My friend Sven takes daily walks. He sometimes discovers unusual sights, which he generously shares with me, by using the camera on his cell phone. Sven is also interested in metrication, and often uncovers engaging topics for conversation on his journeys. One day Sven came across an empty flattened box in the middle of a walking trail. This box had once contained bell peppers There is a grocery store nearby, which may have been its source. Generally I have little interest in vegetables, but green bell peppers are an ingredient in my father’s tuna salad recipe—a perennial favorite of mine. As you can see in Sven’s photograph below, the quantity stated on the box is 1 1/9 bushels. My mind froze-up when it tried to make rational sense of this quantity. “One and one ninth bushels?” I kept thinking, how on earth did this come to be.
I then mistakenly did what many of my fellow Americans do when confronted with this type of measurement irrationality. I assumed there is a “good reason” this volume was chosen for bell peppers. I emailed people that sold bell peppers, and looked online for an answer. It was easy to find manufacturers who would sell farmers 1 1/9 bushel boxes for their bell peppers. There appeared to be no other quantity offered. People who sold bell peppers told me they had no idea why this quantity was chosen. Apparently the reason was the same one I have had heard many times: “it’s because we’ve always done it this way.”
I found a US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Handbook Number 697 entitled: Weights, Measures, and Conversion Factors for Agricultural Commodities and Their Products from 1992. The only volume it lists for packaging bell peppers is 1 1/9 bushel. It also gives approximate mass in kilograms and weight in pounds:
I did not find the answer to my question about the origin of “standard” 1 1/9 bushel boxes in this work, nor have I found it anywhere else. What I did find was a mind-numbing set of quantities that defy rational explanation. I did also find other produce sold in 1 1/9 bushel quantities, they are, Chinese Cabbage, Cucumbers, Eggplant and Escarole.
When 1 1/9 bushels is converted to liters, it’s 39.15. A single bushel is 35.23 liters, for a 3.92 liter difference. Why not just sell a bushel? I tried finding a logical relationship that might make sense, but failed. The choice of this quantity, 1 1/9 bushels for bell peppers, appears to be one of the mysteries of imperial weights and measures I will never unlock.
Sven was not slacking off and continued his treks across the metro area. I next received a photograph he had taken of a local speed limit sign. I had no idea what to make of it:
What on earth? A speed limit sign which demands a precision of 1/2 mile per hour? Its whole number is seventeen?—an odd number? Perhaps the city council liked using prime numbers for speed limits?—so why the 1/2? This sign made little sense to me, but then a long time metric advocate suggested that perhaps someone had decided that the speed limit should be half of 35 mph. I can see someone in authority saying: “people are driving too fast through that area, let’s make the speed limit half of what it is now.” Others thought it was a staged joke—no, this is a real sign. My speedometer has 5 mph graduations. I guess to be certain I remain legal, I would have to drive at 15 mph. It is my understanding that the best police radars have an uncertainty of one mile per hour, and handheld radar guns have a two mile per hour resolution. The absurdities cascade. Law enforcement can’t even measure to this level of precision—yet signs exist demanding it.
Sven had taken the photograph above some time ago, and went back to make certain the 17 1/2 mph sign was still extant—it was. As important, was the fact that he encountered a new 12 1/2 mph sign shown below:
This sign might be some compromise between a 10 and 15 mph sign, but Sven had a more subtle hypothesis. Perhaps the addition of the 1/2 to the signs was to get people to actually read them. It may be the case that drivers simply “tune out” all the ubiquitous speed limit signs and just drive without any notion of the actual speed limit. By adding the strange speeds, with odd numbers and fractions, drivers might actually take note of what speed they should not exceed. Like anything else, this novelty will only work until it becomes common and people no longer notice.
One of the weird, and in my view frivolous, historical objections to the US becoming essentially the last country on the planet to convert to metric, is that the conversion would create odd and strange numbers, that would appear on signs with decimals behind them. First this is simply not true. The nearest metric value would be used. The rest of the world has been just fine for many many decades. Odd numbers are just not an issue. Second, we don’t need the metric system to create absurd values for our road signs, produce, and other commodities. As the signs demonstrate, we clearly do this to ourselves already, without hesitation. It’s long past time we gave up bushels, pecks and barrels, for liters, as well as inches, feet, yards, and miles, for meters. Americans constantly claim they want to “simplify their lives,” the metric system would help them do that—but there is little evidence they are sincerely interested.
Update: A longtime metric advocate emailed me with an interesting hypothesis about the choice of 1 1/9 bushel boxes. It is possible that pallets with 9 boxes form a unit for “standard” stacking. This would make each unit 10 bushels. One could count up the number of stacked units and easily figure out how many bushels are on the pallet. Three levels would be 30 bushels, four would of course be 40 bushels.