Going back through history, societies have developed measuring systems, often based on parts of the human body. So we have the foot, a convenient way to measure small distances, the yard, that is, the distance from your nose pointed to the right to your fingertip outstretched to the left, good for measuring ‘yard goods’ (fabric). Or the Rod, which is the length of a pole used to guide your horse or ox by tapping him on the side of his nose while you walk behind the plow he is hitched to. Or an inch, the width of a thumb, convenient for measuring small things.
Distance was measured in miles, starting with the Roman mille (a thousand in Latin or French). A Roman Mille is a thousand ‘lefts’ when an army marches ‘left right left’, so 2000 paces, about 5000 feet at 2 ½ feet per pace, but the Romans were a bit smaller than modern people, so officially about 4600 feet or 1 and 1/3 kilometers.
A stall for a cow, including space for a manger and a gutter and a milkmaid is traditionally 4 feet by 8 feet. Developing from this, building dimensions are traditionally based on multiples of 4 feet.
Land was measured in furlongs, 40 rods, which was judged about as far as a horse should be expected to pull a heavy plow without stopping to puff. And in acres, an acre being the amount of land a man could be expected to plow in a day. Traditionally an acre is an area a furlong in length by 4 rods wide. It would take about 60 trips for the plow to turn 4 rods, so the plowman would have walked about 8 miles following that horse and trying to keep that plow going straight, sounds like a good days work.
The flaw in all this is of course that we don’t all have the same size of feet, or thumbs, and there is way too much room for error and dispute. So back in the day, Henry the eighth, King of England, decreed some standards. A foot would be the length of his foot. There would be 12 inches to a foot; 3 feet to a yard; 16 ½ feet to a rod, 320 rods to a mile. As the mighty British Empire spread, the whole modern world was set up on this standard.
Napoleon, Emperor of France some 200 years ago, was a bit of a nut on standards and codes; he even codified the French language. He developed a list of words, and decreed there would be no other words allowed to pollute his magic tongue. They sniff about the elegance of their language, and compare it condescendingly with the rag-tag collection of perhaps ten times more words which makes up modern English. But in fact this limitation is a huge liability for the French language, and will probably result in its disappearance over the next century or two. Thanks a lot, Napoleon!
THE METRIC SYSTEM
We were talking about the development of measurements, and Napoleon, Emperor of France and standardization freak. Napoleon correctly concluded that his empire needed a codified and uniform system of measurements, rather than the random and different systems out there. Good example, France had something called a ‘Pipee’, the distance a man could stroll while smoking a pipeful – how scientific is that!
So the Emperor set his best minds to working up a standardized system. No such inelegant and unscientific things as the length of somebodies foot or forearm or stride for these sophisticated gentlemen. They came up a metal bar with a mark at each end, and the distance between these marks would be called one meter. It was an even fraction of the distance from the earth to the sun as accurately as they could measure that at the time, some 200 years ago. They divided it by a hundred into centimeters, and decreed the weight of a cubic centimeter of water would be a gram and that would be the basis of weight measure. So there, science rules, and we are modern and sophisticated.
Picture this, you are going fishing say 60 years ago; you take your heavy silver spoon on the end of that green woven cotton line and twirl it around your head, and let it go and it sails out over the lake — OK, you don’t remember 60 years ago, so let’s say you take your yo-yo and let out all the string, and twirl it around your head – OK, you don’t remember yo-yo’s, so let’s say you grab your baby brother by the hands and twirl around till his feet are straight out behind him. There is a force which keeps the fish-line or yo-yo string or your brothers arms stretched straight out as the hook or yo-yo or brother orbit around you, and you have to brace yourself against the pull of the string or the kids arms.
So it is with planets. Instead of a string, we have the force of gravity between the planet and the sun, and as the planet rotates, it actually pulls the sun toward it. The bigger the planet, the bigger the force and astronomers actually use that movement of distant suns to estimate the size of their planets. If there were only one planet, the sun would move in a small circle following the orbit of the planet, but if there are multiple planets, the sun is drawn to them all and moves in a compromise between the planets. When Jupiter is on the same side of the sun as earth, we are actually measurably closer to the sun than when it is on the opposite side.
It turns out that those sophisticated scientists of 200 years ago were not able to measure the distance from earth to sun very accurately, and didn’t know that it is not a fixed distance. So the meter is just an arbitrary distance, based on an estimate, it is no more scientific as a base for measurement than King Henry’s foot.
However arbitrary and unscientific it might be, the metric system being based on the number 10 is certainly more convenient than other systems, and over time the whole world has converted to it. Of course an argument could also be made that our number system would be much more usable if it were based on say 6, or 12, but it is based on 10 because we have ten digits (you didn’t think that was a coincidence, did you?). So our number system is as arbitrary and unscientific as King Henry’s foot. But it makes Napoleons arbitrary and unscientific system easier to use than such things as 16 and ½ feet to the rod.
THE US FACES METRICATION
The United States has for its own reasons stayed with King Henry’s foot. Before these last decades in which it outsourced most of its manufacturing to Asia, its economy was as large as the rest of the world combined. It still dominates, is still the world’s policeman, the modern equivalent of the Roman Emperor.
The cost of converting all that industry and commerce to another system with no particular reward was too much. Even though Napoleon assisted with the formation of the United States, his supposedly superior ‘scientific base’ did not impress and the US is about the last hold-out, still using the British system based on King Henry’s foot.
Being on the same system as the US gave Canada some advantage, and as fully two thirds of Canada’s dealings with the world were with the US, and as that advantage would far offset any disadvantage our being on King Henry’s foot gave us with the rest of the world, our conversion to metric made no practical sense. So, why then would Canada go through the multigenerational upheaval and turmoil and multimillion dollar cost of converting to metric?
Why, indeed. My common sense Oxdrift friends were incensed. They argued that even if we needed to change some measurements to keep up with commerce, there is no useful purpose whatever in our having to learn that comfortable room temperature is 20, not 70, or that a 2 x 4 board would now be a 41 x 91 (really?). Liberal-educated me of course argued that we needed to get onside, after all we were being told that the whole world including the US was going metric.
Remember, this happened just as Canada was beginning its change from a free and equal democracy to a government-centered quasi-democracy. Perhaps it was just a test, to see if we would put up with being manipulated and micro-ruled by the autocracy. At about the same time, we passed a law which gave the police a right to stop us at any time to see if our seat-belt was fastened, — what an intrusion into our privacy! Another test! We flunked both tests, meekly went along like good little lambs. And the process of removing our personal freedom in favour of big government has proceeded since. Once again, the common sense of the common people was right, and I was wrong.
There is a delicious irony here,. We converted to metric in terms of things with no economic conflict, say room temperature, but not fully in more economically important things such as building materials, (plywood is still 4 feet by 8 feet!) where the cost of converting outweighed any possible benefit. And the pull of the mighty empire to the south is working, you might have noticed there is a distinct swing back to King Henry’s foot, for example we see pounds gaining ground on grams in our supermarkets. Of course this might reverse itself as China grows to be the economic engine of the world. Interesting times.