Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre

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

The only extant, authenticated portrait of Litre. Artist and date unknown.

Celebrating the 70s - 50th Celebration of Chem 13 News 

One of the most memorable articles carried in Chem 13 News was Ken Woolner’s short literary hoax — a biography of Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre. We have reprinted this article several times over the last 40 years so this time we will just reprint the entire article online, complete with introduction, illustrations and final Editors’ note as it appeared in our April 1978 issue. Read it online to see if you would have been fooled by this elaborate biography. 

To celebrate, we reprint the background story of our famous chemistry hoax told by Ken Woolner, one of its instigators. He recounted the story in an anniversary issue in September 1988.

Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre was born during a crippling blizzard, in a hotel room in Ottawa, in December of 1977. The idea for Litre came from Reg Friesen, who told me (Ken Woolner) that a group of U.S. chemists (I believe) had proposed that the common abbreviation for the unit of volume should be changed to “L”, on the grounds that the “ℓ” then in use was confusing for both readers and typists. But the rules of nomenclature of the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures require that upper-case letters be reserved for units which are named for individual scientists, and since no such person existed for “L”, it seemed reasonable that one should be invented. Reg suggested that I should write a “biography” for the April issue of Chem 13 News, and over the course of an evening (which included, I think I recall, most of a bottle of scotch) we generated much of the substance of an 18th-century life, full of drama, revolution and romance.

When I actually sat down to write the article (a month or so later, after quite a few reminders from Reg), I realized that drama, revolution and romance were all very good, but the joke would be better if the article came across as a piece of sober historical research. The idea was to give a straightforward account with correct dates and accurate historical details, but with one person added to the great stream of history. So that’s how I wrote it, and I thought it came out very well. Given the possibility that some readers might miss the joke simply by not recognizing the significance of the fact that the article appeared in the April issue of the magazine, I made sure that the captions to the illustrations were obviously funny, and I left a 15-year gap in Litre’s life so that others could contribute to the story.

The immediate response to the article made me feel very good indeed. Several readers went along with the game, filling in some of my missing details, particularly on the life of Litre’s daughter Millie. I also found that I had been “scooped” by Bruce Dodd of the Canadian Government Specifications Board, who had published a “Research Note” on Marco Guiseppe Litroni in the June 1977 issue of Standard Engineering. The link between Litroni and Litre was provided in 1979 by Steve Marriott of the British Standards Institution, who speculated that the name “Litre“ was adopted by Litroni when he settled in France after a mafia-induced flight from his native Tuscany! The best pseudo-historical contributions came from T.J. Kukkamäki of the Helsinki Geodetic Institute, (a genuine expert on Maupertuis’ expedition to Lapland), who provided detailed evidence to show that Litre had stayed on in Sweden after the rest of Maupertuis’ party had returned to France in 1737. In September 1979, the article was reprinted in IUPAC’s International Newsletter on Chemical Education. Editor D.J. Waddington received some further contributions to the Litre story, which he shared with us. It was clear that a great deal of innocent pleasure was being had by one and all. My article was a success.

There is a special corner of Hell reserved for failed humorists, and the first indication that a place was being prepared for me came as early as November 1978, when a college librarian wrote from California requesting “…any information and sources you have used in the preparation of this most interesting article.” A rash of similar requests was triggered by the International Newsletter version of the article, which had all my words but had omitted the illustrations and their captions, which didn’t fit into the newsletter’s format. The Big Event which turned my “spoof” into a “literary hoax” came in January 1980, when a précis of the article appeared in Chemistry International, another IUPAC newsletter. This rewrite was based on the International Newsletter version of the article, and stripped the thing right down to the essentials of Litre’s life, leaving a very good piece of reportage marred only by the fact that the writer actually took the original seriously!

Unfortunately, it was the Chemistry International version which seems to have been most widely read, and this was the version which, together with the editor’s apology for not recognizing the hoax, made it into Robert Weber’s More Random Walks in Science. The Chemistry International version got Litre on to the radio, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s science magazine show, Quirks and Quarks. It was also the version that the editors of The New York Times so roundly castigated as they indignantly “put the deception to rest”!

1989 photo of Ken Woolner and Reg Friesen each in T-shirt with a photo of fictional Litre

Ken Woolner (left) and Reg Friesen showing off some Litre T-shirts in 1989.

All things considered, the creation of Litre provided me with a great deal of amusement for a number of years, and didn’t do any real harm, although I did hear that he’d made it into a textbook! My only regret is that it seems that one should only ever write one fictional biography. (Even Rayburne, the only classic exponent of the genre, was never able to repeat the success of his full-length biography of Thos. Crapper.) Which is a shame, since in the course of writing the Litre piece, I thought of several individuals who really should have some sort of biographical memorial. (It’s very hard to stop, once you’ve started!) As my one personal contribution to Chem 13 News and its readers, I offer the following capsule sketches, upon which you might like to expand.

Rodrigues d’Ombreija – Sixteenth-century Portuguese navigator who brought the parasol from China.

Thomas Flange – Foreman in Stephenson’s factory, whose invention made it possible for us to have railways rather than grooveways.

Sir Horace Rajendra Bungaloo – Knighted by Queen Victoria for his contributions to domestic architecture.

Bratislav Parseč – Turn-of-the-century director of the Prague Observatory.

Editors’ note: 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 current readers would like to join in to flesh out this sketch.)