Chem 13 News most memorable hoax

(In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the death of this great investigator, the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures has decided to use his name for the SI unit of volume.  The official abbreviation will be L, following the standard prescription of using capital letters for units named for individuals.)

Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre was born on February 12, 1716, in the village of Margaux in the heart of the Médoc region of France.  His father was a manufacturer of wine-bottles, as had been his grandfather and great-grandfather.  Indeed, Litre bottles had been a vital adjunct of the Bordeaux wine industry since the 1620s.  This family tradition of concern for the problems of liquid containment, and knowledge of the properties of glass, was undoubtedly a major influence upon Litre’s later work on the measurement of volume.

By the age of 16, Litre had demonstrated a budding mathematical talent, and he was sent to Paris to study with Pierre de Maupertuis (1698 – 1759), who became his scientific mentor.

The most important scientific controversy of the 1730s concerned the correctness of the Newtonian theory of the Earth.  According to Newton (1642 – 1727), the figure of the Earth should be an oblate spheroid, bulging at the equator and flattened at the poles, this shape being a centrifugal effect of the Earth’s rotation.  The Académie des Sciences decided to test the theory by measuring the curvatures of the Earth’s surface at the equator and in the far north.  Accordingly, in 1735 the great geographer La Condamine (1701 – 1774) led a surveying expedition to Peru, and in 1736 Maupertuis mounted a similar expedition to Swedish Lapland.  The young Litre was invited to join the expedition as Maupertuis’ assistant.

In Sweden, the liaison between the French party and Swedish officialdom was handled by Anders Celsius (1701 – 1744), the professor of astronomy at the University of Uppsala.  Celsius traveled to Lapland with the expedition as the official representative of the Royal Swedish Academy, and during the summer of 1736, Litre and Celsius became firm friends.  There is no doubt that Celsius’ preoccupation with precise measure- ment, and his dedication to the centigrade division of measured quantities, had a profound influence on Litre’s later decision to pursue a career as a scientific instrument-maker.

a historical painting of the fictional Litre from Chem 13 News hoax in the 70s

The only extant, authenticated protrat of Litre. Arts and date unknown.

an old black and white diagram from a textbook of lab equipment

Part of Lavoisier’s apparatus, from the Traité élémentaire de Chimie, 1789.  The vessel of Figure 15 (star) is thought to have been made by Litre.

The next 15 years of Litre’s life are shrouded in mystery.  Pre- sumably he returned to Paris after the successful completion of the expedition, and it is generally believed that he established his instrument-making business in 1740.  But very little hard information is available.  There is one unsubstantiated report that he visited New France and attempted to repeat the Lapland measurements, and another account that has him back in Bordeaux, perfecting his glass-making techniques!  The paucity of information on this period of Litre’s life, and the wide divergences and inconsistencies between the few “facts” that are available, has proved very frustrating for historians of the period.  If any reader of Chem 13 News has good information to offer, the editors would be delighted to receive it.

There is, however, no doubt at all that by 1751 Litre was very well established.  In September of that year Guillaume Rouelle (1703 – 1770), the famous demonstrator in chemistry at the Jardin du Roi, gave a public lecture on Les Méthodes de Chimie which was nothing less than a detailed demonstration of Litre’s chemical glassware.  By the end of the year Litre’s business had quadrupled!  Over the course of the 1750s, Litre completely outstripped his competitors, and owned a virtual monopoly on all chemical apparatus.  Through the ’60s and early ’70s, Litre’s laboratory equipment became a tradition in France, and perhaps contributed as much to “La Révolution Chymique” as did Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) himself. Not that Litre may be compared to Lavoisier as a chemist — indeed Litre always claimed to be completely ignorant of the subject!  But he was much more than a very successful businessman.  By the time he was 40, he had made his fortune, and he left the running of his business to others, while he devoted himself to what has proved to be his lasting claim to fame — the accurate measurement of volume.

Before Litre, no one had ever made an accurate cylinder of clear glass, and yet his cylinders varied in internal diameter by less than 0.1% over their whole length.  And no one, before Litre, had so precisely graduated a cylinder of glass — into tenths, hundredths, and sometimes even thousandths!  His graduated cylinders, and his burettes (he invented the device, and its name) were coveted by chemists all over Europe.

His major written work, the Études Volumétriques of 1763, was translated into English in 1764 by Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804), and into German in 1767 by Karl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786).  In the preface to his translation, Priestley praised Litre’s work as a consummate example of the fact that, “…all things (and particularly whatever depends upon science) have of late years been in a quicker progress towards perfection than ever.

an old black white diagram from a textbook of large test tubes upside down in water with plants growing in them

Part of Priestley’s apparatus, from his Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, 1774.  The cylindrical vessel 11 is believed to have been a Litre cylinder.

Litre visited England in 1765 to receive a special gold medal struck in his honour by the Royal Society.  In return, he donated to the Society a set of his graduated cylinders.  Unfortunately these cylinders did not survive the experiments of Sir Humphry Davy (1778 – 1829), who made nitrogen trichloride in them in 1812.

Litre’s later years were spent basking in the fame and adulation heaped upon him by the savants of Paris, and spiced by an unending sequence of patent litigations against German, Venetian, and Bohemian glass-makers.  Although he was the recipient of every civil honour that France could bestow, Litre was never admitted to the Académie des Sciences, even though he made apparatus for all the Académiciens, and was regarded as a friend by many of them.  It is rumoured that Litre was kept out by the politicking of Lavoisier, who did not want the aristocratic atmosphere defiled by a “fournisseur”.  Litre refused to allow himself to be upset by this lack of official recognition by the scientific establishment.  Indeed, it seems that Litre never allowed himself to be upset by anything — he was a patient, phlegmatic individual, not given to argumentation.  He was abstemious, hard-working and in the best of health when he was cut down prematurely on August 5, 1778, during the cholera epidemic of that year.

In his Études Volumétriques Litre had chosen, for his standard volume, a measure very close to the old flaçon royal of Henri IV, introduced in 1595 to standardize the taxation of wine.  However, he recognized the arbitrariness of this unit, and suggested that in any rationalized system of units, volume could be specified in terms of a standard mass of a standard liquid.  He suggested mercury.  But Litre’s dream of a rationalized system of units did not start to materialize until 15 years after his death, when the mathematician Lagrange (1736 – 1813) was appointed to head a commission to draw up such a system.  And in 1795 the metric system was born.

Litre’s method of specifying volume was adopted, although the commission decided to use distilled water rather than mercury as the standard liquid.  The chemist Antoine de Fourcroy (1755 – 1809), who had studied instrument-making in Litre’s factory before his great work on nomenclature with Lavoisier, was apparently the first to suggest that Litre’s name be used for the unit of volume.

Editors’ note:  Ken Woolner tells us that the details of Litre’s life are very hard to establish, and most of this account was inferred from the general literature of the period.  Apparently Litre did not keep a journal, the correspondence with Celsius has been lost, and of course chemical glassware does not last, so there are no extant examples of Litre’s skill.  Perhaps our readers can help to flesh out this sketch.)

Above is one of the most memorable articles we ever carried in Chem 13 News was Ken Woolner’s short biography of Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre.  Reprinted here, complete with introduction, illustrations and final Editors’ note as it appeared in our April 1978 issue.  Be sure to read Ken’s follow-up article, The Litre Story.  Ken calls himself a physicist but revels (some would say, mucks about) in science history.  We are also informed that Ken’s grandfather, who loved to pull off public spoofs, was the cause of the phrase (now corrupted), “to pull the Woolner” over someone’s eyes.

Read the follow up story Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre.


The man who lies here, deceased,
Was trained as a Catholic priest.
With help from St. Peter
He invented the litre,
That infamous Claude Jean-Baptiste.

(Found engraved on a tombstone in a Waterloo cemetery by Gerry Toogood of UW’s Chemistry Department.  Apparently, Litre’s body was among those sent overseas for burial when the 1778 cholera epidemic produced more victims than French cemeteries could handle.  Note the new evidence that Litre studied theology, possibly during the “15-year gap” from 1736 to 1751.