Measure for Measure

By The Metric Maven

I have a rather large collection of books. One day I happened to notice a book that was in a plastic sealed bag among the rest, which had clearly been neglected for a considerable period of time. When I investigated, I found a book from 1795 inside. My best guess is that I inherited it from a brilliant family friend known as Skeez. The year 1795 immediately caught my attention as it was in that year the first draft of the metric system was made legal in France. The book is written in English. Unfortunately the title page is but a fragment. Thankfully the fragment has 1795 for a publication date. The book is entitled Secrets Concerning Arts and Trades. It is a sort of combination chemistry and cook book. It has formulas for coffee substitute along with one on how to gild the page edges of books. There is a PDF version at The Internet Archive.

The contents of the book are at the beginning as one would expect. Not unlike books today, it has the contents page numbers paginated with roman numerals. Below is page 13 (xiii) which has the contents of Chapter 6 (VI) entitled Relative to the Art of Gilding. The left column has article numbers which run from 1-20, but beyond that is 1-9 seemingly with the 20 assumed. However at 30 it reverts to double digits from 31-35. This may be done as the numbers cross over to the next page. The article names follow each article number and on the right are the page numbers. When an article is on the same page which has been previously cited, it has ib. below which I suspect is ibid, but does not use the abbreviation id.

Article 33 is of interest, which is A water to gild iron with. When we turn to page 129 we see that article 33 is designated XXXII. Thirty two? The article numbers in the contents are in Arabic numerals, but when you look up the article on its respective page, it is designated with roman numerals. The subsections go back to Arabic. When I first looked through this book I thought that the letter f is also used for s. It appeared that the word glass is spelled glafs.

My friend Sven set me straight that they are not f’s but are actually a version of an s called a long s which was used in old texts. The long s was removed from use in the US and Britain from about 1795 to 1810 according to Wikipedia. Sven pointed out that the long s and short s are used by Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles to date a manuscript:

Holmes stretched out his hand for the manuscript and flattened it upon his knee. “You will observe, Watson, the alternative use of the long s and the short. It is one of several indications which enabled me to fix the date.”

The formula given for gilding of iron in the book is reproduced below:

In modern usage with long s replaced with s we read:

XXXII. A water to gild iron with.

1. Put in a glass bottle, with a pint of river-water, one ounce of white copperas, and as much of white-alum; two drachms of verdigrise and the same quantity of common salt. Boil all together to the reduction of one half. Then stop the bottle well for fear the contents should lose their strength.

2. To gild the iron with it, make it red hot in the fire, and plunge it in this liquor.

We can see how far these measures and methods are from our modern notions, when one is directed to use river water to produce a chemical mixture. The bottle is designated as glass which is what chemists tend to use currently. The pint in 1795 may well have depended on location, but probably the pint as derived from a Winchester gallon. The ounce?–well that’s less sure. Is it volume or weight? White copperas is said to be iron(II) sulfate, and whitealum?—well, that’s less certain. It’s probably potassium alum or hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate.

The word drachm is an alternative British spelling of dram. The dram was originally both a coin and a weight in ancient Greece. The avoirdupois grouping of measures defines it as a mass. It is equal to 1/256 pound = 1/16 ounce or approximately 1.772 grams. Unfortunately there is an alternative dram. It was defined in a grouping of weights and measures known as the apothecaries’ system which uses the troy pound. That dram is equal to approximately 3.888 grams. So which damn dram is it? I have no idea. Nowhere in the book, that I can find, does it indicate what types of pounds, ounces or drams are used. Two drams of of verdigrise? Well this could be about 3.5 grams or 7.8 grams depending on which type of dram is used.

And what is verdigrise? Well, with the help of the internet one can find the book A Complete History of Drugs published which was published in 1748. The title states it is written in French, but what I have is in English. The book distinguishes between natural verdigrise and common verdigrise. One is found in copper mines and the other is created using “Plates of red Copper, and the Skins of Grapes, after pressing, soaked in good wine put together in a large earthen Pot.” A green “rust” will appear which is scraped off. The authors claim that other authorities assert that one should use vinegar, but state this is untrue. “….the greatest Part of the Verdifrise used in France and other Countries is made, and it is a Commodity very difficult to make and hit right.” There follows a considerable discussion of other claims of manufacture and how easy it is to screw-up making a batch. Thankfully chemistry did not continue in this manner, and today it is called copper carbonate (copper (II) carbonate). The green patina on old copper roofs is verdigrise. Today it is spelled without the e as verdigris. We can be rather certain that common salt is sodium chloride, or table salt.

Well, all that was just to figure out what step 1 was. Step two is easier, but still has a bit of uncertainty as one would not measure a temperature, but by proxy use one’s eyes to judge when the iron is red hot. This is about 700 Celsius.

When I paged though this book, It seemed rather clear to me why scientists in 1795 were very much interested in creating a single measurement system for all to use. I often see blog comments which state “metric is only for scientists” and not for “everyday people.” This is a rather rarefied statement and the most blood-red of red herrings. The name of this 1795 book is SECRETS concerning ARTS and TRADES. It has descriptions of how one can create various types of varnish, pigments for painting, transparent colors for painting, dyes for gloves and skins, colors for painting glass, sealing wax, colors for crayons, dyes for woods and bones. In this book there are explanations of how to cast bronze, along with wine recipes, vinegar recipes, and how to make liquors and oils. The final chapter is entitled Of the Art of taking out Spots and Stains which is still a preoccupation of our modern era. This knowledge was essential for ordinary people to make their way in the world as tradesmen. In our current world, it would be an extraordinary person who is not engaged with the use of measurement on a daily basis. Our entire modern world is based on technology and measurement, and the measurement system of choice is the metric system. If the available draft metric system had been used in 1795 to write this book, the formula for gilding might have been written as:

XXXII. A water to gild iron with.

1. Put in a glass bottle, with 500 mL of river-water, 28 grams of white copperas, and 28 grams of white-alum; 3 grams of verdigrise and the same quantity of common salt. Boil all together to the reduction of one half (250 mL). Then stop the bottle well for fear the contents should lose their strength.

2. To gild the iron with it, make it red hot in the fire (700 C), and plunge it in this liquor.

Had I read this version of the formula in this 1795 book, only the names of the chemicals would have been uncertain, but not the quantities. Even if all the existing metric standards were destroyed, and industrial civilization ceased to exist. The possession of a single metric ruler would allow me to mark off 100 mm, construct a cube from it (which is a liter), fill it with water (which is a kilogram), and have very accurate standards with which to work, and recreate the formula.

Alternatively, only given the original 1795  formula, and sans modern standards, I could find 7000 grains of barleycorn and use it to re-create an avoirdupois pound; but it would not be nearly as accurate as my new metric standards. It would also be uncertain if I had chosen the correct pound. Perhaps it should be 5760 grains for a troy pound instead? This choice would determine which ounce I should use in the original formula. Remember 16 ounces in an avoirdupois pound and 12 ounces in a troy. This could be the difference between the formula working or not.

The metric system was created for “the common person” but is also excellent for engineering and science, and is continuously evolving. The US needs to stop embracing weights and measures from our pre-technological past, and use the best measurement system available in the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Hopefully before the 22nd arrives.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:

The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays  that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website,  but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.

The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.

The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.

3 thoughts on “Measure for Measure

  1. It’s much easier if all units used are given in the same quantity. Either all volume or all mass. In that way, as long as you know the ratios between them, you can reproduce the recipe on any scale, even if you can’t measure the original units accurately.

    e.g. An old recipe written in pounds and ounces (mass) can be converted by picking just picking what value you will substitute for 1 oz, and knowing the ratio between all the different mass units provided. It wouldn’t matter if you converted 1 oz to 30g, 50g or any other value, as long as you’re consistent.

    But with an old recipe written in a combination of both mass and volume, it’s much harder because the ingredient ratios are not as clear.

  2. Since today is 7 April 2015, let us wish the former-but-longtime USMA President Valerie Antoine an HH! (“Happy Hectoyear!”) on her 100th birthday, and hope the Maven will put his uneasiness about the prefix hecto-
    on hold for the day…

    • I definitely will put my objections to hecto aside (for a day) to congratulate Valerie Antoine. Happy Hectoyear! Thank you for all your effort.

      I would like to also take note of the longtime service and effort that Lorelle Young has given to metrication over many, many years. She did her best to work within the system as much as was possible to affect a change to metric in the U.S..


Comments are closed.