Trying To Outrun Ye Olde English

By The Metric Maven

If you’re studying Geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but Philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.

– Steve Martin

I spent a lot of my youth reading about philosophy. I mostly took classes in, and read books about, the philosophy of science. It has been of great interest, and I tended to agree with Steve Martin. Recently, I realized that it is possible to remember just enough about Ye Olde English units to screw me up for the rest of my life. The problem was inculcated into my psyche in High School. I had a serious Basketball Jones, and was almost addicted to playing the game. My coach was not amused when I was not that excited about track, and might have even thought about opting-out. After some time, I realized I was just good enough to run a leg on a relay team, and participated. The world of the mid 1970s was one where metric was in the news, but track still had the 100 yard dash. The rest of the world ran the 100 meter dash.

The relay I often ran was the 440 yard relay, where each person would run 110 yards and then pass a baton off to another person. There was the 880 yard relay where each person would run 220 yards and pass the baton. The distances generally discussed were 110 yards, 220 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and the mile. Below are images of two ribbons my team won for the 440 yard and 880 yard relays when I was in High School.

The relay team had to place at the district track meet to move on to divisional. Going to the divisional track meet meant you could travel to a large city, experience something different, and hang out with your fellow athletes. One year, a few of the participants from our school were not able to place in any of their chosen events, and it looked like they would have to stay home.

The coach had an idea that definitely demonstrated just how much these unfortunates wanted to participate at the divisional track meet. The last event, which had still not occurred, was the mile relay. It was a terrible gut race. Each person would have to run one-quarter of a mile. My mind immediately realized that each person would have to run a 440 yard leg. The 440 was an all out gut-race. It is so short that you had to run as fast as possible for the entire length of the race. It was so long, that your body was completely spent and almost convulsing by the time you reached the finish line. The group wanted to go badly enough they did the mile relay, placed, and went to the Divisional Track Meet with the rest of us.

What seemed obvious to me at the time was that a 440 yard relay was also often called a quarter-mile relay. The 880 yard relay was also called a half-mile relay. It implied that someone had thought about our Ye Olde English measurement system, and made it possess a symmetry that made sense. A 440 yard relay, had four 110 yard legs, the 880 yard relay had four 220 yard legs, and of course the mile relay would have four 440 yard legs. The symmetry was great and clearly there were 1660 yards in a mile. It made sense, all the others had dual digits: 110, 220, 440, 880 and 1660 made perfect sense. Why would I question it?—it sounded perfectly right. The problem for me was that this incorrect sequence of numbers was attached to my mind as strongly as a leech with superglue.

When Peter Goodyear read Chapter 4 of Death By 1000 Cuts, he noted:

I’ve just read Chapter 4 of Death By A Thousand Cuts. Some of it was new to me, and quite interesting. I noticed one error.

On page 54 you have a list of factors involved in US measurements and you write:

…when one has to cognitively relate factors like 2, 3, 12, 16, 1660, 5280 and so on.

(Emphasis added by me.) I think 1660 should be 1760, shouldn’t it? The number of miles in a yard.

When I read the sentences, I wanted to angrily stare up into the sky, and with my best William Shatner impression yell: “Khan-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n!” Yes, it should be 1760 yards, I’ve had this pointed out to me multiple times, over multiple decades, and my mind always defaults back to 110, 220, 440, 880, 1660. When you think of 8 plus 8 it’s 16, and there is another eight right next to the other eight so it must be 1660 my feeble brain informs me. It has to be the next number in the sequence—right. It only makes sense. As I said, cognition is important. Well, I always end up jotting it down, and hand adding, or add 880 + 880 in my calculator, and discover that yes the sum is 1760 yards, not 1660 yards! When l wrote the passage in Chapter 4, my mind even thought for a moment about the nice symmetry—that doesn’t exist! When Peter pointed this out, I knew it was right, did a face palm, and thought: “I wonder if anyone has any idea why I would write down 1660 instead of 1760?” Well now I’ve had the chance, and no matter what, I’m still wrong, and I’m convinced that I will do it again someday.

So I decided to lash out, looking for someone—anyone—to blame other than myself for my cognitive impairment. I realized that if my High School had changed to metric in the 1970s, as was all the talk in the papers, I would never have been exposed to this numerical horror. There would have been the 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 meter, 800 meter, and then 1500 meters? What? Why is that? Why not 1600 meters? Well, at least I can convert them from meters to Kilometers with ease: 0.1, 0.2, 0.4, 0.8 and 1.5 Km.

Sometime ago, when I was doing some research, I called my old High School in Montana. I asked if the track distances were now all in metric. I talked with a woman who recalled my tenure there. She said they did. Earlier records had been converted to metric and they no longer used yards. I’m still a bit surprised that my old High School changed over to metric in Track. Nowhere else in their everyday measurement lives has anything changed, but track did, but not football of course!

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.