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A Doubt Is at Best an Unsafe Standard: Measuring Sugar in the Early Bureau of Standards



David R. Singerman


Europe based its New World empires on the development and control of sources of sugar cane. Mercantilism dictated high tariffs on sucrose, which was still an aristocratic condiment. Eventually, however, England decided to provide cheap sugar to the working classes and to gain revenue from a low tariff on a high volume of sucrose. Tariffs specifically on raw sugar required measuring sucrose content of every shipment. The United States Congress adopted a succession of testing methods, each of which proved either wholly unreliable or readily manipulated. In the eighteen-eighties it finally settled upon the measurement of the rotation of plane-polarized light as the preferred means for the Customs Service to detect sucrose. The novelty and complexity of the polarimeter , however, meant that its results were often distrusted on scientific grounds or suspected to be fraudelent. By 1900, the huge revenue that the tariff on imported raw sucrose generated made accurate standards immensely important. The new Bureau of Standards began to collaborate with the Customs Service to develop more rigorous methods for the Service s laboratories, and the Bureau s chief sugar physicist, Frederick Bates, also investigated fundamental practices of saccharimetry. First, Bates discovered that a common clarifying reagent could in fact produce serious errors. Second, he invented a mechanism which solved a problem that had plagued all previous designs of saccharimeter, and his device was quickly adopted as the American standard. Third, Bates found that the international scale for converting polarization angles into sucrose readings was flawed enough that governments had lost millions of dollars in tariffs, and pressured the international community to fix the problem.
Journal of Research (NIST JRES) -
112 No. 1


Bureau of Standards, customs, Frederick Bates, international standards, polarimetry, saccharimetry, sugar, tariff


Singerman, D. (2007), A Doubt Is at Best an Unsafe Standard: Measuring Sugar in the Early Bureau of Standards, Journal of Research (NIST JRES), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD (Accessed May 26, 2024)


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Created February 1, 2007, Updated February 17, 2017