To Learn Metric Forget Ye Olde English

Isaac Asimov

By The Metric Maven

My favorite author in High School was Isaac Asimov. My Grandfather in  Montana gushed about his writing, and gave me a book with Asimov’s essay Forget It!, which he said I simply had to read. In this essay Dr. Asimov looks over an arithmetic text book from 1797, by an author named Pike, and notes that it has much, much more information than a modern text. But the information contained, along with much in modern textbooks, simply needs to be forgotten as it’s complex and useless for a modern world. The big problem is that we have  imperfectly forgotten much information and need to completely forget it. Here is Asimov describing a section from the textbook on cloth measurement in his essay [1]:

Did you know that 2 1/4 inches make a “nail” ? Well, they do. And 16 nails make a yard; while 12 nails make an ell.

No. wait a while. Those 12 nails (27 inches) make a  Flemish ell. It takes 20 nails (45 inches) to make an English ell, and 24 Nails (54 inches) to make a French ell. Then, 16 nails plus 1 1/5  inches (37 1/5 inches) make a Scotch ell.

Furthermore, almost every piece of goods is measured in its own units…..

Asimov offers examples in excruciating detail, a firkin of butter, a punch of prunes, a fother of lead and a stone of butcher’s meat. Pike’s book even introduces complex arithmetic to take into account the strange groups of values that make up each unit. I’m saving you from a detailed explanation, because if you never learn this, you will not have to forget it all—as is my desire. After going through numerous examples of how to add odd numbered groups and the advantage of using multiples of 10 (i.e. 1000) as an alternative Isaac states:

It so happens that there is a system of measurement based exclusively on ten in this world. It is called the metric system and it is used all over the civilized world except for certain English-speaking nations such as the United States and Great Britain.

By not adopting the metric system, we waste our time for we gain nothing, not one thing, by learning our own measurements. The loss of time (which is expensive indeed) is balanced by not one thing I can imagine…..

There are those, of course, who object to violating our long-used cherished measures. They have given up cooms and chaldrons but imagine there is something about inches and feet and pints and quarts and pecks and bushels that is “simpler” or “more natural” than meters and liters.

There may even be people who find something dangerously foreign and radical …. in the metric system—yet it was the United States that lead the way [with decimal currency].


We must make room for expanding knowledge, or at least make as much room as possible. Surely it is as important to forget the old and useless as it is to learn the new and important.

Forget it, I say, forget it more and more.  Forget it!

But why am I getting so excited? No one is listening to a word I say.

Dr Asimov’s Birthday was on January 2.  RIP Gentle Doctor.

[1] Asimov, Isaac,  Asimov On Numbers, 1977 Chapter 9. The essay originally was published in March 1964 in  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction