Proposed Reform of Indian Weights, 1868
Comments of H.T. Prinsep

The author is not the Prinsep of the Tables, but his brother. The selections below occur on pages 6-9 and 11-12 of:

Parliament. House of Commons.
East India (Metric System).
Return to an address of the Honorable The House of Commons, dated 2 May 1870;—for,
“Return of certain correspondence on the Subject of the Application to India of the Metric System of Weights and Measures (in continuation of Parliamentary Paper, No. 16, of Session 1867-8)."

— No. 3. —

MINUTE by Mr. H. T. Prinsep, dated 3lst of December 1868, on the Question of Reform of the Weights and Measures of India.

I have now carefully read the Report of the Committee appointed by the Government of India to consider this question, also the Minutes of Colonel and Mr. Strachey, and the other papers connected with the subject. The discussions have resulted in two propositions; one submitted by the majority of the committee, recommending the adoption of the pound avoirdupois as a new unit of weight, to be enforced penally, and carried out by furnishing to every shopman and dealer in India weights bearing a Government stamp. The pound or seer of two pounds being subdivided, as at present, by the binary and duodecimal system, but for weights above the seer a new decimal multiple is proposed, and we are asked to perceive that the Government and people of England shall adopt this multiple, instead of the hundred weight and ton now in use in England, and in all countries and colonies peopled by the Anglo-Saxon race.

Colonel Strachey, on the other hand, proposes that the metrical system of weights established in France, and adopted by several other nations of Europe, shall be at once octroyed into India, because it has a more scientific basis, and its scale is framed on the decimal system. His brother, in the Council of India, has strongly supported the same view, and their influence has prevailed with the Governor General and his Council to recommend this scheme.

I cannot bring myself to accept either of these suggestions. It seems to me that Mr. Minchin, and those who oppose Colonel Strachey in committee, have given conclusive reasons against the attempt to introduce a new and unknown scheme, having no ready means of test and verification amongst a people such as we have to deal with in the various regions of India; that the only result would be to add another to the existing elements of confusion. On the other hand, the two Stracheys have given conclusive reasons for rejecting the scheme of the majority of the committee. Thus the two projects destroy each other, and I must remark at the outset that both of them aim at reconciling or assimilating the Indian ponduary system with that of Europe, for the convenience of general trade, but that is not what I conceive ought to be the first aim of measures to be adopted by the Government of India. Their object must be to rectify the system in use among the population at large; to remove as many as possible of the incongruities and dissimilarities found to prevail in the small dealings of the lower classes, with bunees in shops, and hâts, and bazaars. To them it must matter little whether the seer and maund can or cannot be brought to fall in with the systems of Europe, and to them it would surely be a great evil to be required to give up the modes of dealing they have in some instances used for ages and to adopt a new one, the basis and tests of which are wholly unknown to them. But the fault I especially find with both parties is that they lower and treat as of no account what has already been done towards furnishing the entire population of India with a unit of weight for the test and verification of any system that may locally prevail. The fact that the tola of 180 grains was so established by the Government regulation in 1833 is indeed stated; but the great measure adopted shortly after to carry out and give effect to this unit of the ponduary systems of India, viz., the coining of a rupee of that exact weight for the whole of India, of which rupee there have now been struck and put into circulation nearly 200 crore of [sic, should be or] 2,000,000,000 of [sic]pieces, so that by this time there is no part of India into which this coin has not penetrated, and where it is not promptly available for test and comparison with any weights or measures that may be anywhere in use, is not at all averted to; indeed the use of coin for the verification of weights, or as the basis of a ponduary system, is quite ignored and disregarded, notwithstanding that it is admitted that this has been hitherto the universal system of India.

It may be useful to state the manner in which the tola weight of 180 grains was established, and the reasons for its adoption. The sicca rupee of Moorshedabad, which was adopted as the coin of Bengal, weighed 179.666 grains, and that was the unit of the most common ponduary system. Eighty of these made a seer, and 40 of these seers the bazaar maund, by which grain and most of articles of country produce were bought and sold in wholesale dealings. But the officers of the East India Company had introduced a separate maund for their transactions called the factory maund, three of which were exactly equal to 200 pounds avoirdupois, and the seer therefore, or fortieth part, was one-tenth less than that of the common bazaar seer. Again, the Government delivered salt at its golales to purchasers at the auction sales of this article weighed with a maund composed of 40 seers, each weighing 82 siccas, so that, even in Government transactions, there was no conformity in the weights used, or in the meaning which attached to the term maund.

But another element of confusion had been introduced. This sicca rupee, which was the basis of the sicca weight, weighing close upon 180 grains, contained 175.923 grains of pure silver, and only about four grains of alloy. About the year 1816, however, the Court of Directors ordered a change in the standard to be introduced in all the British coinages, one-twelfth of alloy being substituted for the usually more pure coin. By this change the Calcutta rupee of the same intrinsic value became increased in weight from 179.666 grains to 191.916 grains. But there was no corresponding change made in the seer and manud based on the old rupee, the sicca weight remaining a separate thing disconnected with the coin, and requiring, if tested thereby, that care should be taken to see that the wrong rupee was not used.

The Court of Directors were early sensible of the confusion which existed in the weights and measures of India, and, preparatory to the consideration of what steps should be taken to reform the system, they called for reports, with specimens of all the weights in use, to be furnished and sent home to them by all their district officers and commercial agents. They obtained, in consequence, a mass of materials, which were submitted to Dr. Kelly, who, with the aid of the officers of the Royal Mint, having accurately weighed and verified them, published in his cambist a full list and detail of them. This proved a most useful work for every one engaged in commerce with India, and is still of high authority. The Court of Directors, however, did not immediately follow this up by any authoritative measures for the correction of abuses and simplification of Indian weights and measures. They observed that most of the weights were based upon the coin current in the locality. They wisely judged, therefore, that the first step towards reform was to introduce a uniform currency, and to this end their efforts, and those of their several Governments, were therefore for some time directed. These efforts resulted in the establishment, in 1835; of the rupee of 180 grains, now universally current, in supercession of the Calcutta sicca rupee and of all other local coinages. This rupee has now been current 33 years, and all others are fast disappearing. We have thus the universal unit for weights which it was desired to supply. The question, as it appears to me, is, what further step shall be taken in the same direction. The suggestions offered in these papers recommend, as I have before noticed, the abandonment of all that has been done, and the arbitrary imposition of something new, and of European device and origin, not in any respect Indian.

There have been several investigations made and committees appointed to consider the subject since the rupee tola of 180 grains was established. The most complete inquiry and best report made was by Mr. William Bayley, of the Madras Civil Service. His suggestions were practical. He saw the value of the rupee tola unit, but wishing to combine with its use a weight that should correspond with that used in commercial transactions in England. The committee in their report, state that he proposed that the seer, instead of weighing 80 tolas, should weigh only 78, which allowing for a little wear of the rupee, would make it exactly equal to two pounds avoirdupois. He made also some other suggestions, but this was the most important. It was felt, however, that it could not well be adopted in supersession of what had already been done in Bengal for the introduction and extensive use of the seer of 80 tolas. To have attempted to substitute another, could only increase confusion, and with the difference proposed of one-fortieth less, the loss upon the change would fall wholly on the buying consumer, for the buneea, although he would readily give a smaller weight, would very seldom, if ever, deduct the one-fortieth from the price. The monitary system indeed would seldom allow such a deduction in small transactions. At Madras, however, I believe that since Mr. Bayley's report, a ponduary system based upon the tola has been very extensively, if not very generally, introduced. The original system of Southern India was like most of the systems in other provinces based upon the current coin, but that coin was their gold until between 50 and 60 years ago, when the gold currency was displaced by silver, in consequence of the increasing value of gold, and this change will naturally have prepared the population for a new ponduary system based on the coin of that metal.

We have then the tola unit for any ponduary system that may be introduced anywhere. I object entirely, and I do not think the Council would assent to the rejection of this unit, after it has been established for 33 years, in the hope of finding a better, either in the French metrical, based on the kilogramme, or in the English rather clumsy hundred weight and ton, based on the pound avoirdupois.

Retaining this unit, is there anything better that we can adopt than the seer of 80 tolas, and the mun or maund of 40 of these seers? I very much doubt it. The maund based upon this tola, exactly equals 100 lbs. troy, and although neither it nor the seer can be brought exactly to correspond with the weights based on the pound avoirdupois, still the conversion can be effected by a simple arithmetical process, as shown in my brother James Prinsep's useful Tables, “without any fractional quantities to complicate the calculation.”*

* Eight tola rupees weigh exactly 3 ounces troy. The seer of 80 tolas weigh therefore exactly 30 ounces troy, and on the other hand 2 seer or 60 ounces exactly equals 5 pounds troy.

It is quite true that this ponduary system has never met with general acceptance. The indigo planters, who were in the habit of selling their produce by the factory maund, and of making the chest of indigo to contain two of these, refused to accept the new maund upon its introduction, on the plea that it was inconvenient to their trade. The plea was accepted, and, I believe, the factory maund still prevails in this trade. Again, the Government itself did not introduce the new maund into the opium department. The chests there are of the pecul weight, of about 140 lbs., to suit the China market; each contains 40 balls of opium, the weight of each of which cannot be expressed in the scale of any system without a fraction. The continuance of these anomalies, and the continued disuse of the new seer and maund, in many lines of dealing, is no argument against the wisdom of propounding the scheme, and of giving facilities for its use, as has been done by the extensive circulation of certified weights, if we find that through these measures the adoption of this ponduary system has spread, and is spreading. The committee, in their report, admit that it is now the scheme most extensively known and used in India, but locally and in particular transactions it is opposed. Is that sufficient reason for abandoning it, and attempting to introduce another which will assuredly be similarly opposed ? I think not; and therefore would suggest that the reply to this reference of the Government of India shall be drawn in the spirit of these observations, that is to say, that we should tell the Governor General in Council that we see no reason, in what is urged by either section of the committee appointed to consider the subject of weights and measures, sufficient to justify the abandonment of the rupee tola of 180 grains as the unit of any ponduary system that may be established in India; that there can be no objection, locally, to any multiple or subdivision of this unit being introduced and legalised, but that in Bengal and Hindostan, where it appears the 80 tola seer and 40 seer maund, based on this unit, are extensively known and used, it is not desirable to attempt to supersede it by a new scheme, which would only be an additional element of confusion.

I have said nothing of linear measures, but of the measures of capacity used extensively in different parts of India. There is no recommendation at present that we should make any change of these. They are, therefore, not necessarily before us.

31 December. (signed) H. T. Prinsep.

P.S.-The pound avoirdupois weighs exactly 7,000 grains, and the ounce avoirdupois is one-sixteenth of this, or 437½ grains, a weight not easily reconcileable with the Bengal of 80 tolas, and its subdivisions. The Government of India, in 1833, preferred seeking congruity with the lb. and oz. troy, because these weights were more easily reconcileable with the existing bazaar maund and seer, based on the tola of 180 grains. Eight of these tolas being exactly equal to 3 ozs. troy, and two seer to 5 lbs. troy. If it had been desired to seek congruity with the lb. avoirdupois, a much more simple means than that suggested by Mr. W. Bayley might have been found by reducing the weight of the rupee to 175 grains, leaving it of the same value, i. e., containing 165 grains of pure silver as now, with 10 only of alloy instead of 16. Eighty tolas, of 175 grains each, give 14,000 tolas to the seer, which is exactly 2 lbs. avoirdupois. This change might easily have been adopted in 1835, when the rupee with the royal stamp was first struck; but we cannot make the change now, after coining 200 crores of pieces, weighing 180 grains, and after circulating these everywhere as the test and basis of all local weights in India.

(signed) H.T.P.


— No 6. —

MINUTE by Mr. H. T. Prinsep, dated 10 April 1869.

Weights and Measures of India.

THE papers submitted by the Warden of the Standard to the Board of Trade, and by the Board forwarded to us, are very valuable and important.

We ought by all means to ask for several copies of them (since they are in print) in order to send them out to India for the information of the public officers and others, who have given and are giving their attention to the subject.

These papers contain a very complete summary of what has recently been done in India, and what is proposed for the improvement of the weights there. They further show the precise condition of the question whether it is expedient to introduce the French metrical system of weights, and to make it compulsory in this United Kingdom, and give besides some important statistics regarding the condition of the weights in use in this country, all which information has important bearing upon the course proper to be adopted for improving the weights of India.

But though I attach great value to these reports of the Warden, I am not prepared to approve and accept his conclusions and recommendation. He is a partizan of the policy of adopting the French metrical system in England, and advocates the recommendation of the Government of India that it should be introduced, and eventually made compulsory in India, in order that its being so may be used as an additional argument for adopting the same policy in England. But wherefore should we anticipate the decision of this question, that will have to be come to by the authorities and by Parliament in this country? Why be less cautious and considerate in the steps we take than those who have dealt with the question here have been? The recommendation we have from India is not that of an unanimous Council. It was rejected by a large majority in the committee specially appointed by Government to consider the subject. They recommend the establishment of the pound avoirdupois of 7,000 grains as the unit upon which to base a new scheme of weights for India.

I have agreed in a previous paper that we have established in the tola of 180 grains, which is the weight of the Government rupee, of which 200 crores have been struck since 1835, an unit for testing and comparing all the various weights in use throughout India. That upon the basis of this tola a scheme of weights was established in 1833, corresponding with one then largely in use there, viz., 5 tolas = 1 chatak, 16 chataks or 80 tolas = 1 seer, and 40 seers of 3,200 tolas = 1 maund, which was then and is still the common bazaar maund of Calcutta. That this scheme of weights corresponded conveniently with the troy weights of England (though not with the avoirdupois), 2 seers being equal to 5 lbs. troy, and the maund of 40 seers being exactly 100 lbs. troy. It appears from the report of the committee that sat in Calcutta, that this scheme of weights, although its use has largely extended in Bengal and the Upper Provinces since 1833, is not even there generally adopted, notwithstanding that the Calcutta Mint has been casting and furnishing weights of the scheme to public officers, and to anyone who applied for them ever since 1833. At the other Presidencies the scheme of weights has not been adopted at all, but the tola is universally used for the test and comparison of the different weights in me. The committee want new weights to be introduced based on the pound avoirdupois, rejecting apparently the tola unit. The two Messrs. Strachey maintain that if a new scheme is to be adopted, the French metrical scheme is the best, because it is sure to be adopted in England for general conformity with the rest of Europe in supercession of the avoirdupois scheme. The Warden of the Standard who notices, and fairly enough reviews, my arguments, objects to the tola unit as too small, but he gives no reason why a small unit should not be as good as a large one. He objects also to the unit being based on the current silver coin, because that coin is liable to wear, and is not struck in the first instance with complete exactness. No doubt silver coin in India is a legal tender until by wear it has lost weight by more than 2 per cent. But the declared unit is a new unworn rupee, and who, knowing this, would allow his weights to be tested by old and worn rupees. For every practical purpose a new rupee is as perfect a tola as anyone could desire to apply as a test of weight; it would be a nonsensical absurdity to tell the people of India that the weight they are to use is the equivalent of a certain cube of distilled water of a given temperature, with the barometer at a certain point. Who but a most scientific experimentalist could ever apply such a test? If, therefore, the pound avoirdupois, or the French metrical unit, were to be adopted in India, the reference of either to the tola must be specified and declared to make it all intelligible to the population.

But the method proposed of introducing these is, to my mind, fatal to the notion that the use of either can be made compulsory. The proposition is, that the Government shall furnish weights of the new scheme to everybody that wants them. Now, let anyone consider how many villages there are in India, and how many shopkeepers in each, all of whom would require to be furnished with the new set. Are they to be furnished gratis? Could the smaller dealers pay for them, if not so? At present in many hundred shops that I visited while in India, I found the seer and half seer weight to be boulder stones, picked up in the bed of a river. Very good weights these, if true, and thus anyone might test by weighing them against tola rupees. In England weights are cast by every founder of copper and zinc, and there are shops everywhere in which they are to be bought and sold, after first being tested and stamped by a Government Inspector. There are stated to be 1,300 official inspectors authorised to fix these stamps, and they stamp two millions and a half sets of stamps in a year. It is computed, says one of the reports submited by the Warden, that there are thirty million sets of weights in use in the United Kingdom. Calculate from this the number that would be required by the population of India, which is at least 10 times as numerous, could the three Presidency Mints undertake to supply such a want in addition to the work of the coinage? How else are they to be cast and tested? A large machinery must be organised for this purpose before ever the idea can be entertained of forcing either the pound avoirdupois or the French metrical unit weight into general use.

This argument is, I think, conclusive against the adoption of either of the propositions submitted by the Government of India. But we may concede thus much to their recommendation, i. e., to proceed in the matter as has been done in England, and to allow the permissive use either of the French weights, or of a scheme based on the avoirdupois pound; that so it may be seen how far they are approved, and likely to be preferred. The Mint may cast and furnish weights of either scheme to anyone that may apply for them, taking care to adopt the very useful suggestion contained in these papers, viz., that the weights of each scheme shall have a different shape, so as to be easily distinguishable, and to this may be added the further precaution of stamping the number of tolas on each weight, so as to promulgate generally their relation to a test in general use.

I think the reply to the Government of India should, in forwarding these papers of the Warden of the Standard, explain the necessity of not departing too hastily from the tola test for any weights that may be introduced, which having now been upheld by Government for more than 30 years, ought not hastily to be given up.

(signed) H. T. Prinsep.

In the end, the government adopted the kilogram (Act No. 31 of 1871, passed by the Governor General of India in Council, 30 October 1871), making the mass of the ser exactly one kilogram. See Brit1871.pdf.

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