August Boeckh's Metrology and the Transformation of the Economic Archive

Paper Weights. August Boeckh's Metrology and the Transformation of the Economic Archive

Anna Echterhölter


Practices of measurement from: Jakob Leupold: Theatrum Staticum Universale das ist Schauplatz der Gewichts-Kunst und Waagen, Bd. 1, Leipzig 1926, Tafel I.

John Maynard Keynes once mentioned the tedious duties of a friend, who served as a colonial official in Uganda: Apparently his preoccupation was to decide on the “standard goat.” This animal served as a key unit in many disputes over possession. The incident indicates an early stage in the quantification of value and points at the endless negotiations and reinforced state controls necessary to establish today’s seemingly stable and almost globalized systems of weights and measures, units, and currencies. Anna Echterhölter's thesis was that metrology is a decisive economic practice, a notion that is lost during the nineteenth century, when precision measures are refined in the laboratories and gain an apparent autonomy and scientific neutrality. Despite the huge success of experimentally determined measures and international agreements on units the measures continue to play a part in determining social relations—accordingly they should be conceived of as regimes.

Anna Echterhölter took the auxiliary science of historical metrology as a starting point, which evolved as "comparative metrology" from 1830 to 1910. As many other of these auxiliary disciplines that were termed “object-philology,” metrology was invested in the organization of material remains of antiquity. The authors developed a typical writing format—as did, for example, the auxiliary sciences of genealogy, chronology, and statistics. Since old measures are of key concern, the sub-discipline focuses not on scientific but on economic measurements, although the differences of the two are becoming blurred in the publications of comparative metrology. In the case of the most eminent writer of this field, August Boeckh, Anna Echterhölter argued that he writes a contribution to political economy in form of a numerical prose that is very close to a list but not at all itemized. For him,, metrology belonged to the household regime and was since antiquity a technique to govern all of the things, people, and animals belonging to an estate.

To expand on these historical notions of units and measures, Anna Echterhölter did not venture into the prominent sites of nineteenth-century metrology—the laboratory context or the international history of standardization. Since the economic measures in question concern the physical formation of units, the measure of value and the measure of performance, she retrieved them in economic practices of the day. Here Jacob Grimm’s account of rural measures became an issue: it cannot be read as a history of measuring practices at face value, but as a critique of measuring regimes within changing legal frameworks. Above all, Anna Echterhölter was interested in the fact that metrology in the economic context can be read as a science of building equivalents between private, institutional, and economic actors that are rather asymmetric.

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