The Science of Napoleon - The Metric System and Hieroglyphics

Napoleon Bonaparte contributed greatly to the creation of the metric system, and the field of Egyptology.
Marcia Wendorf

Following the French Revolution in 1789, the new government of France, which included the young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, tasked the French Academy of Sciences with replacing the numerous, confusing units of weights and measure with a logical system using multiples of 10.


It was decided that the new system should be based on something that was immutable, and the Academy settled on the length of 1/10,000,000 of a quadrant of a great circle of the Earth, as measured around the poles of the meridian that passed through Paris.

After six years, a value equal to today's 39.37008 inches was determined, and it was to be called the metre, from the Greek metron, meaning "measure."

By 1795, all metric units were derived from the metre, including the gram for weight, which was equal to one cubic centimetre of water at its maximum density, and the litre which was equal to 1/1,000 of a cubic metre.

Greek prefixes were used for multiples of 10, myria for 10,000, kilo for 1,000, hecto for 100, and deca for 10. Latin prefixes were used for the submultiples, milli for 0.001, centi for 0.01, and deci for 0.1.

Thus, a kilogram equals 1,000 grams, and a millimetre equals 1/1,000 of a metre. In 1799 the metre and the kilogram were cast in platinum, and they remained the standard of measure the for next 90 years. The motto of the metric system was declared to be "for all people, for all time."

The Egyptian Campaign

In May 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte became a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and that same year, he concocted an audacious military plan: he would launch an expedition to conquer Egypt, and from that vantage point, he could harass the British trade routes to India.


Arriving on July 1, 1798, with 400 ships and 30,000 troops, Napoleon fought just two battles before conquering the country. Along with his troops, Napoleon had brought along 167 scientists, mathematicians, naturalists, chemists, geodesists, engineers and scholars who were known as the savants. They were all young men who were extremely enthusiastic about their work.

The naturalists and biologists documented Egyptian flora and fauna, and the surveyors drew accurate maps. The archaeologists studied the pyramids, and the temples and tombs of Luxor, Philae, Dendera, the Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Karnak, Abydos, and Antaeopolis.

Napoleon's expedition to Egypt
The Sphinx Source: Wikimedia Commons

The French scientists also learned much from the Egyptians, for example, Egyptian craftsmen made plaster in a mill, while the French were still making theirs by hand. The Egyptians had developed artificial incubators for chicks and other baby birds, and the French scientists were also extremely interested by Egyptian jars that could keep drinks and other liquids cold for days at a time.

On July 15, 1799, French soldiers were exploring the Egyptian city of Rosetta, which is modern-day Rashid, when soldiers spotted a slab covered with three sets of inscriptions. It was quickly determined that the inscriptions were all the same message written in three different languages: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek.

The Rosetta Stone proved to be the cipher that unlocked ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and led to the birth of the field of Egyptology. However, on August 1, 1798, the British fleet, led by Horatio Nelson, had caught up to the French fleet at Alexandria, and at the Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay), almost the entire French fleet was sunk.

The British ordered the French to leave Egypt by August 30, 1801, and they demanded all the French archaeological and scientific discoveries, including all artefacts, biological specimens, notes, plans, and drawings. When the French threatened to burn everything rather than turn it over to the British, a compromise was reached.

While the French kept some things, the Rosetta Stone was captured and taken to England, where it was presented to King George III. The King directed that it should be placed in the British Museum, where it resides to this day. Rubbings and plaster casts of the Rosetta Stone began appearing around Europe, arousing the interest of the English polymath Thomas Young, and the young Frenchman Jean-François Champollion.

Back in France, between 1809 and 1828, the savants published the results of their expedition in the Description de l’Egypte. It comprised 23 volumes, three of which were the largest books ever been printed, standing at over 43 inches tall. The total set contained 837 engravings, of obelisks, colossi, temples, and sphinxes. The natural history volumes showed crocodiles, asps, lotuses, and palms.

The Language No One Could Read

Egyptian hieroglyphs first appeared around 3,200 BC, and they were used all through the Ptolemaic period and into the Roman period. However, around 500 AD, all knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost. During the Renaissance, attempts were made at decipherment but they were hampered by the assumption that the hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language.


Then, in 1822, Jean-François Champollion did what no one else had been able to do. Champollion had been a child prodigy in languages, and as a teenager he already knew Coptic and Arabic. Using a plaster cast of the Rosetta Stone, Champollion showed that hieroglyphics was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, Champollion traveled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and he brought back to France a large body of new hieroglyphic inscriptions. But, the Egyptian trip had taken a toll on his health, and Champollion died at age 41 in Paris in 1832. His work, "Grammar of Ancient Egyptian," was published posthumously.