Chelan, First Floor 02 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Practical Knowledge 13:30 - 15:30

This session explores quantification, measurement, accuracy, and precision at the intersection of scientific and humanistic disciplines. Past historiography has tended to associate this cluster of notions with the natural sciences. We suggest that, historically, several humanistic disciplines shared comparable quantitative aims and practices. The sciences of antiquity concerned with the material culture of the past are a particularly important case in point. Our papers will demonstrate the existence of quantitative and experimental methodologies in the two intertwined disciplines of historical metrology and numismatics. We will consider scholarship in the German-speaking countries at the beginning of the antiquarian tradition and then focus on its afterlife in the early nineteenth century.

Already in the early modern period, authors of treatises “de mensuris et ponderibus” like Georg Agricola (1494-1555) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) routinely weighed substances and materials as an aid to the study of ancient weights and measures (Pastorino). In the eighteenth century, experimentation on material heritage gained momentum with Johann Beckmann (1739-1811), who used the “knowledge of the handicrafts” to study ancient standards of coinage (Szalay). The reception of the literature “de mensuris et ponderibus” maintained telling proximity to the treasury and questions of political economy. This will be shown for August Boeckh (1785-1867) and his seminal synthesis of all weights and measures of antiquity (Echterhölter). Boeckh transformed the antiquarian tradition but stayed faithful to the empirical rigor of the humanists. This is most evident in the operation of “comparing,” as practiced by authors subscribing to Boeckh’s research program of “comparative metrology” (Krajewski).

Organized by Anna Echterhölter (University of Vienna) and Cesare Pastorino (Technische Universität Berlin)



Measuring the Measures of the Ancients: Metrology, Philology, and Experimentation in Georg Agricola and Johannes Kepler
13:30 - 14:10

This paper considers a group of early modern scholars who combined philological and experimental practices in their investigation of ancient systems of measurement units. Inspired by the groundbreaking work of Guillaume Budé ("De asse," 1514), several humanists in the tradition of the treatises “de mensuris et ponderibus” developed an interest for the historical, rational examination of ancient measures. Some of them routinely weighed substances and materials as an aid to the philological study of ancient weights and measures. For example, Juan Bautista Villalpando (1552-1608) and Juan de Mariana (1536-1624) experimented on the weight of substances in a fully antiquarian fashion. This paper will focus on the little-studied research on historical metrology of two well-known authors, Georg Agricola (1494-1555) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Agricola recommended that the philological study of texts on measures from ancient authors (Galen in particular) should be accompanied by trials and experiments on the weight of substances. Also, one of Kepler’s least studied works, the "Messekunst Archimedis" (1616), contains an extensive appendix, a self-standing antiquarian treatment of metrology and the study of ancient weights. Kepler’s examination of the subject combined philological analysis of ancient sources, the study of the tradition “de mensuris et ponderibus” and experimental investigation on the weight of substances. Overall, this early research on historical metrology shows a surprising mix of philological and experimental methodologies, an example of a so far under-examined “antiquarian experimentation” at the intersection of the history of the humanities and the sciences.

Calibrating Political Economies: August Boeckh and the Treasury
14:10 - 14:50

August Boeckh (1785-1867) is still esteemed for a publication that appears to be a comprehensive handbook of all weights and measures of antiquity. In succinct numerical prose, he demonstrates the interrelatedness of all metrological systems of the Mediterranean world up to the sixth century. But there is not a single explicit word about the effects and functions of these ubiquitous units of measurement. 

The paper traces the manifest links of Boeckh’s rather factual compendium to political economy and state finance. These links exist on three levels: Boeckh firstly investigated metrology for his book on “The Public Economy of the Athenians.” Secondly, the very tradition he draws upon—the literature “de mensuris et ponderibus”—is easily contextualized within the financial sphere from Guillaume Budé, who wrote about measures and money alike, to Jean-Baptiste Louis de Romé de l’Isle, who dedicated his metrology to Jacques Necker. Thirdly there is Boeckh’s correspondence with his brother Christian Friedrich. The latter was to become finance minister of a stronghold of economic liberalism, the Grand Duchy of Baden. Furthermore, he was involved in the negotiations around the customs pound (“Zollpfund”), a metrological unit that anticipated the North German Confederation (“Norddeutscher Bund”). These implicit links to the treasury do not only connect the handbook to practical economic and legal questions. It will be argued that the very type of precision typical for this field is driven by monetary concerns and the measure of value.

Weighing Water and Wine: Comparing as a Media Practice in Nineteenth-century Prussia
14:50 - 15:30

My talk will explore the interdependence of exactitude in scholarly as well as scientific contexts in nineteenth-century Prussia. Focusing on the influential historiographic work of August Boeckh (1785-1867) on ancient metrology I will sound out the different notions of accuracy, exactitude and precision and how they are differentiated and adopted not only in the sciences but also in the realms of philology and historiography. A special light is shed on the media practice of “comparing” and how this technique can itself be compared to the practices of measuring in the sciences. The first half of the nineteenth century is thereby identified as the crucial period when the exactness of the exact sciences, as well as the notion of accuracy in the humanities, start to diverge from one another in order to develop an epistemic virtue each on its own.

University of Vienna
Technische Universität Berlin
University of Basel
University of Amsterdam
University of Amsterdam
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin; TU Munich (starting postdoc in September)


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25 Oct 2018 13:45:58
Roland Boucher Recently published “A Greek Metrological Koine: A Lead Weight from the Western Black Sea Region in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23 (2004) 209-16. This article references a lead weight of 114.94 grams cast in the fifth century BCE It is described as an Attic quarter-mina which would result in a mina weighing 459.76 grams our study of Ancient standards in use at this time would project the true weight between 459.0 and 459.25 grams. The additional measured weight of between 0.51 and 0.76 grams could well be explained by the weight of the oxygen added by the formation of lead oxide on the surface of the sample Roland Boucher Engineer Yale 1955 Irvine California 92604
25 Oct 2018 11:36:49
Roland Boucher When the French proposed their first metric system in 1723, they had no idea it had been invented by the ancient Mesopotamians 5000 years earlier. Just as the French proposed to use the length of a one-second pendulum to create standards of length, volume, and weight, the Sumerians created nearly identical meters, liters and kilograms. Our research shows that the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia used both the Moon and the Sun as their clock.  It appears that the Egyptians improved on this timing accuracy by using the stars. Later the Minoans introduced the use of the planet Venus as a clock. These concepts spread throughout the ancient world from Britain in the West to Japan in the East. The Minoan standards are immortalized in the Magna Carta of 1215. The old English saying “a pint a pound the world around” had been true for over 3000 years. In the 19th Century, both Stuart and Penrose accurately measured the dimensions of the Parthenon, finding its width to be 0.9997 arc seconds on
21 Oct 2018 10:10:53