Scales and Public Weighing

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^W eighing the body is definitely a marker of the twentieth century; however, there is some evidence that people started to weigh themselves using various instruments in previous centuries. The first public weighing machines were developed in France in the seventeenth century and first appeared in 1760 in London. The medical theory regarding physical weight had been developed by the Venetian Sanctorius Sanctorius in late sixteenth-century Padua. Sanctorius monitored his body weight for thirty years. He announced in his De statica medicine (1614) that what he consumed weighed more than what he excreted and assumed that the missing weight had been perspired, a sign of health. He, therefore, recommended the regular weighing of the body to promote health. In his aphorisms, he also argued against too rapid weight gain or loss, for "when the body is one day of one weight, and another day of another, it argues an introduction of evil qualities" (Sanctorius 1806: 129). But he implied that too great a weight gain is itself pathological: "That weight, which is to any one such as that when he goes up some steepy place, he feels himself lighter that he is wont, is the exact standard of good health" (Sanctorius 1806: 129). Consistent weight and mobility define health, and the act of weighing oneself in public became a measure of public accountability for one's health. Sanctorius discovered that some amount of weight was not accounted for and figured out that this weight was lost by "insensible perspiration." Today, this loss is explained by human metabolism. The energy from the food is turned into heat to maintain body temperature around 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

Throughout history, the two most common weighing instruments (scales) were the balance and the steelyard. Both of these types of instruments were structurally simi lar, consisting of weights of a known value, a load of unknown value, and a lever in between to reach equilibrium. The difference between a balance and a steelyard is that a balance consists of two equal arms and a suspension from the middle. At each end of the arm is a pan. The idea is to weigh an object of known weight against an object of unknown weight to compare the difference. A steelyard is comprised of a beam with unequal arms, a pan on one side, a weight on the other, and a fulcrum or pivot located somewhere on the beam. The weight can be moved around until the longer part of the beam reaches equilibrium with the shorter beam. The position of the weight on the beam represents the weight of the object in the pan.

Weighing instruments (scales) have evolved to better meet the needs of measuring body weight. The scale has been modified to include a platform, which makes it easier to weigh awkward, large objects such as a human body. Today many people have digital scales in their bathrooms that can record their weight in a matter of seconds. More advanced scales are always being created that can measure more than overall body weight. Recently, Tanita Corporation of America came out with the first consumer scale passed by the Food and Drug Administration that measures body water as well as body fat.

Measuring body weight has become more popular as the obsession with obesity has increased. Consequently, weighing devices have been altered to make it easier to weigh human bodies. They will continue to evolve as the population demands to know more about their body composition and its relation to obesity.

SLG/Mary Standen

See also Metabolism


References and Further Reading

Anon. (2004) "Weighing Instruments," Institute and Museum of the History of Science, available online at < appl=SIM&xsl=approfondimento&lingua= ENG&chiave=204i0i> (accessed May 8, 2006).

Anon. (2005) "National Grid for Learning,", available online at <http://> (accessed May 8, 2006).

Anon. (2006) "The World's Heaviest People,"

Dimensions Magazine, available online at <http:// heaviest.htm> (accessed March 3, 2007).

Anon. (2006) "Weighing Scale," Wikipedia, available online at < Weighing_scale> (accessed May 8, 2006).

Rabinowtich, I.M. (1930) "Pitfalls in the Clinical

Application and Interpretation of the Basal Metabolic Rate." Available online at <http://> (accessed May 8, 2006).

Sanctorius, Sanctorius (1806) "De statica medicine," in John Sinclair (ed.) The Code of Health and Longevity, four vols, Edinburgh: Arch. Constable & Co, Vol. III, pp.122-230.

Wolinsky, Howard (2004) "New Water-Weight Scale Shows What You Are Made of," Chicago Sun Times, November 9.

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