The Hive and the Pendulum: Universal Metrology and Baroque Science

  • Nicholas DewEmail author
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 208)


Early modern scholars and statesmen were acutely aware of the need for improved standards of measurement, albeit for differing reasons. The variety of man-made units across territories and histories was, by the seventeenth century, already a sceptical commonplace, and was understood in terms of the mutability of human institutions. The late seventeenth century saw many scholars advance possible candidates for a universal standard. The most promising of these was the use of a seconds pendulum as a standard for length, a project which was actively pursued by the French Académie Royale des Sciences in the 1670s and 1680s, and remained a goal cherished by savants through the eighteenth century. This paper’s first section places the Académie’s early metrological projects in the context of the scholarly community’s ideal of a universal measurement standard, which was often expressed in ways combining political, theological, and humanistic concerns. Melchisédech Thévenot’s ludic proposal that honeycombs might be a length standard is explored as one example. The second section examines the Académie’s attempts to test the seconds pendulum as a universal length standard, by taking the missions to Uraniborg (1671) and to London (1679) as case studies in the practice of metrological work.


Length Standard Seventeenth Century Universal Measure Metal Rule Pendulum Clock 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank all the participants at the Baroque Science workshop at the University of Sydney for their help with this essay, and especially Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Classical StudiesMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada

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