The French Contribution

Story the Metric System …

Posted on November 7, 2018. Filed under: The French Contribution |

Excerpted from the BBC … By Madhvi Ramani

On the facade of the Ministry of Justice in Paris, just below a ground-floor window, is a marble shelf engraved with a horizontal line and the word ‘MÈTRE’.

It is one of the last remaining ‘mètre étalons’ (standard metre bars) that were placed all over the city more than 200 years ago in an attempt to introduce a new, universal system of measurement.

One of the last remaining standard metre bars below a ground-floor window on the Ministry of Justice in Paris (Credit: Credit: PjrTravel/Alamy)

The metric system, which was created in France, is the official system of measurement for every country in the world except three: the United States, Liberia and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

During the volatile years between 1789 and 1799, the revolutionaries sought not only to overturn politics by taking power away from the monarchy and the church, but also to fundamentally alter society by overthrowing old traditions and habits.

To this end, they introduced, among other things, the Republican Calendar in 1793, which consisted of 10-hour days, with 100 minutes per hour and 100 seconds per minute.

But while decimal time did not stick, the new decimal system of measurement, which is the basis of the metre and the kilogram, remains with us today.

The line of longitude used to determine the length of the metre runs through the centre of the Paris Observatory (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)


The line of longitude used to determine the length of the metre runs through the centre of the Paris Observatory (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)


As Dr Alder details in his book, measuring this meridian arc during a time of great political and social upheaval proved to be an epic undertaking.

The two astronomers were frequently met with suspicion and animosity; they fell in and out of favour with the state; and were even injured on the job, which involved climbing to high points such as the tops of churches.

The Pantheon, which was originally commissioned by Louis XV to be a church, became the central geodetic station in Paris from whose dome Delambre triangulated all the points around the city.

Today, it serves as a mausoleum to heroes of the Republic, such as Voltaire, René Descartes and Victor Hugo.

But during Delambre’s time, it served as another kind of mausoleum – a warehouse for all the old weights and measures that had been sent in by towns from all over France in anticipation of the new system.

But despite all the technical mastery and labour that had gone into defining the new measurement, nobody wanted to use it. People were reluctant to give up the old ways of measuring since these were inextricably bound with local rituals, customs and economies.

For example, an ell, a measure of cloth, generally equalled the width of local looms, while arable land was often measured in days, referencing the amount of land that a peasant could work during this time.

Paris’ Pantheon once stored different weights and measures sent from all across France (Credit: Credit: pocholo/Alamy)

Paris’ Pantheon once stored different weights and measures sent from all across France in anticipation of the new standardised system (Credit: pocholo/Alamy)


The Paris authorities were so exasperated at the public’s refusal to give up their old measure that they even sent police inspectors to marketplaces to enforce the new system.

Eventually, in 1812, Napoleon abandoned the metric system; although it was still taught in school, he largely let people use whichever measures they liked until it was reinstated in 1840.

According to Dr Alder, “It took a span of roughly 100 years before almost all French people started using it.”

This was not just due to perseverance on the part of the state. France was quickly advancing into the industrial revolution; mapping required more accuracy for military purposes; and, in 1851, the first of the great World’s Fairs took place, where nations would showcase and compare industrial and scientific knowledge.

Of course, it was tricky to do this unless you had clear, standard measures, such as the metre and the kilogram. For example, the Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, and at 324m, was at that time the world’s tallest man-made structure.

The metric system was necessary to compare industrial and scientific knowledge (Credit: Credit: robertharding/Alamy)

The metric system was necessary to compare industrial and scientific knowledge – such as the height of the Eiffel Tower – at the World’s Fairs (Credit: robertharding/Alamy)


All of this came together to produce one of the world’s oldest international institutions: The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM).

Located in the quiet Paris suburb of Sèvres, the BIPM is surrounded by landscaped gardens and a park. Its lack of ostentatiousness reminded me again of the mètre étalon in the Place Vendôme; it might be tucked away, but it is fundamental to the world we live in today.

Originally established to preserve international standards, the BIPM promotes the uniformity of seven international units of measurement: the metre, the kilogram, the second, the ampere, the kelvin, the mole and the candela. It is the home of the master platinum standard metre bar that was used to carefully calibrate copies, which were then sent out to various other national capitals. In the 1960s, the BIPM redefined the metre in terms of light, making it more precise than ever.

And now, defined by universal laws of physics, it was finally a measure truly based on nature.

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures promotes the uniformity of international units of measurement (Credit: Credit: Chronicle/Alamy)

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was established to promote the uniformity of international units of measurement (Credit: Chronicle/Alamy)


The building in Sèvres is also home to the original kilogram, which sits under three bell jars in an underground vault and can only be accessed using three different keys, held by three different individuals.

The small, cylindrical weight cast in platinum-iridium alloy is also, like the metre, due to be redefined in terms of nature – specifically the quantum-mechanical quantity known as the Planck constant – by the BIPM this November.

“Establishing a new basis for a new definition of the kilogram is a very big technological challenge.

[It] was described at one point as the second most difficult experiment in the whole world, the first being discovering the Higgs Boson,” said Dr Martin Milton, director of the BIPM, who showed me the lab where the research is being conducted.

As he explained the principle of the Kibble balance and the way in which a mass is weighed against the force of a coil in a magnetic field, I marvelled at the latest scientific engineering before me, the precision and personal effort of all the people who have been working on the kilogram project since it began in 2005 and are now very close to achieving their goal.

The BIPM houses the original standard metre and the original standard kilogram (Credit: Credit: Madhvi Ramani)

The BIPM houses the original standard metre and the original standard kilogram (Credit: Madhvi Ramani)


As with the 18th-Century meridian project, defining measurement continues to be one of our most important and difficult challenges.

As I walked further up the hill of the public park that surrounds the BIPM and looked out at the view of Paris, I thought about the structure of measurement underlying the whole city. The machinery used for construction; the trade and commerce happening in the city; the exact quantities of drugs, or radiation for cancer therapy, being delivered in the hospitals.

What started with the metre formed the basis of our modern economy and led to globalisation. It enabled high-precision engineering and continues to be essential for science and research, progressing our understanding of the universe.

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The French Way – Diagnosis, Treatment …

Posted on October 26, 2018. Filed under: Pakistan, The French Contribution |

THE FRENCH WAY by Rear Admiral Mian Zahir Shah (Retd)  PAK Navy …

Like the uniform, parades are a part and parcel of military life. There are daily parades, passing out parades, ceremonial parades, and even blanket parades. There is also a little parade in the morning in every military unit, which is called the sick parade.

 The sick parade is one parade that is never a favourite with the Command, for the men on this parade are invariably not going to be available for work for that day.

There is always a certain percentage of the ship’s company on sick parade. Some are the genuinely sick, while others are pretenders trying to get away from some unpleasant work. They are called malingerers, and malingering is a punishable offense.

While a complaint of stomach-ache or headache is a favourite ploy, good malingering requires talent and some even take it to the level of a fine art. 

When we went to France for manning a submarine, it came as no surprise – as soon as the men had got their bearings in that new country – to see a sizeable sick parade shuffle along to try their hand with the French Medical Officer in the submarine base.

After an hour or so the sick parade returned in a very subdued manner. Stranger still, they were most uncommunicative about their treatment and about the medicines they had received.

Next morning the sick parade was much smaller. On the third day the sick parade were zero and miraculously remained like that – except for the really genuine cases – for the rest of their stay in France.

The command was pleasantly surprised with this miracle and was most curious to know how it had happened. Soon it was discovered that the reason for it all was the French medical practice.

In Pakistan we follow the British medical system and have become quite comfortable with it. We gulp down pills that are sugar coated, open up our mouths to take the thermometer, and roll up our sleeves to take injections.

 The French doctors on the other hand, ask you to take your pants down for almost anything. 

Injections are given on fleshy buttocks, temperature is taken anally with a comparatively monstrous thermometer, and tablets, or suppositories, also administered anally, are equally oversized and need no sugar coating for where they are going. 

 The suppositories were promptly nicknamed ‘torpedoes&#39’ by the submarine sailors, and the process of taking them was called ‘loading stern tubes’.

It was, in fact, a bewildering experience for an unsuspecting Pakistani – even civilian – to go to a doctor in France for the first time.

Even if his complaint was a simple, innocent ailment like a sore throat, he was bound to find himself set upon by white-gowned people, all speaking an incomprehensible language, who would straight away subject him to a series of the most unmentionable indignities.

Furthermore, the doctor also insisted that the first of the suppositories be taken by the patient right there and then, s’il vous plait, to see that he gets it right. This was culture shock at its worst!

The stay in France was not a short one, so the sailors learnt to live with their ailments stoically, manfully enduring discomfort and pain than bruise their sensitive egos.

And when writing back home, medicines started taking priority over spices in the lists of items that near and dear ones were asked to send to them in France.

It was a happy day for everyone when the submarine eventually arrived in Pakistan.

But along with the general happiness, one long dormant and practically forgotten headache of the command slowly raised its ugly head once more. With the gradual replacement of the French medicines by local ones, the sick parades returned STRONG!

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The Great Escape …

Posted on July 1, 2018. Filed under: The French Contribution |

Reminds one of the German Commando Extra – Ordinary, Otto Skorzeny, who rescued Mussolini from a Mountain Top Resort guarded by a Division worth of British troops …

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Another Frenchman …

Posted on January 26, 2009. Filed under: Guide Posts, The French Contribution |

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a well known writer and aviator well known for his books about aviation adventure. Extracts from his thought …

The one thing that matters is the effort. True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new. It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.

How could there be any question of acquiring or possessing, when the one thing needful for a man is to become – to be at last, and to die in the fullness of his being.

 I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him; it is what he thinks of himself. To undermine a man’s self-respect is a sin.

He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man. 


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Napoleon as Orator and Health at Waterloo …

Posted on January 3, 2009. Filed under: Personalities, The French Contribution |

Some one has written thus re the little Corsican. “One canot forget that Napoleon abandoned one army in Egypt, left the remnants of another in the snows of Russia and then strutted inot the dabacle of Waterloo”.  Well, here is what Houston Peterson, the noted authority on eloquence, says about this great leader of men.

“As a military orator, as a general addressing his troops, Napoleon was unsurpassed’. He invented a style of eloquence reminiscent of Caesar – brief, bold, declarative, familiar yet imperial in its bold sweep and cadence. It made an instant appeal to valor and the soldiers of the Republic died for him unquestioningly’. He spoke in a clipped, terse, passionate style, with an effect which  startled the world.

‘As a parliamentary speaker, confronted by a hostile or doubtful audience, he was a failure. His forte was not debate or eloquent persuasion but crisp proclamation, announcing his victories or his sovereign decisions. His genus rapidly put him in  a position where only the latter were needed”.

And now his Health at W;aterloo  –  Oroland  Barries

On February 26, 1815 Napoleon left Elba with one thousand of his devoted soldiers in seven small boats. They landed in Cannes three days later and began a march to Paris. However, Napoleon fell ill at Grasse, just after leaving Cannes. He had begun the march on horseback so he could be seen by everyone along the way, but his pain was so great he had to continue in a carriage. The bad roads and potholes made things worse. He rested for a while and then continued on horseback. Reports indicate that his “dysuria” had returned, undoubtedly a recurrence of the attack suffered at Borodino earlier. It has also been alleged that the attack was due to prolapsed hemorrhoids. The attack lasted two days, and then the march to Paris was resumed. Napoleon arrived in Paris on March 20th.

Napoleon was tired. After a few hours of work he needed rest, unlike his former vigor. He often sat silently and appeared sad. Between March and May his health grew much worse. He also had repeated attacks of dysuria. He recalled Dr Corvisart to his side, but the latter’s own health was failing too.

His condition was deteriorating rapidly as the showdown at Waterloo approached:

The night after the battle of Ligny on June 16-17, 1815, Napoleon fell seriously ill. He was at the castle of Fleurus near Charleroi. Napoleon was completely exhausted and was unable to rise from his bed for many hours. In the morning he was too weak to even issue important orders to Marshal Grouchy until well after 8am. Napoleon had become obese and was also suffering from another illness, much more immediately serious – prolapsed bleeding hemorrhoids. He had had hemorrhoids for many years, probably due to his chronic constipation and constant riding for long hours in the saddle.

On the night after Ligny however, Napoleon was suffering from seriously strangulated piles – prolapsed hemorrhoids pushed outside of his anal sphincter. He had spent most of the day during the battle of Ligny on horseback, which was certainly a credit to his endurance, but it must have been horrendous for him, certainly distracting. This “secret” was kept confidential until Adolph Thiers interviewed both Jerome and Marchand when authoring his Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire. During the interview, Jerome was very unspecific, stating that Napoleon had a “little weakness of the blood vessels”. However, Jerome really spilled the beans just before his death in 1860 telling the whole truth about the incident.

A combination of stress, pain and his failing health probably was behind his defeat. His prodigious memory and ability to micromanage his forces weren’t there for him. For example, he left behind his best general, Louis-Nicolas Davout, back in Paris. He brought Michel Ney instead, whose cavalry failed to properly attack the British and take out their artillery.

A younger Napoleon, healthier and with a mind clear of pain wouldn’t have made  mistakes

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The Charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte …

Posted on December 31, 2008. Filed under: Personalities, The French Contribution |

As for me, I have the gift of electrifying men” – Napoleon Bonaparte

“That devil of a man exercises a fascination on me that I cannot explain even to myself, and in such a degree that, though I fear neither God nor devil, when I am in his presence I am ready to tremble like a child, and he could make me go through the eye of a needle to throw myself into the fire” General Vandamme, on Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was a French military and political leader who had a significant impact on the history of Europe.  He ruled France as First Consul of the First French Republic and as Emperor of the First French Empire.

Born in Corsica he was trained as an artillery officer. He rose to prominence during the French Revolution when he snuffed out the dying embers of that Revolution with a ‘whiff of grape shot’.

He was then given comnand of an army in total disarray. He shaped it into a fighting force with his charismatic oratory and having invaded Italy captured it in a classic campaign.

As a military orator, as a general addressing his troops, Napoleon was  unsurpassed’.

‘He invented a style of eloquence reminiscent of Caesar – brief, bold, declarative, familiar yet imperial in its bold sweep and cadence. It made an instant appeal to valor and the soldiers of the Republic died for him unquestioningly’.

‘As a parliamentary speaker, confronted by a hostile or doubtful audience, he was a failure. His forte was not debate or eloquent persuasion but crisp proclamation, announcing his victories or his sovereign decisions. His genus rapidly put him in  a position where only the latter were needed”.

He spoke in a clipped, terse, passionate style, with an effect which  startled the world.

In 1799, his only talented brother, Lucien, helped him stage a coup d’état and installed him as First Consul. Five years later he crowned himself Emperor of the French. Lucien refused Napoleon’s diktat to give up the woman he loved and so banished himself to England

In the first decade of the nineteenth century (“Roll up that map of Europe – it will not be needed these ten years” – Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister, like his father, of England), he turned the armies of France against every major European power and dominated continental Europe through a series of startling military victories – epitomized in battles such as Austerlitz , Friedland, Vimiera, Badajos, Salamanca, Tolouse – indeed some 60 major battles!

He led successful campaigns against the First and Second Coalitions arrayed against France. He maintained France’s sphere of influence by the formation of extensive alliances and the appointment of friends and family members to rule other European countries as French client states.

As long as he stayed married to Josephine, a woman of easy virtue, his star remained in the ascendant. Having divorced her, he could either marry into the Russian or Austrian Monarchy. He chose the Austrian Monarchy.

His invasion of Russia in 1812 marked a turning point in his fortunes. His Grande Armée was wrecked in the campaign and never fully recovered. In 1813, the Sixth Coalition defeated his forces at Leipzig, invaded France and exiled him to the island of Elba.

Less than a year later, he returned (‘Able was I ere I saw Elba’ – his sentence which can be read backwards) and was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

Napoleon spent the last six years of his life under British supervision on the island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. The autopsy concluded he died of stomach cancer though Sten Forshufvud and other scientists in the 1960s conjectured that he had been slowly poisoned with arsenic.

Napoleon scored major victories with a modernised French army and drew his tactics of concentration and ‘shock’ from different sources. His campaigns are studied at military academies the world over and he is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest commanders.

While considered a tyrant by his opponents, he is greatly remembered for the establishment of the Napoleonic Code, which laid the administrative foundations for much of modern Western Europe.

Here follow some of his more relevant observations –

A leader is a dealer in hope.

I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion. The whole secret of government lies in knowing when to be the one or the other.

If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering an undertaking, I have meditated long and have foreseen what might occur. It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and preparation.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind.

Water, air, cleanliness – these are the chief articles in my pharmacy.

There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.


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Coco Chanel …

Posted on April 4, 2008. Filed under: Personalities, The French Contribution |

“Coco” Chanel was a fashion designer whose modernist philosophy, menswear-inspired fashions, and pursuit of expensive simplicity made her arguably the most important figure in the history of 20th-century fashion. Her influence on haute couture was such that she was the only person in the field to be named on TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

“The alertness of the woman!  The charm!  She was mesmerizing, strange, …  alarming, witty”.


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‘Chandigarh’ & Le Corbusier’s architecture …

Posted on February 20, 2008. Filed under: Personalities, The French Contribution |

Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki were the original choices for designing Chandigarh. After the death of the latter and the pull out of the former, Corbusier was given charge. The basic framework of the master plan and its components – the Capitol, City Center, University, Industrial area, linear parkland and even the neighborhood unit – was retained as the basic module of planning.

However, the curving outline of Mayer and Nowicki was reorganized into a mesh of rectangles, and the buildings were characterized by an ‘honesty of materials’. Exposed brick and boulder stone masonry in its rough form produced unfinished concrete surfaces, in geometrical structures. This became the architectural form characteristic of Chandigarh, set amidst landscaped gardens and parks.

The city plan is a grid pattern with the city divided into rectangular patterns, forming identical looking sectors. The rectangular sector measures 800 m x 1200 m. The sectors act as self-sufficient neighbourhoods, each with its own market, places of worship, schools – all within 10 minutes walking distance from within the sector.

The numbering of the Sectors is also a wee unique – meaning that if the Sector Nos of any two Sectors, lying North South of one another, are added up then the sum is divisible by the number 13. For example, Sectors 11 and 15 are located North South of one another. Now adding of their Nos gives 26. And this is divisible by 13. Its true of all Sectors.

The original two phases of the plan delineated sectors from 1 to 47, with the exception of 13. The Assembly, the secretariat and the high court are the three monumental buildings designed by Le Corbusier in which he showcased his style to the maximum.

An interesting aside is that any addition of North/South Sector Nos results in a sum that is always divisible by the No 13.

The city was to be surrounded by a 16 kilometer wide greenbelt to ensure that no development could take place in the immediate vicinity of the town, thus checking suburbs and urban sprawl.

Le Corbusier, chosen name of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris,(1887 – 1965). Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer and painter who became a French Citizen. Famed for his contributions to Modern Architecture, dedicated to providing better living conditions for residents of crowded cities. His iconic buildings live on in central Europe, India, Russia, and Nortt/South America. Was also urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, furniture designer. Laid out Chandigarh, the planned city.

His Views as architect are given below –

The home should be the treasure chest of living.  Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.

Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city. I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.

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Stendhal …

Posted on February 5, 2008. Filed under: Guide Posts, Light plus Weighty, The French Contribution |

Stendhal was a writer famed for his acute analysis of his characters’ psychology. Considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism.

Love has always been the most important business in my life; I should say the only one. People happy in love have an air of intensity. If you don’t love me, it does not matter; I can love for both of us.

A wise woman never yields by appointment. Never had he found himself so close to those terrible weapons of feminine artillery.

What is really beautiful must always be true. Only great minds can afford a simple style.   

Power, after love, is the first source of happiness. Pleasure is often spoiled by describing it.

The man of genius is he and he alone who finds such joy in his art that he will work at it come hell or high water.

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Moliere – the French Satirist …

Posted on September 19, 2007. Filed under: Guide Posts, Quotes, The French Contribution |

Molière. playwright and actor, was well ensconced in the great mastery of comedy.

Perfect reason flees all extremity and leads one to be wise with sobriety. If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well nigh useless

 A wise man is superior to any insults that can be heaped upon him and the best reply to unseemly behoviour is patience and moderation.

A man’s entire wealth hereafter is the good that he does in this world to his fellows. Every good act is charity.

Of all follies, there is none greater than wanting to make the world a better place. He who follows his lessons, tastes a profound peace and looks upon all else as manure.

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few close friends and finally for money. Books and marriage go ill togther.

Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.

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