Juiz de Fora, in Minas Gerais, when he wrote: “In the vicinity of the place called Pinho Velho, which is some distance from Pedro Alves, I observed (...). Several huts had as their mainstays, in the four corners, the raw trunks of the red and fragrant wood tree that is called cedar (cedrela) in the country. These trunks had taken root, and at the top had sprouted great winged leaves, a meter long or more, which, curved under the roof, resembled the acanthus leaves on a Corinthian capital” (SAINT-HILAIRE, 1975, p. . 56).

In the 1820s, Hercule Florence, taking part in the Langsdorff exhibition on a trip to the Amazon as a draftsman, made the following report about açaí as he passed through the outskirts of Gurupá, in Pará: “From Gurupá onwards we began to navigate in narrow arms. The banks were full of 'açais' palm trees, some loaded with bunches half a meter long and formed from little coconuts the size of a grape berry. It is a spherical core covered with a very thin film the color of a ripe blackberry. When the ship dropped anchor, we picked the bunches and, unpacking them, we filled baskets and baskets that we took on board” (FLORENCE, 1977, p. 303).

Francis de La Porte Castelnau, an English naturalist in the service of France, was in Brazil in the 1840s, first on a scientific expedition, between 1843 and 1847, and then as consul in Bahia, in 1848. Having studied Natural History in Paris, he he was used to using the meter as a reference measure. For this reason, when passing through Catalão in Goiás, he writes, referring to an important figure in the city, Colonel Roque: “Coronel Roque was a corpulent and dry man, with enormous spyglasses and a blue straw hat, whose brims they were almost a meter in diameter. He was wearing cotton clothes, with very short pants, everything the same color as his hat, including his socks and shoes. This singular taste for blue is explained by the fact that all of their clothing, not excepting shoes, was the work of slaves, who could only use indigo as dye, a plant that grows everywhere” (CASTELNAU, 1949. p. 209 ).

Naturalists, in very accurate accounts of different aspects of nature, use the meter as a measure and parameter for completely different things, such as the size of leaves made by Saint Hilaire, or of fruits, as Florence observed, or even of a colonel's hat, as he did Castelnau. Small appearances in reports of this nature show that the metric system was already incorporated into the scientific vocabulary of the period, commonly used by naturalists and scientists in their travel writings. But, in that period, the meter was far from being unanimity in the world.

It was during this same period, between 1800 and 1840, that England also considered adopting a measurement system based on scientific experiments. There, non-standardization was also the rule, with the inherent difficulties for the government to tax producers and consumers and the proliferation of fraud – not to mention the commercial losses in other countries that adopted other measurement standards. In this way, the English began to look at the French meter as a possibility of standardization.

However, the idea of ​​adopting the measure of a meridian that passed through Paris, even more a republican and revolutionary Paris, did not like the English royalty. Even so, the idea of ​​making a scientific measurement, based on a natural phenomenon, was practically “irresistible” to English merchants and scientists, who created their own system of scientific measurements, the result kept in the coffers of Parliament.

On October 16, 1834, the parliament suffered a fire and the original standard was lost. English scientists celebrate, because it would finally be possible to reproduce, from the original experiment, the standard measure. They consulted the detailed notes and did it all over again. To everyone's surprise, the result was different, that is, it was not possible to reproduce the original measurement. As such, Parliament came to believe that natural patterns would be impossible to reproduce and measurements would necessarily be random forever. It reverted to the old pattern of feet, yards, fathoms, ounces, pounds.

When the French Revolution ended, and Napoleon took power, many of the revolutionary changes were extinguished, and the old standards returned to live with the metric. Later, during the government of Louis XVIII (1755-1824) the meter was re-established as the standard, even though calculation errors had been found in the original standard. Scientists then had a big question. If an asteroid hit the earth and changed its axis of rotation, how to redo the ideal measurement?

In the meantime, several scientific commissions met in Paris to discuss the adoption of the metric standard. Countries were invited to adopt the metric system. Few countries joined until 1851, when Queen Victoria of England opened the Great Universal Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Each country should take what it had produced best in both industry and science. France sent the French Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, whose exposition included the meter, the gram and the entire decimal system. Success was immediate and awakened several countries and scientists to the problem of standard measures – doctors, for example, were immediately seduced by the possibilities of prescribing their medicines in exact measures, which both pharmacists and patients understood.

The adoption of the metric system in Portugal followed, firstly, the various currents of Napoleon's war. The country before the invasion followed a complex model, which was also adopted in Brazil throughout the colonial period. This system blended Roman tradition with Arab and northern European influences. There was great confusion and for several centuries there was a concern to standardize measures to improve trade. “The oldest linear measurements are the rod, the fathom and the span of a harpsichord. The cubit, made up of three palms larger than the carnation tree, was probably introduced into Portuguese trade, according to some, at the beginning of the 17th century, on the occasion of the formation of the Hanseatic League, and according to others many years before that time” (BARREIROS, 1838, p. 4).

Luís Lisanti Filho comments on the problem of measures in his work Negócios colonialias, a commercial correspondence from the 1973th century (LISANTI FILHO, 1, v. 1810, p. LXXIX-XCVI): “Intense trade with England imposed a series of measures, such as the adoption of inches and pounds in the daily routine of customs and government. But it was only after the third French invasion of Portugal, between 1811 and XNUMX, that people began to think about adopting French standards”.

On the eve of the return of the court to Lisbon, in 1819, a commission was established to study the measurements, made up of scientists and engineers. French patterns were ordered, studies were carried out in a laboratory at the Casa da Moeda and new patterns were created within the metric system, produced, with some controversy, at the Arsenal de Guerra. The discussion was intense and lasted until 1852, with the country already pacified, when D. Maria II promulgated the decree that instituted the decimal metric system throughout the Portuguese territory, stipulating 10 years for the decree to come into force. On January 1, 1860, the use of the metric system was decreed in Portugal.[I]

For many centuries, measurements and standards were explained as God-inspired phenomena or divine acts. This notion, broken by the scientists and philosophers of the French Revolution, intensified in a series of scientists, engineers, writers and astronomers who contested the adoption of the meter. There were several antimetric societies, mainly in the United States. All expounded classic arguments of the American anti-reformist movements of the time. It was a ferocious mix of conspiracy theories, a return to nature and God, a distortion of the gross facts of history and science, xenophobia and heightened nationalism. The defenders of the metro would be the others, that is, revolutionaries, anti-Christians, socialists, reformist foreigners, mad scientists.

The main theory developed and accepted by antimetric societies was that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. It was considered at the time as one of the great wonders of the world, a symbol of solidity and permanence. A member of the British Parliament, Richard Vyse, while traveling to Egypt, became convinced that the pyramid held secret mathematical knowledge. Between 1859 and 1864, he and his editor, John Taylor, published several pamphlets, among them The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built? And who built it? The battle of standards: the ancient, 4 years old against the modern, 50 years old, the least perfect of all.

They believed that the mathematics involved in building the pyramid held a secret – that the ratio of two sides of the base of the pyramid to their height was exactly equal to pi, ii~, an irrational number unknown for centuries. They also believed that the Egyptians would have been incapable of formulating something so elaborate – and that the calculations to build the pyramid would have come from Israelis. If the calculations had come from the Israelites, the people chosen by God, whose main architectural project had been the construction of Noah's Ark, the measurements of Giza would be sacred, made by the Great Architect of Humanity, God.

The story was without foundation, as the Israelites had passed through Egypt long after the pyramid was built. Taylor and Vyse also believed that the royal chamber was clearly a measure of weight that everything would be the proof of "the altar of the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt", described by Isaiah in 19:19. Deep down, the adoption of French measurement standards became a battle between an ancient and sacred system, conceived by God, and a new, modern and revolutionary one, made by man.

These pamphlets were a huge success and gathered a huge following. Among them was a Scottish astronomer, Charles Piazzi Smyth, a Fellow of the Royal Society. He also wrote a book, Our Heritage in the Great Pyramid, dedicated to Taylor, where he plays with numbers and mathematical equations. The fundamental unit of the pyramid would be the 25th part, the pyramid inch, which would be exactly 1/500.000.000 of the earth's axis of rotation. That would be the true standard measure inspired by God and not the meter. When presenting his theories in London, his calculations were put to the test and ridiculed. They discovered that he had done the math wrong and that the famous ratio between twice the side and the height of the pyramid was not pi, but 22/7. Disgusted, he fell out with his peers and left the Royal Society in 1874.

But his book was even more successful than the pamphlets and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It ended up in the hands of an Ohio railroad engineer, Charles Latimer (1827-1888). Enthusiastic, Latimer founded, in 1879, in a church, the Old South Church, the most famous and active antimetric organization that ever existed, the International Institute for the Preservation and Improvement of Anglo-Saxon Weights and Measures and for Opposition to the Introduction of the Metric French among English-Speaking Peoples. The organ even had a literary branch, called the International Standard, which made antimetric hymns, songs and poems.

With each attempt by the American Congress to adopt the subway, there is a flood of protests and letters reiterating that the government was limiting people's freedom, in addition to the classic divine arguments. In 1902, a new law tried to pass through Congress and again two mechanical engineers, Samuel Dale and Frederick Halsey, acted to stop the law. Opposites in temperament and worldview, they wrote two books: Frederick, The Metric Fallacy, and Dale, The Failure of Metrics in the Textile Industry. The books, funded by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, were a great success. The bill fell. Halsey even wrote the following sentence to defend his vision: “It is written in the stars that in the future this will be an Anglo-American world. Let us make it Anglo-American in its weights and measures”. The differences between the two engineers were many, even involving religion, and the two ended up fighting at the end of the XNUMXth century.

At the beginning of the 1921th century, between 1926 and 1930, the metric system was reassessed by the American Congress and was not adopted. Sport was, in the eyes of the American people, one of the ways in which the subway appeared positively. With the expansion of collective games, such as the Olympics in the XNUMXs, counting the distance of high jumps, for example, came to have a meaning for a wider audience than scientists. If in the United States and Europe the adoption of the metric system throughout the XNUMXth century did not happen without controversy, the same occurred in Brazil, with very similar issues that, in essence, concerned the fundamental ideas of State formation, collection of international taxes and trade wars.

One of the big issues behind the implementation of the metric system in the world was the association of scientists who supported the adoption of the meter with Freemasonry. Freemasonry was then seen as an enemy of the Catholic Church and religions in general. When Masonic symbols became established, and among them the compass, the sacred triangle and the square, they were full of meanings and mystics that were part of everyday life in the 1979th century. To these mystical symbols was mixed the metric system. Complex numbers, such as π, strange equations, the golden number, the occult, the introductory rites to scientific thought, were part of the mystique of a secret society in expansion, very influential in the policies of several national states (BOUCHER, XNUMX) .

Scientists Royal Society, from London, since its foundation were part of Freemasonry, as well as the French, with their Grand Orient lodges, who tried to implement the metric system. Its expansion around the world often followed the influences of secret Masonic members and their lodges in governments.[ii] In the same way that the adoption of the metric system was secretly influenced by Masonic lodges and their members, the rejection of the meter followed the same logic, in an unclear dialogue, in which the references are metaphors that escape us or word games. The main clue to this dialogue in the shadows is the Catholic Church's systematic persecution of the adoption of the metro. In popular revolts, as we will see in Quebra-kilos later on, reference to Freemasonry is constant. The meter would be an element of evil, of Freemasonry. The only one capable of stopping this evil that represented the metric system and Freemasonry would be the Catholic Church and the priests (MAIOR, 1978).

The metro in the Empire of D. Pedro II

On June 26, 1862, Emperor D. Pedro II enacted Law n. 1.157, which established the French decimal metric system as the standard of measurement for the empire of Brazil. The law has only three articles and is worth repeating, as all three will have profound reflections on the country's daily life for decades to come. Says the law:

“Art. 1st The current system of weights and measures will be replaced throughout the Empire by the French metric system, in the part concerning linear, surface, capacity and weight measures.

Art. 2nd Is the Government authorized to order the necessary standards of the referred system to come from France, being duly verified there by the legal standards; and, likewise, to take whatever measures it deems convenient for the sake of the execution of the preceding article, subject to the following provisions.

§ 1 The metric system will gradually replace the current system of weights and measures throughout the Empire, so that in ten years the legal use of the old weights and measures will cease entirely.

§ 2 During this period, primary schools, both public and private, will include in the teaching of arithmetic the explanation of the metric system compared to the system of weights and measures that is currently in use.

§ 3 The Government will organize comparative tables that facilitate the conversion of the measurements of one system into those of the other, public offices having to make use of them as long as the current system of weights and measures is in force.

Art. 3 The Government, in the regulations it issues for the execution of this Law, may impose on offenders a prison sentence of up to one month and a fine of up to 100$000” (COLLECTION of Laws of the Empire of Brazil, 1862, v. 1, pt. I, p. 4).

The promulgation of the law, in 1862, was the result of a great legislative discussion, which began in 1830, still in the First Reign, a year before the abdication of D. Pedro I, with the commitment of the deputy Cândido Baptista de Oliveira (1801- 1865), born in Porto Alegre. Cândido was an engineer, with a degree in mathematics and philosophy from the University of Coimbra, and had come into contact with the French decimal system when he went to Paris to improve his studies at the Polytechnic School, with François Jean Dominique Arago, professor of geometry at the school, at the late 1820's.[iii] Upon his return from Paris, Cândido Baptista became one of the most fervent defenders of the adoption of the decimal metric system (MOREIRA, MASSARINI, 1997, p. 3-16).

Like his French teacher, Cândido soon took part in Brazilian imperial politics. Still in 1830, he joined the Conservative Party and became deputy for Rio Grande do Sul. He was soon appointed Inspector General of the National Treasury. In 1839, he became Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs. He spent some time in Europe on account of a health problem, living officially as Minister of State in St. Petersburg and Vienna. Upon returning to Brazil, he resumed teaching at the Military School (where he created the Marine Corps) and political activities. He was then Minister of the Navy. In the 1850s, he was part of D. Pedro II's series of initiatives to modernize the country – he was director of the Botanical Garden, member of the Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute, president of the Bank of Brazil, at the same time that he held the position of senator for the province of Ceará.

From the beginning of his public life, Cândido made an effort to adopt the metric system – even though this was under discussion within France itself, as we will see. On July 12, 1830, Candido proposed a law for the adoption of the metric system, which was rejected by the Chamber. Soon after, in 1832, he launched the first Brazilian book that touched on the subject of patterns: O compendium of arithmetic composed for use in primary schools in Brazil.

Candide was sure of the scientists and continued his crusade. In 1834, a commission was created by decree to study and propose improvements to the monetary and weights and measures system. At that time, he became the inspector general of the National Treasury, and he continued to be very interested in establishing reliable standards for organizing the finances of the State. “This commission, created with the task of proposing improvements to the system and not a new system, played its role greatly influenced by the report by J. Quinley Adams on weights and measures in the USA, in large part, however, in the document of the Brazilian commission” (MOREIRA , MASSARINI, 1997, p. 6).

It is interesting to note that the United States did not adopt the decimal metric system, although throughout the XNUMXth century they adopted the decimal system for currencies. The discussion was complex, both in Brazil and in the world. While Cândido Batista defended the French system in Brazil, we saw that a number of interests were at stake – mainly a fierce trade war between France and England. Whoever dominated the standards system dominated commerce, industry and science, it was believed at the time.

Cândido Baptista, within the scope of the modernization initiatives of the imperial State from the 1850s onwards, founded and was editor, in that period, of the Revista Brasileira, one of the first national initiatives dedicated to the promotion of science and culture in the country. The magazine circulated between 1857-1861 and included important thinkers of the Empire, such as Frederico Leopoldo César Burlamarqui, Francisco Freire Alemão, Guilherme S. de Capanema, Francisco Varnhagen, among others (MOREIRA, MASSARINI, 1997, p. 8). In a way, it was this circle of intellectuals and imperial politicians that pushed for Law n. 1.157 of 1862, Brazil being one of the first countries to sign the International Meter Convention, ratified only in 1875.

Cândido died in 1865, without seeing the law he fought so hard for be implemented by the imperial government. But the law had a period of ten years that had not yet expired and, throughout the 1860s, as the terms of the law said, the government took a series of initiatives that were contained in the original article to try to place the meter as a standard measure. . Between 1862 and 1866, a large table of value conversions was prepared and edited, which was published in different newspapers in various cities in the country - Jornal do Comércio published the table in 1864 in Rio, as well as Correio Paulistano in São Paulo in May 1865 or A Coalição in Maranhão, to name just a few examples.[iv]

While the discussion about the implementation of the metric system continued in discussions between deputies, senators, the emperor and influential men in the Rio de Janeiro court, the daily life of commerce imposed a faster pace to the adoption of measures. It was necessary to order and tax the goods that arrived at the port of Rio de Janeiro. In the collection of Statistical Maps of the Navigation Trade of Brazil between 1842 and 1843, the use of the metric system is still not visible. Most of the time, the goods appear tabulated with their values, followed by the tax rates referred to it. Some old measures, then current, were used, such as the arroba, the bushel, the pound, the milheiro, sheaves and inches. Measures that mixed usual Portuguese standards with English measures, a major influence on trade in general in Brazil since the opening of the ports in 1808.

Between 1846 and 1847, the Collection of statistical maps of trade and navigation of the Empire of Brazil with its provinces and foreign countries classified goods by class. First Class consisted of: live animals; meats and other animal substances; hides, skins and other spoils; materials and other miscellaneous animal products; fish and other fishery products. The Second Class consisted of: spices; medicinal species and drugs; flours and pasta; agricultural foodstuffs and products; vegetables and grains; wood and firewood; straws, resins and other vegetable products. The Third Class of products was made by: combustible materials; metals; stones; other mineral products and materials. The Fourth Class was formed by: armaments; shoes; spirits; miscellaneous fabrications; hardware; lustres and their belongings; liquids and spirits; earthenware and porcelain; strings in general; mechanisms; manufactures and spun; home furnishings and furnishings; metallic coins; miscellaneous objects and utensils; cloths and other fabrics; paper, cardboard and other artifacts; perfumeries; miscellaneous industrial products; baubles; paints; trains and kitchen utensils; ladies' clothing and ornaments; transport vehicles and glass.

Through these classifications, we have a very approximate idea of ​​which goods entered the port of Rio de Janeiro and how the products were taxed. Many of them needed to be measured or counted for the tax to be levied. But even in that period, the metro was still not present. One of the usual measures was ton, which could refer to any other measure: pounds or even kilograms. It is not possible to know exactly which measure was used. Another common measure at the time was the canada, which was used to measure liquids such as brandy, wine or oil. Arrobas were used for the threads, like sticks or shoemakers, for fringes and sewing thread the measure was the stick and for “bags of canhamaço and rudeness” pounds were used. Products were often counted by units, such as trays, shoes, suspenders, mirrors and chandeliers.[v]

In 1849-1850, the Collection of statistical maps of trade and navigation of the Empire of Brazil with its provinces and foreign countries, the English influence and the Portuguese tradition were still present in commercial transactions and in the goods that arrived at the port of Rio de Janeiro. Rods, quintais, barrels, arroba, pounds and unit measures were also common as systems of measurement. A little more than 20 years later, it can be seen in the Statistics of maritime trade in Brazil for the period 1870-187 (SOARES, 1876), therefore after the enactment of the law in 1862, that the metric system is current in commercial transactions, being used for accounting and various goods, from fabrics (counted in kilos), to beverages (in liters) and salted cod (in kilos).

The discussion on the adoption of the metric system was current during this period, between the 1850s and 1860s. Trade had increased exponentially after the 1850 End of Traffic Act. export and until then reserved to finance the purchase of Africans” (ALENCASTRO, 1997, p. 37). Goods arrived at the port and were soon sold in the city or went to other provinces. The regulation of these goods became essential. Trade schools multiplied throughout the court, many teaching the science of Metrology, with conversions, tables, calculations.

Metrology became a “school subject” before becoming a law. On January 23, 1855, Emperor D. Pedro II, alongside Pedro de Alcântara Bellegarde, Minister and Secretary of State for War Affairs,[vi] he created a school for the application of engineers to the army where “military doctrines will be taught theoretically and practically”.[vii] Among the subjects that would be taught to young aspiring engineers in the army was metrology, in fourth place in importance, just behind arithmetic, elementary algebra, and elementary geometry. [viii] Bellegarde was an enthusiast of Exact Sciences and was himself the author of a compendium on the subject, Mathematics Elementary, which included a chapter on Metrology, also sold in the form of a separate leaflet at the paper and book store in Angra e Irmão, located at Rua do Ouvidor, 85.[ix]

In a short time, less than ten years, public tenders for certain government positions, mainly those linked to the army and military functions, began to require metrology. That's what happened in the land surveyor's contest, published in the Official Gazette of Ceará on March 12, 1864.[X] In the advertisement, the program required candidates to know metrology, which covered the following subjects: the old national measurement system, the French metric system, and the English metric system. A very similar advertisement for the selection of surveyors also appears three years later, in 1867, in the Jornal de Victoria, Espírito Santo, on May 18.[xi]

Over that time, metrology had become a science and thus was designated, “metrology”, alongside geography, arithmetic, the Portuguese language, biology. Like every science, it had a specific code for its teaching, a series of wise men versed in the matter. During this period, many newspapers at the time began to announce new Metrology textbooks, explaining the idea that books were needed to teach the subject.

Metrology books had to be written by authors versed in the field – mathematicians, physicists, engineers, experts in the arts of numbers and calculations. On Thursday, August 21, 1851, the Casa do Livro Azul bookstore, on Rua do Ouvidor, advertised in the Jornal do Comércio, for 200 réis, a Metrology manual.[xii] On Sunday, March 25, 1851, the Royal Reading Room ordered the publication in the Jornal do Comércio of a kind of compendium of his works for public dissemination – among the various volumes there was also a Metrology Manual.[xiii]

Thus, on December 17, 1862, an advertisement appears in the newspaper A Coalição calling readers to buy a metrology manual written by João Antonio Coqueiro and edited by Tipografia Progresso, located in São Luiz do Maranhão, at Rua da Paz, n. 4. The announcement was repeated for several months, until, on March 5, 1864, the sale of the book itself was announced, entitled Modern Metrology or Circumstantial Exposition of the Decimal Metric System.[xiv] This becomes one of the most important technical metrology books of the Empire, being sold on several occasions for various purposes and in different regions. And, over the years, several books were purchased by the Imperial State to supply departments, schools and battalions.

weight breakers

If the metric system was a science before becoming a law, when it became law in 1862, the meter still competed with other traditional measures, such as the fathom, the yard, the arroba, the canada. Ten years after the enactment of the law, in 1872, the imperial administration realized that the old measures were still in force in many places, such as free fairs, markets or commercial transactions. Failure to implement the law meant loss of business and taxes for the state. In this way, Decree n. 5.089 was enacted on September 18, 1872 by Francisco do Rego Barros Barreto, engineer, advisor to the emperor and politician, then Minister of Transport and Agriculture. In it, the law of 1862 was reaffirmed, which adopted the metric system throughout the national territory, but gave a legal deadline for the old measures to be abolished – 1873.

The decree was tough, made up of a single paragraph. “Until the last day of June 1873, the current weights and measures will be tolerated. Any merchandise that has to be supplied for consumption, from the 1st of July of the said year onwards, can only be supplied using metric weights and measures; since then, the current system has been entirely prohibited”.[xv] Then it established a series of restrictions and regulations on the metric system, completely prohibiting the old system: gas measuring devices would be modified (and the way of charging as well), measuring devices such as “areometers and alcometers” would be adapted to the new system and would have to be earned by inspectors, as well as everything else that was sold. Thus, weights and measures that were not stamped and earned would be fined, with the trader subject to ten days in prison and a fine of 10$ in the first incidence and fifteen days in prison and a fine of 15$ in the second. The inspector had to be a Brazilian citizen, over 25 years old, who had passed the math and metrology exam. In the absence of these, a professor would be appointed. Survey fees would continue to form part of municipal income and were collected by the Chamber. Municipalities would indemnify the government for the cost of making the weights and measures that would be sent to the cities.[xvi] 

The Northeast was in the throes of a slow recession, with sugar and cotton prices falling on the international market. It also suffered from acute imperial centralization and large estates. At the end of the Paraguayan War in 1870, with the attempt to reorganize the Imperial State, which included the attempt to carry out a Census, to enlist in the military, to collect taxes effectively, the decree of 1872 displeased many sectors of society, mainly inland, in the vast area of ​​the hinterland that included Maranhão, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba and the north of Bahia (MAIOR, 1978, p. 5-18). Added these conditions with the law of land tax, of fairs and markets, and the conditions were given for a great revolt.

When the 1872 decree gave such draconian conditions to the population, which had lived according to colonial customs for centuries, the adoption of the metric system was the trigger for a major revolt, which included the breaking of the standards sent by the imperial state, the burning of notary offices and the harassment of government officials who supervised fairs and markets. This revolt became known as Quebra-quilos and took place in the northeastern hinterland between 1872 and 1875.

To this revolt against the collection of taxes and the change in measures, a religious element was added. The metric system was associated by the population with the influence of Freemasonry in the imperial government (LIMA, 2011). Seen as evil, Freemasonry, alongside the imperial government, was constantly attacked by Jesuits, who had returned to the region in 1866 (MAIOR, 1978, p. 62-92). Although members of the clergy had different positions regarding the Weight Breaker, most saw the metric system as part of malevolent Masonic rituals and preached against them in churches. “The fight between Jesuits and Freemasonry marks, in 1873, the history of Recife. On the 24th of May, after a Masonic concentration at Praça Conde D'Eu (currently Praça Maciel Pinheiro), a more exalted group went to the Colégio dos Jesuítas, located at Rua do Hospício 323, and destroyed its facilities” (MAIOR, 1978, p. 97). The result of this dispute was – after calming down the feelings of the revolution – the Jesuits were once again deported from the country.

The discussion about the revolt and the adoption of the metric system permeated society at the time. Several satirical songs were recited by the sertão and the capitals. Below is a satirical song whose lyrics are signed anonymously by Dr. SP

I'm a kilo-breaker, covered in leather
By vile disdain, if you brought me here
The slap stains my face
The rope, the board if I felt afflicted
On modest gray hairs, the blunt scissors
From my pallet, all I have left is the post
Wife and daughters rape rude,
The healthy virtues – your treasure – alone.

There are no rights, exemptions have fled
In the laws disloyal villains spit;
Children, old people, cripples, wait,
With each sad uniform of cruel buckets

In vain, barefoot, my wife and children,
From sun to shine, mourning come:
They implore help: mercy on so many…
But someone is afraid of their tears!

And to the kilobreaker, dishonored and crazy
It's all little, how much infamy does
If there contemplates the theft of the family
Here on the double, if it plagues you more

His wife sees disgrace at the top
For her support, all expose her in vain:
Remember the daughters who were left without a mother
And they were robbed… how lost they are.

Tyrants see so many miseries!...
Neither break nor sting nor woe
Martyrdoms, outrages of blackness, make me
But tell me if you are also parents!

The slap stains my face
The rope and the board hurt me
The vile dishonored family of the dear family
Take my life... I died in shame.[xvii]

Other demonstrations also put the weight-breaker on the agenda. This is also clear in the different cigarette labels (reproduced below) that circulated in Recife during the period. The labels praised the rioters, caricatured those who wanted to impose the meter and the kilo – often identified in the images as the provincial president Henrique Pereira de Lucena. In the images, we always see a man dressed in clothes that represented power, with weapons in his hands (a whip, a club) and with “kilo” written on the top hat, with containers of measurements well exposed in the figure.

Other popular manifestations included a very popular cheetah pattern, stamped in black and red, which for a long time was called the “pound-breaking cheetah” and some theater presentations on the subject, such as the one that took place on December 13, 1874. On that day, the last show of the year 1874 would be presented, with a series of sketches, among them, “Tribulação e ventura”, “Derrota Jesuítica”, “A concert by rebaca and barrel organ”, among other attractions. Right at the beginning, the publicity note said that the “hymno to the Quebra-Quilos inflators” would be played. Just as in the United States antimetric societies composed and sang their hymns, something similar happened here. This same way of rejecting the metric system appeared in anti-religious and satirical shows in the interior of Pernambuco, helping to foster feelings of revolt among the kilobreakers (MAIOR, 1978, p. 197).

Once the revolt was appeased, the metric system was slowly being incorporated into the daily life of Brazilian society. Measurements such as the meter and the liter began to be taught in schools, requested by the government in public tenders, used in the day-to-day life of fairs and markets – and also used for the collection of taxes by the government. The history of its adoption in Brazil was long and lasted throughout the XNUMXth century, especially during the reign of D. Pedro II. The resistance to its adoption was several, in several segments, including a complex revolt in the northeastern hinterland, in addition to skirmishes against the metro throughout the rest of the country. The debate permeated society and caused repercussions, which could be measured in the press at the time. The country followed the debate, which was global, which had similar repercussions in many other countries.

When the Republic was proclaimed, the meter was already incorporated into science and everyday life, schools already taught the metric system to children and also in trade schools across the country there was a vast literature on the subject, metrology. Yet, old measures have remained in many commercial transactions for several decades now, including the present day.

*Joana Monteleone is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of History at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Urban Flavors (Alameda).


Andréa Slemian, Bruno Aidar and José Reinaldo de Lima Lopes (eds.). Historical dictionary of legal-economic concepts. Sao Paulo, Alameda, 2021.


primary sources[xviii]

BARREIROS, Fortunato José. Memory on weights and measures of Portugal, Spain, England and France that are used in military work. Lisbon: Typography from the same academy, 1838.

CASTELNAU, Francis. Expedition to the Central Regions of South America (1843-1844). t. I. São Paulo: Brazilian Pedagogical Library; National Publishing Company, 1949.

COLLECTION of Laws of the Empire of Brazil. Anno de 1862. Rio de Janeiro: Typographia Nacional.

FLORENCE, Hercules. River voyage from Tietê to the Amazon (1825-1829). São Paulo: EDUSP; Cultrix, 1977.

SAINT-HILAIRE, Auguste de. Journey through the Provinces of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais (1816-1817). São Paulo; Belo Horizonte: EDUSP; Itatiaia Editora, 1975.

SOARES, Sebastião Ferreira. Statistics of maritime trade in Brazil for the financial year 1870-1871. Rio de Janeiro: National Typography, 1876.


ALENCASTRO, Luiz Felipe de. Private life and private order in the Empire. In: History of private life in Brazil. Empire: the court and national modernity. Collection directed by Fernando Novais and volume organized by Luiz Felipe de Alencastro. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997.

BELL, Madison Smartt. Lavoisier in the year one: the birth of a new science in an age of revolution. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2005.

BOUCHER, Jules. Masonic symbolic or real art re-edited and corrected according to the rules of traditional esoteric symbolic. São Paulo: Pensamento, 1979

CREASE, Robert P. Measuring the World: The Quest for a Universal System of Weights and Measures. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2011.

LIMA, Luciano Mendonça de. Quebra-Quilos: a popular uprising on the periphery of the empire. In: DANTAS, Monica (org.). Uprisings, riots and revolutions: poor and freed free men in 2011th century Brazil. São Paulo: Alameda Casa Editorial, 449, p. 483-XNUMX.

LISANTI FILHO, Luís. Colonial Business: An Eighteenth-Century Business Correspondence. Brasilia; São Paulo: Ministry of Finance; Editorial Vision, 1973.

LOMAS, Robert. Freemasonry and the birth of modern science. Gloucester: Fair Winds, 2003.

BIGGER, Armando Souto. Weight Breakers: Social Struggles in the Fall of Empire. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1978. (Coleção Brasiliana)

MOREIRA, Ildeu de Castro and MASSARINI, Luisa. Cândido Baptista de Oliveira and his role in the implementation of the decimal metric system in Brazil. SBHC Magazine, n. 18, 1997.

SIMONSEN, Robert. Economic History of Brazil (1500-1820). Brasília: Editions of the Federal Senate, 2005.


[I] For a quick overview of the implementation of the Portuguese metric system, see the study published on the exhibition 200 years of the metric system in Portugal at Torre do Tombo: Accessed on: 4 jun. 2018.

[ii] On the Royal Society's relationship with Freemasonry, see the Museum of London website: and also Lomas (2003).

[iii] Jean was the brother of Jacques Aragos, a French traveler who died in Brazil in 1854. He was a scientist and later a republican deputy. In 1848 he was appointed Minister of the Navy and Prime Minister from 10 to 24 June. As a scientist he developed the wave theory of light.

[iv] See the newspapers Jornal do Comércio, in April 1865, Correio Paulistano in May 1865, A Coalição in 1863.

[v] View website:, P. 20-30.

[vi] Pedro de Alcantara Bellegarde in 1807 was born on the ship Príncipe Real that brought the Portuguese royal family to Brazil. He was the godson of D. Pedro I and made a career in the Army, as a brigadier and engineer, but also as a teacher and one of those responsible for the National Observatory. He was one of the founding members of the Historical and Geographical Institute (IHGB), awarded Commander with the Imperial Order of São Bento de Avis. During this period he was working intensely to create the Battalion of Engineers

[vii] Jornal do ComMErcio February 4, 1855, p.1.

[viii] See the Jornal do Comércio of February 4, 1855, p. 1.

[ix] The news about the mathematics compendium at Bellegarde appeared in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Correio da tarde on August 9, 1855, p. 4.

[X] Official Gazette of Ceará on March 12, 1864.

[xi] Victoria newspaper, Espírito Santo, May 18, 1867.

[xii] See the Jornal do ComMErcio of August 21, 1850, p. two.

[xiii] Jornal do ComMErcio of March 25, 1852.

[xiv] See the newspaper A Coalition of December 17, 1862, December 20, 1862, March 26, 1863, July 29, 1863 and March 5, 1864.

[xv] Decree n. 5.089, of September 18, 1872.

[xvi] All information is contained in Decree n. 5.089, of September 18, 1872.

[xvii] Song played.

[xviii] A list of primary sources available on the internet can be consulted at:

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