Extreme Tradition in Measures

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

I have never been crazy about the Middle Ages or Medieval Times. It makes me think of the black plague, trial by ordeal, unclean water, the emptying of chamber pots from second floor windows, and other unpleasantness that is best left in the past. Given the choice, I will take modern medicine, law, and municipal water over those offered before this century anytime. I would hope that most US citizens would feel the same way. I find it interesting that when it comes to weights and measures there is a disconnect. The US clings to a system that is anachronistic in the extreme. How anachronistic? I’m glad you asked.

For instance, we in the US use the Winchester Wine Gallon. So why is it called Winchester? Well according to Page 30 of  Evolution of Weights and Measures (EOWAM) by William Hallock and Herbert Wade (1906):

With Winchester are associated the earliest Anglo-Saxon weights and measures, and their authority as standards is said to date back to King Edgar (reigned 958-975), who decreed that “the measures of Winchester shall be the  standard.”

We in the US also proudly use the Winchester bushel for our dry goods. Despite the fact that we fought a Revolutionary War with Great Britain, and without the French and General Lafayette providing essential financial and military aide,  we might never have become a separate nation, we cling to the traditional measures used by England—-or do we?

On page 35 of EOWAM we read:

The Winchester corn gallon, as the measure is known, was employed until it was supplanted in 1824 by the imperial gallon, while its companion, the Winchester bushel, which was similarly outlawed in 1824 in favor of the imperial bushel in Great Britain, has survived in the United States.


On the reorganization of the weights and measures  in 1824 the wine gallon was abolished, [in Great Britain] but it was never supplanted in the United States and remains as the legal gallon. The British imperial gallon, [was] legalized in 1824…

And on page 36:

In fact, we find the Anglo-Saxon measures of length perpetuated on the same basis as is given in the statute of Edward II [in 1324], where there is a restatement in statutory form of what has since become the well-known rule that three barley-corns round and dry, make an inch, twelve inches a foot, three feed a yard (ulna), five and one half yards a perch, and forty perches in length and four in breadth an acre.

The British even updated their definition of a yard in 1824, by defining it in terms of a seconds pendulum (page 37). Despite President Washington imploring Congress to legislate and create a rational set of measures for the United States, there has been (as far as traditional weights and measures goes) no legislation up to this day. The US Metrologists were left without a rudder, which is why many US measurement decisions, like the Mendenhall Order have come from individuals who found they had no choice but to make a decision so that commerce in the US could continue without disruption. The only weights and measurements legislation ever enacted concerned appropriating a troy mass artifact from the UK for the coinage of currency This is not the common pound in use by the US today. Otherwise congress has been silent.

Below is a table of three common contemporary US measures and the traditional ones used last by the UK before metric:

Five Gallons Imperial = 22.730 Liters

The US quart is derived from the gallon, as is the pint, as is the fluid ounce. We can see that the current measures used in the US, are not even those which were revised by the UK in the 19th century. The table above illustrates just how neglected are the weights and measures of the US. This magnitude of neglect gives procrastination a bad name. By comparison, we are behind the British measurement reforms of the 19th century by 9 centuries for liquid and dry measure (as if we need both), but only 5 centuries behind them in defining length. Ten penny nails sold in the US are named from the price of 100 nails that were sold in the 15 century. So, is our set of weights and measures more traditionally British, than the British use? It looks that way to me. How on earth can we call these units US Customary? They are as traditional as British/Anglo-Saxon measures as one can get. The are not even reformed British measures. They are fundamentalist British measures. It’s as if a Renaissance Fair was tasked with providing the US with its current weights and measures. I guess it’s what makes America great—measures which are 11 centuries old for volume and weight (no mass, or other important scientific concepts back then)—and an inch from 7 centuries ago.

I’ve never liked the rubric “US Customary” for the current anarchy of US units. It gives the completely non-systematic and backward set of weights and measures a cache they do not deserve. It is placing lipstick on a pig and calling her Monique. Considering that the units we use here in the US are actually English units which are centuries old, anachronistic, and unused even by England after their 19th century reforms, I will from now on call them US Olde English Units, or Ye Olde English Units. Alternatively I may call them the US Anarchy of Units, as Sven does, which is probably more descriptive.

The British realized they had not sufficiently defined the wine gallon in the 16th century and so defined it as 231 cubic inches. Robert Zupko on page 48 of his book Revolution in Measurement states:

In a special examination conducted by the Standards Department during 1931-32, the actual capacity of this gallon was found to be 230.824 cubic inches, a figure that would be found grossly inadequate  by today’s standards, ….

Is this what our country is? One that cannot even find the where-with-all to abandon 10th and 14th century measurement units that the British reformed in the 19th?–and who have since changed to the metric system in the 20th? The British are at least well over half-way to metric it appears. We’re still standing still—solipsistically contemplating our traditional greatness—and apparently proud to remain centuries behind the modern world.


To elaborate on the antiquity of our measures, the reference I quoted from: Evolution of Weights and Measures, from 1906, states that King Edgar who reigned in the  10th century decreed that “the measures of Winchester shall be the  standard.”  Queen Anne is credited with requiring this wine gallon be used by statute in 1707.  The illustration of the wine gallon shown above has that date on it.  It is also known as the Exchequer wine gallon. In 1850 the Universal Dictionary of Weights and Measures, Ancient and Modern; Reduced to the Standards of The United States of America by J.H. Alexander was published in Baltimore. Its entry on the gallon is reproduced:

The Winchester Wine Gallon is shown as unity on the right hand side. This indicates it is the standard for the US. This Wine Gallon is traced back to  the tenth century–at least, as I indicated, and is the same as the Queen Anne Wine Gallon.

The same Universal Dictionary from 1850 also states our bushel is the Winchester Bushel:

Before there was a United States, there were British colonies. The barleycorn inch was inherited from England, and when the US won its independence, this did not change. George Washington implored Congress in his first State of The Union Address on January 8, 1790 to address the weights and measures. They did not.  The barleycorn  inch was there, and used by US citizens. The barleycorn inch was introduced around 1066 AD. According to Robert Zupko the author of Revolution in Measurement 1990 (page 62):

An act of 1620 was the first to describe the foot as the length of 12 inches, even though a statute in 1685 still continued to define the inch as the length of 3 barleycorns set lengthwise. The sheer number [of statutes] unfortunately produced a difficult situation.

The barleycorn is the basis of current US shoe sizes, which I detail in my essay Brannock and Barleycorns.

One can quibble about the authority of references, but these are primary sources from the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Even NIST needs references. That we use very, very old measures, I think should be clear, and is the point of the essay.


The Big Bang Theory on 2013-10-24 aired an episode entitled The Romance Resonance. In it, Sheldon manages to develop a set of steps to synthesize a new stable super heavy element.

Unfortunately, Sheldon later realized that he had misread his Handbook of Chemistry and Physics.

Sheldon: I’ve made a horrible mistake

Amy: What are you talking about?

Sheldon: This table, it’s in square centimeters. I read it as square meters. Do you know what that means?

Amy: That Americans can’t handle the metric system?

It of course makes perfect sense to me that centimeters should be the villain.

Olde English is Such a Tool

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

One of the perennial red herrings that is enlisted by those who want to stop the metric system from being adopted in the US, is the cost of tools. As we have seen, representatives of small business in the 1977 metric hearings asserted that if they were compelled to purchase metric tools that it would cause a “metric apocalypse,” and requested the government have disaster loans available for small business. Tooling costs have been cited as a reason to resist metrication in the 1905, 1921 and the 1977 metric hearings. Last April I gave a talk about the metric system to an audience that had a considerable number of engineers and scientists. One of the very first questions was: “but what about the tooling costs of conversion?” I could not help myself, I laughed, and then explained why it’s nothing but a canard.

At one company for which I worked, a few years back, I was recruited to work on the development a system which would put RFID tags on tools. It was an interesting idea, each tool would have an RFID tag which would allow all the tools in the back of a pickup truck to be automatically inventoried at the end of each day. If there were any tools missing, it would be known immediately.

I naively said “Is this a big problem—losing tools?”

The reply was incredulity at the question “It’s astronomical, this is a great opportunity.”

The project did not continue, but the information stuck in my mind. Recently I had some work done on my house. The contractor showed up and soon needed to leave because he didn’t have a tool. It was an elliptical sander. In order to keep the work progressing I lent him mine. He admitted he had purchased three sanders this year because he had lost them. “I just don’t know how they get lost” he said with incredulity.

I mentioned this to my father who immediately recognized the problem. So many tools were disappearing each month at his printing company, that the resulting bills at the local hardware store caused considerable consternation. My father was asked what could be done to stop the loss of tools. He replied they could lock them up and only give them out when needed. It was decided that this could cause a considerable loss of time if no one with the key was around to pass out tools during an equipment breakdown. The cost of the tools seemed smaller than the loss of production time.

In the US we have two types of wrenches, US Olde English and metric, so potentially, in the worst case lost tools could cost us twice as much as the rest of the world. It also costs twice as much as the rest of the world to maintain two sets of tools.

The other aspect is to question just how many tools first of all are dependent on a scale and second would need to be replaced. When I look at my own tools in my Engineering prototype lab I see:

Screwdrivers — No change needed
Levels — No change needed (mine do not have any scales on them)
Cordless & Corded Drill — No Change needed, metric or US Olde English bits will fit.
Vice Grips — No Change needed
Crescent Wrenches == No Change Needed
Tweezers — No Change Needed
Clamps — No Change Needed
Files — No Change needed
Chisels — No Change Needed
Pliers– No Change Needed
X-Acto Knife — No Change Needed
Hammer — No Change Needed
Putty Knife — No Change Needed
Glue — No Change Needed
IR Thermometer — No Change Needed (Use Celsius only)
Pipe Cutter — No Change Needed
Shrink Tubing — No Change Needed
Scotch Brite — No Change Needed
Chemicals — No Change Needed (purchase in mL or L only)
Q-Tips — No Change Needed
Arbor Press — No Change No Change
Soldering Iron(s) — No Change Needed
Reflow Oven (Soldering) — No Change Needed (Use Celsius setting only)

Drill Bits — Yes (but  they wear out and are replaced)
Calipers — Yes (to get metric only)
Allen Wrenches Yes (to get metric only)
Radius Gauge Yes (to get metric only)
Wire Stripper — Yes (if metric wire is introduced)
Tape Measure — Yes (to get metric only)
Tap Set — Yes (to get metric only)
Machine Screws — Yes (to get metric only)
Scales/Rulers — Yes (To get metric only)
Socket Set — Yes (to get metric only)

This unscientific inventory of the common tools in my lab indicates that a majority of them would not need replacement. The ones that are cited for replacement generally already have been purchased by small businessmen out of necessity to deal with Domestic and Foreign products that are metric. The cost of changing over to metric would be minimal. It is also lost on businessmen that only in the US do we need to have two sets of tools, one US Olde English and also metric. Apparently this doubling of tooling cost doesn’t scare them nearly as much as legislation for metric only in this country.  It’s time to cast aside the irrational arguments about the incredible amounts of cost that metric “re-toolling” would incur. It costs us more, about $16 per day per person, not to have metric only tools and measurements in this country. Small business is wasting money by not demanding metric only legislation in the US.