For all these reasons, the idea of finding a natural unit has been gradually abandoned, and we have become resigned to accepting as a fundamental unit an arbitrary and conventional length having a material representation recognised by universal consent; and it was this unit which was consecrated by the following law of the 11th July 1903:—
“The standard prototype of the metrical system is the international metre, which has been sanctioned by the General Conference on Weights and Measures.”
On the subject of measures of mass, similar remarks to those on measures of length might be made. The confusion here was perhaps still greater, because, to the uncertainty relating to the fixing of the unit, was added some indecision on the very nature of the magnitude defined. In law, as in ordinary practice, the notions of weight and of mass were not, in fact, separated with sufficient clearness.
They represent, however, two essentially different things. Mass is the characteristic of a quantity of matter; it depends neither on the geographical position one occupies nor on the altitude to which one may rise; it remains invariable so long as nothing material is added or taken away. Weight is the action which gravity has upon the body under consideration; this action does not depend solely on the body, but on the earth as well; and when it is changed from one spot to another, the weight changes, because gravity varies with latitude and altitude.
These elementary notions, to-day understood even by young beginners, appear to have been for a long time indistinctly grasped. The distinction remained confused in many minds, because, for the most part, masses were comparatively estimated by the intermediary of weights. The estimations of weight made with the balance utilize the action of the weight on the beam, but in such conditions that the influence of the variations of gravity becomes eliminated. The two weights which are being compared may both of them change if the weighing is effected in different places, but they are attracted in the same proportion. If once equal, they remain equal even when in reality they may both have varied.
The current law defines the kilogramme as the standard of mass, and the law is certainly in conformity with the rather obscurely expressed intentions of the founders of the metrical system. Their terminology was vague, but they certainly had in view the supply of a standard for commercial transactions, and it is quite evident that in barter what is important to the buyer as well as to the seller is not the attraction the earth may exercise on the goods, but the quantity that may be supplied for a given price. Besides, the fact that the founders abstained from indicating any specified spot in the definition of the kilogramme, when they were perfectly acquainted with the considerable variations in the intensity of gravity, leaves no doubt as to their real desire.