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Letters from Downunder

Measure for Measure

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(August, 2010) ‘When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: It may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.’

Lord Kelvin, May 3, 1883

Back in ancient times there were no set standards for weights and measures. It appears the King and his court had the correct sized body parts, as his feet and so on were used for measurements. In due time, these measurements became more and more standardized until they were fixed by law and mathematics. The same once arbitrary units for weight, etc. also became standardized in the industrially revolutionized world. Those standardized units came to an end when a certain M. Bonaparte, having seen the work done by M. Lavoisier and the French Academy, gave his seal of approval on August 1, 1793 for the introduction of the metre, litre and the kilogram as the standards to be used henceforth in France and all French territories. Basic standards became housed in special rooms to which commonly made units could be referred, and things, as they say, went bullish. By 1875 there was the first international weights and measures authority, and others have followed since.

The age of reason and rationality had indeed come up with a pretty neat idea of basing every measurement on the beautifully simple number, ten. And, of course, it changed everything, for it has always been so much easier to shift a decimal point than to divide or multiply by three, twelve, sixteen, or any one of a dozen other numbers that had been in use. France steamed ahead in mathematics, trade and influence, while the poor inheritors of the British system shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘So What?’ The British Empire was safe, English was the tongue spoken, so the French got another two-fingered salute.

The shrug was due to hostility; firstly to the idea that the French could come up with anything better than the English, but more importantly to the sheer difficulty of changing everything. An engineer, for instance, having learnt the number of threads per inch in a whit-worth bolt and the nut that fit it, as well as the stresses that bolt could withstand, would never consider relearning the metric system. Why bother when theirs worked just fine? All but one profession agreed with them; that one profession was science. This burgeoning new discipline took to the metric system with relative alacrity. For not only did they need to have a universal language in which to compare the results of their research, but their understanding of and dependency on mathematics meant that lovely number ten was both manna and siren song.

Well, as one whose forebears arrived in Britain a few thousand years B.C., I hate to have to admit that the French were right. But as a scientist, I bless them for their rationality, and I bless Nappie for making sure that everything else was swept before it. It would be no fun doing a titration using minims or fluid ounces, or referring to ‘micro inches’ and not micrometers.

And so the march of metrics has gone on around the world. In 1974 Australia broke free from the old pounds, shillings and pence, the foot-pounds and horsepower, the unmanageable fractions of ounces, inches and minims, and we were one of the last. Except for one or two things, even good old Britain turned against their own to go French. Today only three countries in the world have not embraced the system: Liberia, Minimar (Burma), and please do not read the next few words, (I’ll write them softly) The United States of America. Shame on you all!

I well remember the things we went through during ‘the change.’ Yes, equally as traumatic, with no helpful medication. Going to dollars and cents was the most difficult thing. Though it was difficult getting shops and suppliers to tell us the new weights and measures so that we could compare, being do or die Aussies, we went on smiling – except for the so and so engineers who grizzled and grumbled their way to showdowns with the government, warnings of economic collapse, job losses and other weird things, but who now cannot remember what an inch is. The change cost money, but not so much that we did not recoup it in about eighteen months. It certainly created an enormous number of jobs, and really, we have not regretted it at all. It was a former life. (Remember those?)

So how about you, readers? It is never too late to change. Tell the engineers to go weigh themselves. Tell the entrenched status quo factions to arrive in the nineteenth century at last. You have a head start. Your monetary system is in tens. Dare I say the rest is out of step?

On this, the birthday of the metric system – yes, 217 years old today, August the first – why not light a candle, send it a birthday card, and buy it a present. It will only coast a fighter plane or two to introduce, it is the ultimate in excitement, and it would get the wheels of industry turning 100 times faster. Not to mention it will bring us all closer.

Oh yes – that is the one universal measurement: time. Sixty seconds to an hour, 24hours to a day, 365 (6) days to a year. I guess that will never change to tens.

Time for happy hour!

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker