R is for Gilbert Romme

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.
Gilbert Romme

Gilbert Romme

The French Revolution resulted in many ridiculous ideas, but perhaps the most risible was the French Republican Calendar devised by Gilbert Romme.

The thinking behind the new calendar was twofold. First that it should remove all religious references and second that time itself should embrace decimalisation. The result was a largely unworkable system.

Romme was born in the  Auvergne region in 1750 and was educated in medicine and mathematics. He had travelled to Russia where he was the tutor to Pavel Stroganov of the beef dish fame.

He entered politics on his way to Paris, an odd choice for someone once described as ‘a small, awkward and clumsy man with an ill complexion, and a dull orator’.

Republican Clock

A Republican Clock

But it is for the Republican Calendar that he is best remembered. In keeping with the prevailing decimalisation, each day was divided into ten hours and each decimal hour was made up of 100 decimal minutes, so each new hour equalled 144 minutes of the ones that people were used to.

Minutes were made up of 86.4 ‘old’ seconds, while each metric second was 13.6% shorter than its duodecimal equivalent.

Unsurprisingly, the idea didn’t catch on, even though clocks were made to display the new rational system of timekeeping, like the one above. Decimal time was officially suspended on 7 April 1795, although it continued to be used in some French cities until as late as 1801.

But if the telling the time was complicated, then so was keeping track of days under Romme’s Republican calendar. Weeks now had ten days instead of seven, unimaginatively named ‘primadi’ through to ‘décadi’, or first day to tenth.

Oddly, the calendar retained twelve months, although each was made up of 30 days. They were given new names based on nature or the prevailing weather conditions in Paris at that time of year, for example this post would have appeared in the month of Prairial, from the French prairie, meaning pasture.

In England, some wit translated them as Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.

Perhaps the oddest innovation was to give each and every day of the year its own name to replace the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Days ending in zero were named after a tool, ending in five an animal, and flowers or minerals for the rest. For example, today’s date would have been Consoude, or comfrey.

If you’ve done your sums, you’ll realise that the Republican calendar only had 360 days which would have been more than a little inconvenient, so Romme got round this by adding five or six national holidays at the end of the year that became known as ‘les jours complémentaires’.

The calendar experiment last for twelve years until it was abolished by Napoleon in 1806. As for Romme, he had been sentenced to the guillotine eleven years earlier, but managed to commit suicide by repeatedly stabbing himself with a smuggled knife on the steps of the courtroom.

Romme’s last words were ‘I die for the republic‘.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

5 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 16th May 2012

    I vaguely remember this, but this is more detailed than I recalled.

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

  • rhymeswithplague 16th May 2012

    I really enjoyed reading this post, Ian. I don’t remember ever having been aware of M. Romme and his republican clock and calendar before. It was a revelation. You could also have written of Robespierre.

  • Gattina 16th May 2012

    Very interesting to read ! Fortunately he didn’t succeed with his complicated clock system ! No wonder that they wanted him on the guillotine ! I think I would never have learned it I am a catastrophe in maths !
    ABC Wednesday Team

  • Jennyta 16th May 2012

    I remember a similar version of this doing the rounds as a joke at the time of the introduction of decimal currency in the UK – presented as the next step in ‘going metric’. I showed it to a rather militant fellow teacher, known for her strong union affiliations and we nearly ended up with her calling in the union at the idea of working 10 days without a break (the metric week or decaday). Incredibly, she took it all very seriously – no sense of humour! I still have a rough copy of it somewhere.

  • Katherine 16th May 2012

    Remarkable. I read right through your revelations but will regretfully remember only the revolting representation of Romme’s repeated rents.


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