Cuza`s Oka

73533, 73534, 73535, 73536
Modern History
1862 - 1865
common metal
width between 5 – 15 cm, height between 6 – 17 cm


    Alexandra Mărășoiu, Cornel-Constantin Ilie

    Weights (one oka, two okas, ten okas, twenty okas); inventory no. 73533, 73534, 73535, 73536; Material: common metal; Technique: casting; Dimensions: width between 5 – 15 cm, height between 6 – 17 cm; Dating: 1862 – 1865.

    Creating the metric system

    On 8 May 1790, starting from a proposition made by abbot Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (the French Minister of External Affairs between 1797 and 1815 and the bishop of Autun at that time), the French Constituant Assembly issued a decree as to the creation of a universally-used system of measures and weights by members of the French Academy, in collaboration with English scientists. The English government, however, refused to take part in the project due to France having become involved in the American Revolution.

    A committee formed by the mathematicians Gaspard Monge and Nicolas de Condorcet, the mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the physicist Jean-Charles de Borda and the chemist Antoine de Lavoisier established that the system had to be decimal and had to be based on a linear measure related to an invariable natural element, which would represent the starting point to calculate the measures for capacity, area and weight. Following the debates of the committee, it was decided that the size of this new linear measure, called “meter”, would be a tenth of a millionth of a quarter of a terrestrial meridian, value estimated to 3 feet, 11 lines and 44 French thousandths, based on the data gathered in the past by astronomers such as Picard and Cassini, who had measured portions of the meridian crossing France.

    Later on, in 1792, the process of measuring a quarter of a meridian began: two teams, led by the mathematician and astronomer Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and by the astronomer Pierre Mechain, measured for six years the distance between Dunkirk, (north of France) and Barcelona (east of Spain), which represented a quarter of a meridian, since the two cities are situated at the same distance from the 45 degree parallel, the former in the North, while the latter in the South. The first team dealt with the Dunkirk-Rodez sector, while the second dealt with the one between Rodez and Barcelona. The unit of measurement for capacity (initially known as “pint”) was calculated as a cubic decimeter, the unit of measurement for areas (the are) as equal to 10.000 m2, while the unit of measurement for weights (“grave”) represented the weight of a cubic decimeter of water. There was, as well, a unit of measurement for the volume of piled timber (the stere), equal to a cubic meter (in the Romanian Principalities, the stere was equivalent to the cubic fathom, rarely mentioned in documents, mostly in the 19th century).

    Although yet to be completed, the metric system of measures and weights was adopted by the French Convention through a decree issued on August 1st, 1793. For two years, a Temporary Committee of Measures and Weights, set up in the fall of 1793, dealt with perfecting the system, the names of some units being modified (the unit of capacity was replaced with “liter”, while the unit of weight with “gram”) and the means of calculating the are and the gram were rectified, the former becoming the area of a square with a 10-meter side, while the latter, the weight of a cubic centimeter of water at the + 4º C temperature. These modifications were regulated by means of a decree on April 7th, 1795. Afterwards, the kilogram became the basic measure for weight, since the gram did not have such a significant practical use in comparison to the liter or the meter. Completed in 1798, the results of the measurements performed by Delambre and Mechain were analyzed in the summer of 1799, during a convention held in Paris by an international committee formed by representatives of France, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Tuscan, Roman, Batavian and Ligurian Republics.

    The conclusion reached was that a quarter of a meridian represents 5.130.740 French fathoms, out of which the tenth millionth, that is, the meter, has 3 feet, 11 lines and 296 French thousandths. In France, the new unit of measurement called the meter replaced the old one by means of the law on 10 December 1799, “for the definitive settling of the value of the meter”. Romania was one of the first countries that adopted the metric system (following Belgium - 1801, Holland - 1816, Luxembourg – 1820, Greece - 1836, Algeria – 1843, Chile – 1848, Spain – 1849; Portugal - 1852, Venezuela – 1855, Ecuador – 185l6, Italy – 1861, Uruguay – 1862, Peru, New Granada/The United States of Colombia, Argentine – 1863).

    The Old Units of measurement and Weight in the Romanian Principalities

    Wallachia and Moldavia had their own systems for measuring length, area, capacity and weight, both principalities using, with some exceptions, the same units of measurement, which usually had slightly higher values in Moldavia. The main units of measurement, which were adapted to the metric system in 1864, were the fathom (for length), the Wallachian acre/the Moldavian falce (for the surface), the capacity oka and the weight oka. Their modern day sizes are known due to the fact that the law enforcing the metric weight and measure system includes tables showing their transformation in meter, are, liter and kilogram. The fathom represented the medium surface height of a man with his right hand up (approximately 2m), and its submultiples were the span (the distance between the tip of the thumb and the tip of the pinkie, fingers widely spread), the finger/the fence pole and the line, a fathom meaning eight spans, 64 fingers and 768 lines. Its multiple was the rod, which amounted for three fathoms. In order to measure length, Romanians also used the stride (the distance between feet while walking, which meant 4 or 6 spans), the ell (the distance between the elbow and the fingers; it was used for cloths and barrels, it was a little more than half a meter and it was divided into 8 rupees and 16 short spans), the rope (its size varied between 12 and 100 fathoms in Wallachia and between 20 and 200 fathoms in Moldavia).

    Long distances were measured starting from an hour of walking (the distance that a man could cover in an hour, either on foot or mounted) and from the post (the distance after which the post horses would be changed, approximately 15-20 km). For a long time, up to the 19th century, the area units, namely the acre (in Wallachia) and the falce (in Moldavia), were used only for vineyards, while the estates and the plough lands were measured using length units. According to the Constitutive Regulations, the acre was 1296 square fathoms (an area with the length of 24 fathoms and the width of 6 fathoms), while the falce was 2880 square fathoms (L= 240 fathoms, l = 12 fathoms). The volume unit used both for liquids and for dry matter (especially cereals) was the oka (approximately a liter and a quarter), divided into 4 half pounds, 8 fifthieths, 16 hammers and 400 drams. For liquids, the multiple of the oka was the bucket (10 okas in Moldavia and Wallachia, 12 okas in Oltenia), while for dry measure it was the bushel (in Wallachia there were a large bushel and a small bushel, standardized in 1832 to 40 and, respectively, 20 okas; in Moldavia, the equivalent of the bushel was the “dimirlia”, consisting of 12 okas) and the kile (400 okas in Wallachia and 240 in Moldavia). Oka was also the unit of weight (approx. a kilogram and a half), with its submultiples: half pound (4), dram (100) and denk (1600). A multiple of the oka was the cantar, a unit of weight borrowed from the Turks (as are the oka and the kile) and which amounted for 44 okas in both principalities.

    The names of the above mentioned units of weight referred to units of measurement as well. Since the 19th century, both principalities have offered information on the manufacturing – under the care of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and of the Treasury – of standard instruments, preserved in capitals, both at the City Council in Bucharest and at the headquarters of the Guardianship in Iași, whereas for the rest of the country, these instruments were sent to the city courts. Merchants or boyars who owned measuring instruments (which could be bought from the authorities or specialized stores) had to have them annually checked (“scaling”). The ones corresponding to the standard were marked with a seal (“marking”), for which a fee was charged. The ones found with “unfair measures” would be given fines, while their instruments had to be “set right”. Moreover, fines were also given when, during the controls performed in the markets, merchants were found using instruments that were unmarked or modified so that they would be smaller.

    Adopting the metric system in the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia

    Even since 1835, the Wallachian ban Mihail Ghica, the Interior High Steward at that time, presented in front of the Commonwealth Assembly a project “to set right the units of measurement for length, capacity and solidity according to the Earth meridian”, showing that “the more enlightened nations thought up a system of measures that, being found in nature, will forever remain unchanged”. As the fathom was almost 2 meters anyway, its size could easily be set to this value and divided, on a decimal basis, in spans, fingers and lines. However, a technical committee appointed by the Assembly for the analysis of the project concluded that not only would “such a modification of measures” have led to confusion among people, but it would also have been disadvantageous from an economic point of view, since the main commercial partners (one of the most important being the Ottoman Empire) did not use the metric system. Nevertheless, both the committee and the prince Alexandru Ghica considered setting the size of the fathom to 2 meters to be a good idea, which happened only 20 years later, during the reign of Barbu Știrbei, the new fathom, divided into 10 spans, 100 fingers and 1000 lines being called “Știrbei’s fathom”.

    The change to the metric system was made under the rule of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, on the basis of the law-decree no. 1181, issued by the prince on 15th September 1864. According to Art. 1, “the metric system of weights and measures is adopted and the measures used up to now are abolished throughout the entire Romania”. The law included tables showing how the old measures were turned into the new ones and vice versa and it stipulated that the form and the materials that were going to be used for the new measuring instruments would be decided by the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Agriculture and Public Works.

    Two years later, the decree on January 8th, 1866 contained indications insofar as this matter was concerned: all the measuring instruments had to bear the name of the unit of measurement on the upper side. The instruments for length, made of metal or wood (like the fathom) had centimeters and millimeters marked on them; chains would be used for 10 and 20 meters. The measuring instruments for capacity were cylindrical, made of metal or oak wood for dry measure, copper or iron for liquids, and their height was equal to their diameter, except for the ones for liquids up to 2 liters, which were made of tin, with a height equal to twice their diameter. Tin measuring instruments could be made only for milk, oil, vegetable oil and gas (between 2 liters and a centiliter). The weights would be made of iron or brass. The iron ones, the upper side of which had circular loops, as handles, were shaped like a blunted pyramid, the ones between 50 grams and 10 kg having a hexagonal base, while the base of the 20 and 50 kg ones was a parallelogram. Brass was used for lighter weights. Between 20 kg and 1 g, the weights were cylindrical, their height equal to their diameter (except for the ones of 1 and 2 g, whose diameter was wider than their height), with a bulb on top, whose height was half the diameter of the cylinder. From half a gram to a milligram, the weights were shaped like square brass sheets. Brass weights up to one kilogram could also be shaped like conical glasses that could be put one on top of the other and kept in a box.

    The weighing instruments were the scales with equal arms and the balance scales. Since, despite the law in 1864, the old units of measurement continued to be used, the law “to apply the metric system for measures and weights” on February 28th, 1875 imposed its mandatory introduction throughout the entire country starting from January 1st, 1881, which did not happen. Therefore, on February 12th, 1880 a new law established that the metric system would be compulsorily applied in Romania starting from January 1st, 1884. In 1883, by means of a law promulgated by Carol I on March 5th, Romania adhered to the Meter Convention (a treaty signed on 20th May, 1875 by France, Belgium, Austro-Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, The Ottoman Empire, Russia, Spain, the Kingdom of Sweden and Norway, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentine, Portugal, U.S.A, which created the International Bureau of Measures and Weights, whose main attributions were preserving the international standards and the periodical comparison of the national standards to the international ones, and the General Conference on Measures and Units, meant to disseminate the metric system).