To enjoy free access to all high-quality "In depth" content, including topical features, reviews and opinion sign upJan 5, 2011 Robert P Crease finds echoes of modern anti-reform movements in a bizarre 19th-century anti-metric effort that sought to base a measurement system on Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza
The only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Pyramid of Giza has captivated the imaginations of visitors for thousands of years. Alexander the Great visited it, as did Napoleon. In the late 19th century, however, the Great Pyramid took on a new role as a prop in an anti-metric movement. In doing so, this ancient Egyptian edifice became possibly the most bizarre example ever of an object proposed as a metrological standard.
Truth be told, the pyramid's solidity and permanence are properties one desires in a standard. Among the early "pyramid metrologists" was John Taylor, a partner in a London publishing firm, who (despite never having seen the Pyramid) believed its dimensions encoded secret knowledge, including the magnitudes of ancient units. In Taylor's view, the pyramid's mathematical relationships were simply too sophisticated for the ancient Egyptians to have devised – he claimed, for example, that the ratio of two sides of its base to its height is p, which is an irrational number that was unknown when the pyramid was built.
Taylor therefore asserted that the pyramid's architect must have been an Israelite obeying divine instructions. In the pyramid's dimensions, we can find God's own units of length, such as the "sacred cubit" (about 25 inches), and weight and capacity (from the coffer in the King's Chamber). The pyramid, in other words, revealed the true sizes of things both ancient and modern. For Taylor, the ancient, sacred, natural measurement system was superior to the modern, artificial, metric system – a point he voiced in his 1864 book The Battle of the Standards.
Taylor's book in turn inspired Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland and an amateur Egyptologist. Smyth became convinced that "the Great Pyramid, besides its tombic use, might have been originally invented and designed to be appropriate for no less than a primitive Metrological Monument". Smyth wrote a 664-page book, Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, that included other numerological claims.
The fundamental pyramid unit was not the cubit but its 25th part – the "pyramid inch" – which Smyth said was exactly 1/500,000,000th of the Earth's axis of rotation. It, rather than the metre, was the genuine natural standard. Smyth said that pyramid measurements were "true cosmical relations in their original units", and that the pyramid was "a Bible in stone, a monument of science and religion never to be divorced".
Smyth scorned the metric system, its inventors and its champions. For him, Anglo-Saxon peoples had wisely hewed to the pyramid-inch measure, from which the imperial inch differed only by a negligible fraction. "Simultaneously with the elevation of the metrical system in Paris," he thundered, "the French nation did for themselves formally abolish Christianity, burn the Bible, declare God to be a non-existence, a mere invention of the priests, and institute a worship of humanity, or of themselves."
In late 1864 Smyth set off for Egypt to investigate first-hand the metrological wonders encoded in the pyramid's dimensions: the distance of the Earth to the Sun; the length of the year; and the diameter and density of the Earth. He even found a temperature scale, with a zero point that was the freezing point of water and its 50 degree mark as the temperature of the King's Chamber.
When Smyth returned, his Royal Society colleagues were unimpressed and demolished his numerology, finding errors in his work that included the fact that the famous ratio of twice one side to height was not p but the more mundane ratio 22/7. (Martin Gardiner, that great exposer of pseudoscience, analyses Smyth's errors in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.) As the controversy heated up, so did Smyth's confidence, to the point where he began making absurd comparisons: himself to Kepler, and opponents to the know-nothings who ridiculed him. In a fit of rage following a tangle with James Clerk Maxwell, Smyth resigned from the Royal Society in 1874.
A few years later, however, Smyth found enthusiastic followers in the US among its extreme anti-metric movement: members of the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Weights and Measures. This campaign exhibited the classic signs of US anti-reform movements then and now: rabid rhetoric, fabrication of "facts", reimagining history, conspiracy theories and appeals to preserve the purity of race, nature and nation. The enemy was the "other": subversives, socialists, foreigners, atheism and artifice. The good guys were patriots, capitalists, Christians and adherents to God, country and nature.
US anti-reformists often trace their cause back to divine commandments and they love wacky props. The anti-metricists adopted the Great Pyramid as theirs, interpreting it as the same as the one in the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the reverse of every dollar bill. The literary organ of the movement was the International Standard, whose issues contained numerological studies of the Great Pyramid, rants against the metric system, poems and even anti-metric songs.
Smyth wrote frequently for the Standard, and tried to enlist the movement's members in projects such as sending him back to Egypt for further measurements, and having the pyramid declared an international metrological park to protect it from war: "neutral ground under the guardianship of all English-speaking people, or of all Christian nations". Were he and the institute members drawn together more by the anti-metric cause or the pyramidology? This is unclear and does not matter; the two interests fed each other. At last Smyth found in them a receptive audience, at least for as long as the organization lasted, until 1888. When he died in 1900, Smyth's tombstone was formed from a stone pyramid topped by a cross.
The history of metrology contains numerous efforts to tether units to artefacts, natural phenomena and physical constants, but this is one of the few attempts to secure units by divine revelation. The Great Pyramid episode is fascinating in the way that it exhibits the passions that tend to crystallize around the quest for metrological finality.
Robert P Crease is chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Stony Brook University, and historian at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, US