»  Taki's Magazine

February 17th, 2011

  Measuring the World

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Among the great heroes of innumeracy must be reckoned Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston. Shown a column of figures that included decimal points, His Lordship grumbled "I never could make out what those damn dots meant." As Lord Randolph was Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. Treasury Secretary) at the time, this may go some way to explaining Britain's subsequent decline.

Be that as it may, Americans generally have been of the same kidney as Lord Randolph. An aspect of our exceptionalism in which American conservatives take pride is our insistence on retaining traditional units of measure — pounds, gallons, yards, bushels, acres — when all other significant countries have fallen to the metric system. (The only other nations clinging to their customary measures are, according to the CIA World Factbook, Burma and Liberia. Hey, guys!)

This pride in fact rests, as pride so often does, on an illusion. Our precious customary units are all based on the metric system after all. Our pound, for example, has been defined since 1959 as 0.45359237 of a kilogram; a foot is officially 0.3048 of a meter; and so on.

The bailiffs of the international order, as if in preparation for the day, which surely cannot be delayed much longer, when they turn us out onto the street with our furniture and worthless dollars, have permitted us to retain our pounds, bushels, and the rest as a courtesy or temporary indulgence, the kind that parents grant to troublesome children. They know they'll have the upper hand eventually. The metric system is in our inevitable future, like "hate speech" laws or regulations to avert "climate change." Our weights-and-measures exceptionalism will be stomped into the dust, shortly after Burma and Liberia have been dealt with.

I'll admit I'm schizophrenic about the whole business. Nostalgia and sentimentality draw me to the old units of measure: not merely feet and inches but chains, furlongs, rods, poles, and perches. (NB: It is a very vulgar error to confuse the rod, which is a unit of length equal to 5½ yards, with the rood, a unit of area equal to a quarter of an acre.) The entire menagerie was laid out for us on the backs of school exercise books in the 1950s.

There seemed to be an infinity of ways to measure different things. Volume, for example: In my very earliest career as a school- and college-vacation menial I passed from working with firkins, barrels, hogsheads and tuns at a local brewery, to yards (which is to say, cubic yards) of concrete and sand on construction sites, to noggins, gills, and pints as a pub bartender.

The great glory of English mensuration, until the nation decided to destroy itself in the late 1960s, was the national currency. Twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound, and if you didn't know instinctively that 13 shillings and fourpence was two-thirds of a pound, you really hadn't been paying attention. My Dad worked for a furniture company that priced its wares in guineas, one guinea being 21 shillings, which is to say a pound and a shilling. A nice living-room suite might be priced at 31½ guineas. Quick now: what's that in pounds, shillings, and pence?**

With all that forced early arithmetical training, it's a wonder Britain didn't sweep the Fields Medals. The problem that Mr. Murdstone gave to David Copperfield sounded like a snap, I thought, though we only hear the opening:

If I go into a cheesemonger's shop, and buy five thousand double-Gloucester cheeses at fourpence-halfpenny each, present payment …

That's £93 15s. Why is David so perplexed?

That was all lost in the changeover to decimal currency, forty years ago this week. Prisoners of some absurd fantasy about making themselves "modern" and "European," the British people threw away a thousand years of heritage, exceptionalism, and challenging arithmetic in hopes they would be able more easily to sell their tinny cars, obsolete electronics, and spotted dick to the French and Germans.

The metric system naturally followed, to the nation's further loss. George Orwell, ever a reliable index of Anglosphere reaction, had pointed out the problems thirty years before:

Obviously you have got to have the metric system for certain purposes. For scientific work it has long been in use, and it is also needed for tools and machinery, especially if you want to export them. But there is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your bearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, "He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high"; it would not convey any visual image.

                     —  As I Please, March 14, 1947

The schizophrenia kicks in when I have to do mental calculations. All that youthful juggling with roods, furlongs, and noggins was great for developing general abilities, but in actual computations the metric system, with its easy-to-remember relations between length and mass, is hard to avoid.

I was recently required to figure, on the spot, how many 42-gallon black plastic contractor bags I would need to transport a yard of mulch. Piece of cake:

It's always like that. You end up plugging in to the metric system somewhere. The damn thing weasels its way past you.

Ah well; we can take some small malicious satisfaction from the news that the whole business is unstable. The standard kilogram, incarnated in a platinum-iridium cylinder kept in a vault in Sèvres, France, seems to be losing mass. An honest Imperial pound would never show such inconstancy.

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**  £33 1s. 6d.  Wake up there in the back row!

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A correspondent reminds me of the traditional British way to state the speed of light in vacuo: One point eight billion furlongs per fortnight. That is of course a British billion, equal to 1012, which is to say, a colonial "trillion." This is actually surprisingly accurate — to better than one-sixth of one percent.

This same correspondent, who has some experience of India, brings me the sad news that the old Raj-era expression "not quite sixteen annas to the rupee" ( =  "not playing with a full deck,"  "one brick short of a load,"  "smoke doesn't go all the way up the chimney,"  "one coupon short of a toaster,"  etc., etc.) has fallen into obsolescence. He tells me that: "Some decades ago they replaced annas, pice and pies with 'new pice,' 100 to the rupee."

Change and decay in all around I see.