Media @ McGill

Dylan Mulvin | Reference Materials: The People, Places, and Things of Making Measurements

Submitted by Media@McGill on


What is the mass of an object? What time is it? What makes a pleasing picture? How do you measure a doctor’s care? These are the questions that scientists, engineers, and physicians (and their insurers) sought to answer with the standards under investigation in Reference Materials. More specifically, Reference Materials investigates the media practices and media theories used by the creators and maintainers of standards. With particular focus on standards that make commensuration possible, this dissertation serves as a study of the media practices of making things measurable.

The nineteenth century saw a boom in the demand and availability of international standards for moving, selling, measuring, and comparing goods, information, and people. New transportation technologies—like the railroad—and new communications technologies—like the telegraph—created conditions that called for standards of exchange. At the same time, military conquest brought new empires into existence, industrial production brought new mass-produced goods, and the legacies of enlightenment philosophy portrayed universal standardization as an unalloyed good. In 1875, seventeen countries signed the Metre Convention, formalizing the international standards of length and mass. By the early twentieth century most of the world had signed onto the metric system and it is now—despite some pretty glaring exceptions—the basis of every scientific and technical measurement in the world.

These are the broad political, economic, and technological arcs that precede the focus of this dissertation. For this project, the most important act in the 19th century was not the signing of the Metre Convention or even the electric telegraph; it was the establishment of an international prototype kilogram and metre stick. These prototypes were crafted out of platinum-iridium and kept in a vault in the suburbs of Paris, accessible only by the turning of three different keys held by three different people. These prototypes needed to be kept safe because they were the material basis of the metric system’s authority. They were created to embody the notion of “physical invariants”—an ideal of measurement philosophy that presumes there are some things that will always be stable. Every other kilogram and metre stick had, as its ultimate referent, these pieces of metal. The metre is no longer defined by its physical referent but the kilogram still is. And thus, the metric system’s standard of mass carries this circular definition: “The unit of mass is the kilogram; the kilogram is the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram.”

In other words, the meaning of “the kilogram” is only ever what the International Prototype Kilogram weighs at any given time. The only problem being that after 140 years the mass of the kilogram has fluctuated quite a bit—defeating the purpose of having a physical invariant as the basis of scientific measurement. To keep the prototype kilogram as stable as possible, it undergoes a periodic process called “nettoyage et lavage” (cleaning and washing), wherein a person rubs the piece of metal with an ether solution and a chamois cloth. The prototype kilogram and “nettoyage et lavage” manifest the rationale of this dissertation: first, how are standards built through a system of references? Second, what is the material basis of those references? And third, how are standards kept stable through local and provisional rituals and protocols for maintaining physical referents?

The metric system was one of the first international standards of its kind but the twentieth century saw an explosion of new standards for comparing people and things. Suddenly everything could be measured. Not surprisingly, however, these new standards followed much of the same material logic as the metric system. Reference Materials draws on extensive archival research to examine how some of these standards came into being, how they were maintained, and how they hardened into seemingly immutable facts of contemporary life.

Following the international prototype kilogram, Reference Materials considers three additional sets of materials: standardized patients, a part of physician training and assessment that began at the University of Southern California in 1963; the atomic second, which has defined the measurement of time since 1967, and paved the way for everything from high-frequency trading to the Global Positioning System; and the test image “Lena” (originally the November 1972 Playboy centerfold) used in digital image processing, beginning in 1973.

Reference Materials includes some of the most basic media standards of the past hundred years and their attendant media, including GPS, digital images, memos, and the performance of disease. Following Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media as “socially realized structures of communication” this project treats standards as techniques and structures of communication that are built on reference protocols, material archives, and rituals of data maintenance.  In each of the four standards I examine, the agreed-upon set of materials—a piece of metal, a cesium atom, a magazine photo, and a medical performer—serve as “fixed points” for making comprehensible claims about the world, claims that make scientific, mediatic, technical, and medical statements sensible. It is the process of choosing and maintaining a set of fixed points that animates Reference Materials


Dylan Mulvin is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He has published on the history of video and television and is the co-editor (with Jonathan Sterne) of “Media, Hot and Cold,” a special section on the intersections of temperature and media studies in the International Journal of Communication.