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.

8 thoughts on “Extreme Tradition in Measures

  1. We actually use the Queen Anne wine gallon and Winchester bushel.

    Congress has always held the power to fix weights and measures but has delegated it to a Federal agency. In the 19th century to Treasury, who in 1832 fixed the gallon as 231 in³ and the bushel to 2150.42 in³, definitions still in effect (but with an updated inch). These agree with legislation from British Parliament circa 1700.

    We have never used three barley corns. In the early 1800’s, the US obtained a bar (Troughton bar) which reproduced the English yard between two designated inch markings, and later bronze yard #11 (1855) was the official standard of the US. This was retired in 1893 by the Mendenhall Order, which fixed the yard as 3600/3937 m. Note that Mendenhall was the Supervisor of W&M within Treasury and his Order was counter-signed by the Secretary of the Treasury.

    In 1906 when the National Bureau of Standards was formed, Congress redelegated weights & measure authority to the Dept. of Commerce where it remains today (now NIST). In 1958, six English-speaking nations held a conference to mutually agree on a common yard (0.9144 m) and pound (0.453 592 37 kg) which the US adopted 1959-07-01. These definitions remain in place today except for the Survey foot (rod, chain, mile) based on the Mendenhall value, and used ONLY in land measurement.

    All data paraphrased from NIST SP 447 which you would find a better reference than you apparently used.

  2. If he misread mm as m his error would have been even bigger.
    We all know the maven’s dislike for the cm, but every country I’ve been to has embraced the cm as part of their daily measures. I work in mm and m when I’m designing, but still express my height in cm.
    It is a shame we (the U.S.) have a death grip on the units we use.
    I spoke to a potential vendor the other regarding power supplies. I conveyed the measurements of the power supplies we are using in mm. The vendor said “Oh, I hate metric.” I said, “you must be expert because you’ve never used metric, huh.” Sheepishly he said, “Yeah, I’ve never really used it.” Anyway, I doubt I’ll be recommending that vendor to our purchasing agent.

    • I have to agree. Many supporters and opponents of metrication falsely believe that the metric system defined usage. It doesn’t. That is up to the individual discipline.

      Engineering favours the millimetre and most engineers because of this loathe the centimetre. But,t hat doesn’t mean other disciplines can’t use it. All the BIPM and CGPM do is maintain the International System. it is up to the users to pick the prefixes that work best for them.

  3. Maven,
    I really don’t think it matters what you cal the mess used in the US or agree with the present official name, but USC is what is chosen. I actually prefer FFU for Fred Flintstone Units.

    The point I tried to make in the past about calling US units as imperial is that it gives the false impression that the US adopted the imperial reform and that imperial is a unified system equal or better than SI. As long as we can come up with different names for the unit collections, we can show that one is not equal to the other despite using the same words. Yet, all SI units are the same everywhere.

  4. Perhaps “pre-Imperial” units? While “Ye Olde English” may be fun, it can be a bit cumbersome…

    • I think calling them “King George III Units” might be best for discouraging Americans from using them.

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