Beyond Measure The Hidden History of Measurement from Cubits to Quantum Constants

Beyond Measure by James Vincent gives his view of the metric system early in the book as:

…the single most significant event in the history of measurement: the creation of the metric system.

After 145 pages, we reach the chapter which discusses the creation of the metric system, titled The Metric Revolution. We note immediately that he assigns the entire creation of the metric system to French savants. There is zero mention of John Wilkins as the originator of the system. One would think that as it is “the most significant event in the history of measurement” that he might delve as deeply into its history as he does all the pre-metric measures he examines over the first 4 chapters. There is zero mention of the Royal Society’s involvement in the creation of the system that would become the metric system. It was Wilkins and his collaborators who proposed the use of a seconds pendulum as a basis for a standard of length. The pendulum separated measurement from body parts, and for the first time used a scientific phenomena as a basis for length.

A different Englishman makes it into Vincent’s text:

Journeying through France in 1789, the English agriculturist and travel writer Arthur Young commented on the ‘tormenting variations’ of the countries units of measurement. ‘[T]he infinite perplexity of measures exceeds all comprehension,’ he wrote. ‘They differ not only in every province, but in every district and almost every town… The denominations of the French measures, as readers will see, are almost infinite.’

The author goes on to mention the measures of Europe were also large in number and with similar problems—-but apparently England is not mentioned as its measures were fine?

Vincent gives his impression of the metric artifacts he viewed in Paris. One has the feeling he is more interested in them as ecclesiastical artifacts rather than as historical ones. He offers three important characteristics of the metric system:

Firstly, they decided that the units should be interconnected. The capacity measure should be constructed from a cube made of a unit length, which when filled with water, would provide the basic unit of weight.

Well, as I’ve pointed out in my own monograph on the history of the metric system, John Wilkins and others proposed this, published it, and it was an idea that had clearly circulated on the continent before the French “first proposed it.”

“Secondly, the system should be decimal, with all units divisible by 10.” This was the second idea that indeed was introduced by the French for the new system.

“The third and major change was linguistic. The savants would devise an entirely new taxonomy for the system, with new names for units paired with Greek and Latin prefixes to denote multiples and fractions. These
included familiar terms like kilo for 1,000 units and cent [sic] for 0.01 parts, but also less common terms like demi for a half unit and now forgotten prefixes like myria, for multiples of 10,000.”

So, the author is very right that the French introduced this third and very important aspect to the metric system, and has done enough research to know that demi and myria were prefixes?—but act as if the metric system appeared out of an intellectual vacuum?
The debate concerning whether to use the seconds pendulum or a measurement of the Earth is then discussed:

For many years, it seemed like the seconds pendulum would be the preferred method. It had backers in England and France, and traced its linage back to Galileo,….

Again, there is deafening silence concerning Wilkins linguistic and metrological work that had circulated in England and Europe. As usual, the construction of a very elaborate seconds pendulum by the French savants, and the data they took, is completely left out of Vincent’s history. Of course there is more drama in the difficulties Delambre and Mechain encountered trying to measure one-quarter of the length around the Earth. There is the added drama of the “error” in their measurement of the Earth. There is less drama in the controlled and localized design and construction of the seconds pendulum standard. The comprehensive nature of the French seconds pendulum design, and its construction, is a technical marvel of the time, and should have gained at least some ink that it was employed, before it was politically abandoned.

Like John Bemelmans Marciano’s anti-metric polemic Whatever Happened to the Metric System, Vincent seems much more interested in the French Revolution than the origin of the metric system. When he discusses a “universal language” it is that of Condorcet, and apparently he either was unaware of Wilkins’ contribution to trying to develop a universal language, that would act as a sort of metric system of language. The author moves on to decimalized time, and we are finished with “the single most significant event in the history of measurement.” Over half of the book remains, and but a feckless discussion of the origin of the metric system has taken place. Vincent states:

The metric system and its egalitarian principles were happily incorporated into the new order, with metre and kilogram taking their place in a symbolic language of republicanism.

But without the historical context of the contributions of John Wilkins, and Simon Steven’s decimalization, we don’t realize the idea for this measurement system had been an idea that had been proposed, and circulated in England and Europe for decades. Only with the right political environment could it possibly be implemented, and as he points out, the moment came, and then vanished, as the French then turned their backs on the metric system in 1804. He sees the metric system as arising, fully formed from the head of Zeus. This is not good scholarship.

The book discusses the origin of land surveying, mostly in the US and Britain, then mortality statistics, and statistics in general, and their dark side.

Vincent eventually returns to the metric system in a chapter titled “Metric vs imperial and metrology’s culture war.” The author discusses the creation of Active Resistance to Metrication (ARM), formed in 2001, and their altering or removing more than 3 000 signposts across the UK. The leader of this group believes they have a biblical mandate to halt metrication. It is noted that UK metric conversion began in 1965, long before the EU came into existence. The sale of a bunch of bananas using imperial measure was the incident which precipitated the “Metric Martyrs” into becoming the subjects of national press coverage. Revisionist history blamed “EU overreach” for this measurement imposition. This incident may have affected the vote for “Brexit” and the UK leaving the EU, even though the EU had surrendered in 2007, and told the UK it could use Imperial measures if it wanted.

The author summarizes the anti-metric battles of the 19th century in the US. The pyramid inch and other pseudo-scientific arguments are presented. Vincent then makes an interesting comparison:

We can see how the nineteenth-century Battle of the Standards resembles present-day culture wars, pitching an “authentic” class of workers against an out-of-touch elite.

The rest of his discussion of anti-metrication in the US is little different than that found in other works. It ends with Tucker Carlson’s rant against the metric system. It is difficult to recommend a book on measurement, and the metric system, that includes Tucker Carlson, and omits John Wilkins.

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Fool’s Gold

Pierre has yet again pointed me to a television program that has prompted a metric essay. This one is called Gold Rush: Freddy Dodge’s Mine Rescue. Freddy and his work partner Juan, show up for a week at gold mines, assess the design of their sluice boxes, and improve them, so that the owners have a fighting chance to make a profit, and carve out a livelihood. Some of these mines are “hobby mines.” The very concept of a hobby mine seemed a bit questionable, as much as “hobby farm.” I grew-up in the Midwest and West. There was nothing but labor involved in farming and ranching, I could not see how that would be a fun “hobby.”

When I watched the first episode, I saw Freddy and Juan show up at a mining site, run the current sluice box design, weigh the amount of gold, and then institute their re-design.
The new design would be run for the same amount of time, and then the extracted gold was weighted, and compared with the original design output, in ounces. When I saw them measuring in ounces, my mind went back to my Nerd Nite talk many solar orbits back. I had a question for the crowd, “which weights more?—-a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?” Screams came from the audience saying they were the same. No, they are not. If you took a pound of feathers and put it on one side of a balance, and a pound of gold was placed on the other side of the balance, it would become clear, the feathers have more mass. So a pound of feathers weighs more than a pound of gold.

The next question for the audience was “which weights more? An ounce of feathers—or an ounce of gold?” The audience again screamed they were the same, but no, I had to tell them that in this case an ounce of gold weights more than an ounce of feathers.

How could this be? Well, because our Ye Olde English measures for weight, which are often both thought to be from France, one of these is the avoirdupois pound, which is commonly used in the US. There is an argument that it may have originated in Italy, but either way, not English. The other unit is the Troy pound, which is named after a location in France, but is argued to have originated in England. Both pounds are based on the grain, there are 7000 grains in an avoirdupois pound and 5760 grains in a troy pound, so an avoirdupois pound is heavier than a troy pound. Traditionally, gold is measured in troy pounds and common materials are measured with avoirdupois. So a pound of feathers would weigh more than a pound of gold. But, what about the ounces? Well, there are 12 ounces in a troy pound, and 16 in a avoirdupois pound, so the troy ounce weighs more than an avoirdupois ounce. Therefore an ounce of gold weighs more than an ounce of feathers. I first ran across this as a boy when reading a paperback book of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

As I watched Freddy and Juan measure the gold before and after their upgrades, they kept calling it simply ounces. I was sure the ounces had to be troy, but never was this mentioned. Finally, I saw a close-up of the scale and it said Ozt for ounces troy. I would love to purchase gold in troy ounces and sell it in avoirdupois ounces for the same price. That would be a simple money making scheme. The two would sometimes talk in fractions of an ounce, and other times in a decimal manner. What was clear to me was it would all be a lot simpler if they used grams.

In the episode “The Gold Thief,” Freddy and Juan are at a mine near Helena Montana, where I lived at one time. The state motto of Montana is “Oro Y Plata” which is Gold and Silver in Spanish. They measure 0.1 Ozt before their remake of the mine operation. Afterward, it was 0.47 Ozt, or over four times the amount of gold the previous method had produced. At a mine in Colorado they measured 0.65 Ozt before their fixes, and 1.05 Ozt after their fix. In Alaska they measure 0.27 Ozt over a 12 hour shift. Afterward it was 0.61 ounces troy. I never hear anyone say: “how much is that? I don’t have a feel for that.” As long as it says ounces everyone is comfortable. I recall a story in a foreign country where a driver was asked how far a drive around 200 Km was. They asked, is that about 200 miles? The driver would always say yes, and the the Americans would be perfectly happy after that point. At a bush location in Alaska, where they had to fly-in what was needed for the mine improvements, Freddy and Juan measured 2.25 Ozt, and afterward, 4.13 Ozt. Of course it makes perfect sense to me, and also to Pierre that this should all be massed in grams.

So lets see how the data looks using grams (Gold is about $60 per gram):

Before After Before After
1) 0.1 Ozt 0.47 Ozt 3.11 grams 14.61 grams
2) 0.65 Ozt 1.05 Ozt 20.21 grams 32.65 grams
3) 0.27 Ozt 0.61 Ozt 8.40 grams 18.97 grams
4) 2.25 Ozt 4.13 Ozt 69.98 grams 228.46 grams
I’ve been unable to get this table to correctly space. My apologies.

There is no confusion about which ounce is used, as grams are a universal unit. In the case of 4) above, I could not see an indication they were measuring in troy.

The shows were all rather straightforward, showing Freddy and Juan using inches, and Freddy trying to recall how to give fractions in Spanish, which was painful to watch. Then Freddy and Juan went to the Yukon Territory, which is of course, Canada. They measured 1.40 Ozt initially, and using a very interesting slotted plate design, afterward measured more. But before the end of the show, there is always a short interlude bump between commercials. In this one we have:

Freddy: “25.4 millimeters in an inch.”

Derek: “Hey, that’s right, right on the money. That’s right, that’s good.”

Narrator: “Working in Canada, Freddy has to constantly switch measurements.”

Father: “Derek just goes like this.”

Derek is shown measuring with his thumb and forefinger, about 100 mm or so at a time.

Derek: “six fingers” (which is about 600 mm)

Freddy: “So if you ever need a — if you’ve got US currency.” (Freddy pulls out a US one-dollar bill)

Derek: “What the hell?”

Freddy: “It’s exactly 6 inches. So if you don’t have a tape measure, the US dollar is exactly six. So six to twelve (going end for end) you can divide it and get 3. You can keep on dividing your money down and get an inch or whatever you want.

Derek: “Is that real?”

Freddy: “Yep”

Father: “They thought about everything eh.”

Ammonite fossil which has been fossilized with iron pyrite.

I measured a random one dollar bill an it’s 6 1/8 inch, which is pretty close—not exact. It’s not a bad estimate. References online claim it’s: “6.14 inches, and the width is 2.61 inches.” What really hurts is that a Canadian bill, according to Wikipedia, is 6.00 inches by 2.75 inches, so it could be said that it’s more “American” than Freddy’s American dollar bill. E tu Canada?—that hurts. It’s clear that Freddy had not thought about everything. He does not mention using millimeters for construction, he only pops out a US dollar to show an ad hoc measurement estimate like a low budget magic trick. Derek was almost certainly showing the wonders of 100 mm modules to Freddy, and in the case of 600 mm, that can be divided easily and exactly by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, 24, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 120, 150, 200, 300 and 600. Freddy essentially gets the last word, without the Canadians getting the first on the program. It’s sad to see a “practical guy” like Freddy so ignorant of the advantage of millimeters in construction. But then “practical people” have been using familiar but inefficient methods of measurement, for well over 100 years after they should have known better.

After the interlude, and some commercials, they get to weighing the gold with the new design:

Freddy: “Well, that’s the gold from the new bottom sluice. 0.17”

Father: “Whoa”

Freddy: “So 5 1/2 grams”

Derek: “5 1/2 grams?”

Freddy: “That’s troy ounces.”

Freddy and Juan know a lot about sluice box design, but like so many academics, they are so specialized they can’t see they are using the fool’s gold of measurements, rather than the gold nugget that is metric.