J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

America’s Early Grave

Last month N.P.R.’s The Two Way reported on America’s original kilogram. Or, as the weight was called at the time, the grave.

That story started in 1793 with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson seeking to unify American weights and measures. And of course he liked the new French approach:
He wrote to his pals in France, and the French sent a scientist named Joseph Dombey off to Jefferson carrying a small copper cylinder with a little handle on top. It was about 3 inches tall and about the same wide.

This object was intended to be a standard for weighing things, part of a weights and measure system being developed in France, now known as the metric system. The object’s weight was 1 kilogram.

Crossing the Atlantic, Dombey ran into a giant storm.

“It blew his ship quite far south into the Caribbean Sea,” says [National Institute of Standards and Technology librarian Keith] Martin.

And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late 1700s? Pirates.

“These pirates were British privateers, to be exact,” says Martin. “They were basically water-borne criminals tacitly supported by the British government, and they were tasked with harassing enemy shipping.”

The pirates took Joseph Dombey prisoner on the island of Montserrat, hoping to obtain a ransom for him. Unfortunately for the pirates, and for Dombey as well, he died in captivity.

The pirates weren’t interested in the objects Dombey was carrying. They were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of his ship.
I suspect that auction was actually an orderly affair overseen by British officials under the laws of privateering. That’s how captured ships and cargos were turned into money for privateer investors, commanders, and crew to divide.

The next documented appearance of the grave appears to have been in 1952, when it was in possession of astronomer A. E. Douglas.

Douglas was a descendant (and namesake) of Andrew Ellicott, the leading surveyor of the early American republic. He turned down the job of Surveyor-General of the U.S. of A. (really of the Northwest Territory) because of the travel involved, and instead taught at West Point. Since Ellicott was an expert on exact measurement, it would make sense that the grave was eventually put into his hands. But there doesn’t seem to be any indication how that happened.

Ellicott’s descendant Douglas gave the grave to the federal government agency that evolved into the National Institute of Standards and Technology. So this artifact did become the U.S. government’s kilogram, long after the scientific standard for that weight had changed.

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