LB Travels: Dubrovnik, Croatia | Weights & Measures

7 mins

Pack your bags once again. We’re visiting the Dalmatian Coast to uncover its history of maritime trade, weights and gold. Yes, you have it—let’s check out Dubrovnik in Croatia.

Dubrovnik is a picturesque medieval town that has received a bit of publicity lately. If you visit during the “low season”, you don’t have to swat off too many Game of Thrones or GoT fans (I say this in the most well-meaning way).

The reality.

It’s hard to imagine how Dubrovnik would have been before the thronging crowds. April or October—at least according to the locals—are the best months to visit.

A step through history

Dubrovnik has a rich trading history. It was also a rare outpost in the region that the Ottoman Empire didn’t summarily annex during its expansion into the Balkans.

At its height, Dubrovnik was part of the Republic of Ragusa (1358 – 1808). It retained its independence by paying tributes to the Ottoman Empire from 1458, during the reign of Mehmed II the Conqueror. In exchange, the sultan guaranteed protections, including granting privileges to Ragusan merchants in Ottoman territories.

The Ragusans, sensibly, remained cagey about the whole arrangement—as evident by the fortified walls around Dubrovnik. They had good reason for concern. In 1482, the Ottomans conquered neighbouring Herzegovina—establishing a complete foothold in the Balkans and becoming the Republic’s sole neighbour on land. (Yikes.)

“You’ll never find another walled-up basketball court like me.”

Freedom came at a cost. The annual tribute payments, starting at 1,500 gold coins in 1458, eventually increased tenfold to 15,000 during the reign of Mehmed II. The Republic lived by its Latin motto, “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro”, meaning “Liberty is not well sold for all the gold”. It is somewhat ironic that it was gold, in the end, that secured the Republic’s liberty.

Wares for sale, but not my liberty!

Dubrovnik’s importance as a maritime trading hub comes up in a strange historical misnomer. The origins of the name “Dubrovnik” is from the word Dubrava, meaning “oak wood”. However, the Ottomans mistakenly dubbed it Dobro-Venedik, meaning “Good Venice”. (P.s. Thank you crates of gold.)

As you stroll through the astonishingly clean marbled streets and alleyways of Dubrovnik (how do they do it?!), you can find traces of its merchant trading past everywhere. One example is Sponza Palace. Completed in 1522, it was the heart of government administration as a customs office, mint, bank, treasury and armoury.

Today, Sponza Palace is a museum open to anyone who might have a fetish for coin collections (also known as numismatics). There are also other curiosities, like this handrail.

The handiest handrail in Dubrovnik.
(Pun intended, I couldn’t help myself.)

So let’s get to the point of this blog post. Gosh, it was nice romping around without any purpose! When we used to barter trade everything, measurements were ad-hoc and depended on your preferences. The advent of trade, defined by currency, brought a host of requirements. This included measuring and weighing things properly.

What did the Ragusans think of dodgy measurements? Very poorly, with a warning that would strike fear into any God-fearing Ragusan. Over one archway at Sponza Palace, you can make out the following script:


Which translates to this:

“Our weights do not permit cheating or being cheated. When I am weighing the goods, the Lord is weighing myself”.

The archway in question at Sponza Palace (to the left).

The carvers likely took inspiration from the biblical Proverbs 11:1 “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight”. Also, Proverbs 21:2 “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart”.


But hardly a restraint on dodgy trading these days. So, this begs the question—how do we pick up a 1L milk bottle from any supermarket in this day and age—and be certain that it is, in fact, one litre?

Guess what the cat brought in…

Baking under the Dubrovnik sun.

While poking around the Australian legislative cupboards (dusty, cough!), I chanced on some measurement laws that we don’t think twice about. Yet, these form the basis for our modern-day systems,  beyond the world of trade and commerce. Think scientific research, medicine, and every other aspect of society.

We take it for granted that a litre will always be a litre. But recent history tells us otherwise. As you might know, the definition of a kilogram changed in May 2019 to link it to the numerical Planck constant “h“. Looking at you, Physics nerds. This was as opposed to an actual weight which sat in a bell jar in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) near Paris, known as the “International Prototype of the Kilogram” or IPK since circa 1889.

IPK: “I’ve been sitting around gaining weight since 1889.”
(Photo credit: Japs88)

Rules on rules

To make it work, it turns out that we need someone or something to set the rules at:

  • an international level; and
  • a national level.

Excellent. So where do we start?

You have the power

Section 51(xv) of the Australian Constitution, properly known as the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 (Cth), states that:

“The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to … weights and measures”

That’s not the end of the story. The Constitution simply tells Parliament that it can run off to set some rules about weights and measures.

And so they did.

Australian legislation on measuring things

Federal legislation, basically laws passed by Parliament, regulate our Australian system for “physical, chemical, biological, legal and trade measurement”. They include the:

Without going into extensive detail, the Act establishes a National Measurement Institute (NMI) (s 17) and Chief Metrologist (s 18A) to administer the Act and regulations.

Section 7 of the Act talks about “Australian legal units of measurement” used to measure physical quantities:

[With an exception in s 7A(2)] “… Australian legal units of measurement of a physical quantity are the sole legal units of measurement of that physical quantity.”

Section 7A(1) provides that:

“The regulations may prescribe the Australian legal units of measurement of any physical quantity.”

Then we head to the Measurement Regulations, which tells us at regulation 5 that:

“The Australian legal unit of measurement for a physical quantity mentioned in an item in Schedule 1 is the unit of measurement the name, symbol and definition of which are mentioned in the item.

Note: The Chief Metrologist may issue written guidelines governing the way in which Australian legal units of measurement may be combined to produce an Australian legal unit of measurement—see Act, paragraph 7B(1)(a).

Let’s take a peek at Schedule 1 of the Measurement Regulations. It tells us that (exceptions apply) we mainly use “SI” or the “International System of Units” of measurements.

The list goes on…

In case we’re confused, regulation 3 provides some definitions:

SI, for a unit of measurement, means the system of measurement known as the International System of Units.

SI definition of a unit of measurement means the definition of the unit in Appendix 3 to Resolution 1 adopted by the General Conference on Weights and Measures at its 26th meeting, held at Versailles from 13 to 16 November 2018.

Note: The Appendix could in 2019 be viewed on the International Bureau of Weights and Measures website (

Ready to pull your hair out?

International measurements of mystery (not)

Of course, there isn’t much point if we set rules of measurement if they weren’t recognised outside of Australia.

Australia is a signatory to two inter-governmental treaties:

With NMI consulting with the international organisations established under these treaties, Australia can rely on international frameworks to make sure that there is external recognition of our ability to… well, measure things! The purpose? To “make sure that goods and services can be ‘tested once, accepted everywhere’”.

Checks and balances… oh ho ho!

Now, we get to enforcement (not just a matter of conscience).

You’ll be glad to hear that NMI has offices in every major city in Australia. It sends out trade measurement inspectors to check on businesses, measuring instruments and goods.

Inspectors can pursue non-compliance by issuing non-compliance notices, warning letters, infringement notices and referring matters to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

So there you go, 1L of milk.

Further reading:

Dubrovnik tips:

  • Best time of year to travel: April or October
  • Start early if you’re thinking of climbing the City Walls and bring proper shoes!