Queen City of The Rockies

By The Metric Mwalimu

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I live in Denver Colorado. So your semi-humble Metric Maven is constantly bombarded by the phrase: “Mile High City,” and the number 5280. Even the Denver Nerd Nite logo is a pseudo-element with 5280. The mascot of the Denver Broncos is named Miles. Clearly, it must have been apparently early on that my fair (now getting rather overcrowded) city had a special and obvious geographical significance of existing at one mile above sea level to earn that nickname. The true story is more complicated. Denver is fortunate that it has its own “historian at large,” Phil Goodstein.  He has written many books about the history of Denver, and its component neighborhoods. In his book Robert Speer’s Denver 1904-1920, [1] he addresses how Denver obtained its nickname—The Mile High City. It is reproduced below:

Among other things, the Convention League wanted Denver to dump its nickname as the “Queen City of the Plains,”  or “Queen City of Mountain and Plain.” Both appellations had been used since the 1880s. Other metropolises called themselves the “Queen City” in the late 19th century, including Cincinnati, Seattle, and Buffalo. Against this, the Convention League urged labeling Denver the “City of Hospitality,” advertising to one and all that it was a pleasant place to come and spend money. The Denver Times  suggested calling Denver the “City of Homes” to advertise how many residents owned their own abodes.

These proposals never amounted to much. Already in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Denver had sometimes described itself as the “Garden City of the Plains.” Prior to Speer’s taking office on June 1, 1904, some simply sought to call Denver “The City Beautiful.” Such was the slogan of “Seeing Denver,” special tourist excursion streetcars operating from the Brown Palace. The title dropped away as “city beautiful” became more generic than a distinctive moniker. During the 1910s when Denver was starting to develop its mountain parks system, the Real Estate Exchange urged promoting the town as at the “Foot of the Rockies.” The Colorado Publicity League endorsed the trademarked slogan, “Denver: Front Door of the West.” Others urged labeling the metropolis the “City of Sunshine,” and the “Top of the World,” the community where the mountains met the plains. Shortly after World War I, Denver embraced a new identity as the “Mile High City.”

Originally, locals paid little attention to the town’s altitude. Nineteenth-century reports listed its elevation as approximately 5,170 at 15th Street and the Platte River to about 5300 feet above sea level. Around the beginning of the 20th century, residents began to stress Denver’s mile high status. Tramway [A local tram company] denoted this at its cable powerhouse at Colfax and Broadway. The red sandstone cornerstone of the 1888 edifice read “one mile above sea level.” It quickly came out that engineers had misjudged the altitude. The company responded by placing a sign on the second story telling passersby the elevation. On occasion, other businesses referred to themselves as “mile high” this or that. Nonetheless, not until the second decade of the 20th century did Denver begin to have the self-mage as the Mile High City. After the “City of Hospitality” failed to take root, the “Mile High” moniker burst forth. (When the city demolished the Tramway powerhouse in 1913 to make way for the Civic Center, it gave the cornerstone to
the Chamber of Commerce which placed it in the dining room of its Temple of Commerce at 1726 Champa Street.)

Prior to World War I, there had been no consensus about the town’s altitude. Even
when Denver Municipal Facts promoted Denver as  the Mile High City in 1911, it listed the town’s altitude as 5284 feet above sea level. A comparable tourist promotion brochure issued in 1916 had Denver at 5,190 feet. In 1913 a civil engineering report listed the extremes of the city’s height as between 5,126 and 5,482 feet above sea level. Nor have geologists always agreed about the city’s exact elevation.

This came out at the Capitol. Mile High champions observed the seat of the government was exactly one mile above sea level. So one and all would know and
appreciate this, the state placed a brass plate on the west steps of the building in 1909, declaring as much. During the first half of the 20th century, the city installed brass markers around town to pinpoint locations a mile above seal level. As was the case at the Capitol, they disappeared.

After vandals had stolen the fourth such medallion from the Capitol steps in 1947, the building’s longtime superintendent James Merrick, ordered workers to engrave a step on the Capitol, stating one standing atop it was a mile above the ocean. In 1969, college students, seeking to confirm the altitude, discovered the step was only about 5,278 feet above sea level. (Already in 1913, an East High School Physics teacher had asserted it was off by four inches.) In the wake of the 1969 report, the state placed a new Mile High emblem a few steps above the engraved inscription. A 1988 modification of the definition of sea level led to a new survey in 2002, which challenged the accuracy of the second marker. This lead to the installation of a third emblem on the west steps of the Capitol in September 2003.

This explains why John Shafroth (1854-1922) never seemed to have any mention of Denver’s mile high status appear in his bid for the metric system in Congress. The name had not been minted and marketed yet. No one in the Congressional hearings on metric would be familiar with Denver as the “Mile High City,” and throw it out as a bit of
rhetorical hectoring as they opposed the logical measurement system. David Baron in his interesting book American Eclipse refers to Denver as The Queen City as it prepared for the arrival of the total solar eclipse of 1878.

What is not mentioned is that the tokens marking one mile, are on the State Capitol Building, not the city and county building, The city government of Denver is clearly not one mile above sea level. It seems like using the building that is supposed to represent the entire state is cheating, and leaves out the majority of Colorado’s population. Below is an elevation map of the Denver City and County Building:

click to enlarge

Google reports it as 5243 feet or about 11 meters shy of a mile. Below is the elevation reported for the Statehouse for reference:

click to enlarge

As I’ve pointed out, different countries have different definitions of sea level, so no matter where we chose our location for a mile above sea level, that will only be for the US definition of sea level. Once the world considers using the center of our planet as a reference, then the Mile High City is no longer a mile high.

Clearly, there is only one fair way to resolve this situation, the entire state of Colorado is the only US state which is 1 Kilometer above sea level. We should change the signs at our Colorado state borders to read “Welcome to Colorful Colorado — The Kilometer High State.”

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[1] Goodstein, Phil,  Robert Speer’s Denver 1904-1920, Denver New Social Publications 2004 pp 108-110

Kilowatt My Ride

By The Metric Maven

The first manifestation of my interest in both art and engineering was when I first saw some of the crazy models of Kustom Kars created by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. I had obtained a small plastic Rat Fink from a novelty dispenser, and in my single digit youth experienced a fascination with metallic sheen, so I spray painted the small plastic image with gold paint. I witnessed the last few years of the American Graffiti era in the US. On Saturday nights in my small town, I watched a string of cars cruising down main from a second story window. Myself and others would identify each car cruising main street, each had a customized low pitched rumble emanating from their engines. They pointed out cars like a ’57 Chevy Nomad, ’68 Camaro with moons along with three digit integers for each engine displacement. The bigger the number the better. There was the 289, 350, 383, 442, 396 and 454, which all became familiar. The Beach Boys had a song called 409, which a news segment assured me was a fictitious engine displacement number. One evening I saw a late 1950s Chevrolet Impala with a 409 on its side. I thought it was a joke. I knew the person driving it, and asked if it was real. He said “everyone seems to ask me that.” He pulled out the oil dipstick and it read 409 SS. Never had a single number of measurement seemed so romantic. I should have realized The Beach Boys would know more about cars than a TV reporter. In 409, the Beach Boys make a direct metaphor with a horse, as the refrain goes: “Giddy up giddy up 409”

There was not much mention of horsepower, but one would hear values from 300-400 when engines were discussed. It wasn’t something that was readily measured. The time in the quarter mile, or who had beaten whom in late night racing, was the metric used by those who still cruised Front Street. The first and second Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s brought the era of muscle cars to an end for the average teenager. The 1970s was the era when US cars began to become metric.
Only in recent years did I begin to realize that all those three digit engine displacement numbers had all become two digits with a decimal point. When I drive along the streets of my metropolis I see numbers like 3.7 L or sometimes numbers over five liters, which I know is a serious amount of engine displacement.

Engine displacement in cubic inches was a proxy for the power output of a car engine in the 1960s-1970s, a 289 was not going to be as powerful as a 396, but they were not direct power descriptions. They were also strictly tied to Otto gasoline engines. Another type of engine introduced in that era, the Wankel engine by Mazda, was not. It did not have a set of pistons, but instead a stator and rotor, which caused a mismatch between its displacement and that of Otto engines. The Mazda had a 10A engine (10 suggesting 1 Liter). In races this caused considerable confusion, and often the displacement quoted for Wankel engines was doubled. The old “reliable” three digit displacement in cubic inches was not consistent, even for gasoline powered cars.

Dodge Demon

The Kustom Kar Kulture of the 1960s and 1970s has been preserved, but is no longer a mainstream activity of modern youth. The nostalgia for these cars is epitomized in the television series Counting Cars. They are almost exclusively cars from before 1980 and exclusively non-metric. But time has moved on, hot cars remain, but have morphed. My friend, Dr. Sunshine, has a friend, Good Randy, an extreme car enthusiast, who keeps him up on current car culture. Dr. Sunshine one day showed me an image of a car on his smartphone, and asked if I could identify it. I had no idea, other than it looked pretty cool. It is the Dodge Demon, and it is currently the most powerful production car ever created. Rumors were flying that it would have 1000 horsepower or a mere 746 Kilowatt. My mind reeled at the amount of energy flow involved. I made an off-hand comment about how electric motors are much more powerful than mechanical engines. Dr. Sunshine pointed out that in car races electric cars are not allowed, specifically Teslas, which they disparagingly call “the world’s fastest golf cart.” He told me the Tesla has a “ludicrous mode,” where the car is able to go from 0 to 100 Km/hr in 2.8 seconds. I smiled and said that in this case “Maxwell beats Newton.”

Three digit engine displacement has been a problematic proxy for energy output when comparing Otto and Wankel engines, and now electric motors. Electric motors outperform engines,  but don’t have a displacement value, as they are not heat engines. The obvious metric, in a metric age, would be watts. Energy in the metric system is measured in joules. The amount of energy flow is in joules per second, which is defined as a watt. The use of watts provides a measure that is common for all vehicles, steam powered, gasoline powered, diesel powered, natural gas powered, or electric powered. The way to get a feeling for the energy output of vehicles is to compare them with known historic and contemporary vehicles directly and unsegregated. The appropriate prefix would generally be Kilowatts, but to maintain integers (Naughtin’s Laws) I’m going to produce the table using watts:

I suspect that persons in their 20s, 30s and possibly 40s do not have any feeling for a 289 engine versus a 454, as all modern cars have liters on their sides. (My 1959 Volkswagen Beetle had around 1200 mL (cc) written on its rear lid or 1.2 L.) If they have any feeling for the displacement of engines as a proxy, it would probably be in terms of liters. That proxy disappears with electric cars. In my imagination, it would be interesting to see 131 KW on the side of a Toyota Rav 4, and 215 KW on the side of a passing Tesla 2.5 Sport. The Toroidion would have 1000 KW or possibly 1 MW depending on the desires of marketing. The expected values would be from 25 to 1000 KW for cars in general. Looking at the table we can see that my 1959 chartreuse Volkswagen Beetle had about ten times less power than my friend Rick’s 1968 Plymouth Road Runner.

Of course, the power output alone doesn’t given any feeling for the amount of acceleration one can expect. A fast car in the era of Muscle Cars was around 12 seconds or so for a quarter-mile as I recall. A quarter-mile is about 400 meters, so this could be changed to 400 meters. Humans have run the 400 meters since the first modern Olympics in 1896. The current 400 meter world record is 43.03 seconds for a human, so a fast street legal car would take about 12 seconds or so to cover the same distance. The Dodge Demon has the production car record with 9.56 seconds. The Demon is about four times faster in the 400 meters than a human can run. The Tesla Model S takes 10.44 seconds. The world’s fastest horse ran 400 meters in 20.57 seconds. So a horse can run 400 meters about twice as fast as a human. The fastest production car with a heat engine is about twice as fast as the fastest horse.

I won’t hold my breath waiting to see a Jeep Wrangler with 354 KW in chrome letters, a new three letter power designation value, that is actually equal to power, but a person can always dream. Mike Joy sent me an ad from Australia that gave me at least a little hope for the future:

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Related essay:

One Hundred is Everywhere!


The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

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