Thursday, August 14, 2008


I came to blessedly metric Japan, where everything is so simply factored in powers of ten, from a retroimperial USA where 1 inch (derived from the length of 3 archaic barleycorns) was about 0.08333 feet or about 0.02778 yards, and 12 inches equaled 1 foot (the length of some ancient king's you guessed it; good thing it wasn't Peter the Great, or we'd be getting a lot fewer miles per gallon today), 3 feet equaled 1 yard (the apocryphal distance between the nose and thumb of Henry I), 16 ounces equaled one pound, 2 cups equaled 1 pint, 2 pints equaled 1 quart or was it 4 pints - no, that's quarts to a gallon, which -- anyway, a fluid ounce was 1/12 or 1/16 or 1/20 of a pint, depending - there was a gill in there somewhere, as I recall... (The schoolhours I spent memorizing all that, then all the years forgetting it!)

There were also 8 quarts to the peck, 4 pecks to the bushel and what the hell else, which was handled in or troy or avoirdupois was it, to say nothing of apothecary and mariner measurements, there was a gill in there somewhere too, if memory serves, I still get pretty international just thinking about it, let me see, so a mile was 190,080 barleycorns or 5280 king's feet, depending on whoever that king was.

But as I say, since I moved here to Japan, things have gotten a lot simpler, I can do without barleycorns and regal pedality, just whip out the old divide/multiply by 10 technique, except when for example I must work from a carpentry diagram measured in fractions of regal feet and nose-fingertip distances, or when I buy things like my American woodstove, whose nuts and bolts are based on various cumulations of barleycorns, whereas my wrenches are rationally graded (try to imagine a nanoinch, and you'll see where this must ultimately end), the nuts and bolts therefore being irreplaceable here except by international snailmail, and to work them I have to get hold of some old barleycorn-based tools or find a king's foot somewhere, though they only have emperors here, with small metric feet...

Jimmy Carter was practically driven out of town for trying to change the US to the metric system, though scientists in the US have always used it (what have they got against kings' feet)?

However, a quick look at the world map of non-metric nations shows us that the USA is not alone in its quest to remain faithful to a few grains and an old regal extremity...

It shares its backward-looking determination with Myanmar and Liberia.


Tabor said...

Very funny and a little unsettling.

Anonymous said...

I was in fifth grade when the big push to metrics hit the U.S. My school chose to teach us only metrics because that's all we'd need in the future. It all made perfect sense to me, especially since our monetary system was always based on powers of ten. By sixth grade the whole thing had fizzled and I've spent the rest of my life trying to master the archaic imperial system on my own. How many furlongs in a mile? What's the difference between a rod and a pole? And, as Bill Cosby brilliantly asked in the guise of Noah, "What's a cubit?"

I'm an American and I wish we followed the metric system!