Our founding fathers were Penny Wise. They created the world's first decimal currency.

Sadly, we remain Pound Foolish. The rest of the world uses simple metric systems of measurement, while we Americans continue to struggle with yards, pounds, and tablespoons.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Time to wise up, America!

Friday, April 6, 2012

America's Fahrenheit Folly

Have you ever wondered why the measurement scale on a Fahrenheit thermometer seems so random?
Water boils at 212.
Human body temperature is 98.6.
Water freezes at 32.

What's up with that?

I have tremendous admiration for the Dutch-German-Polish scientist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, the inventor of the first thermometer with an accurate scale. He invented an alcohol thermometer in 1709, a mercury thermometer in 1714, and the Fahrenheit scale in 1724. What remarkable achievements!

But I wish he'd gone a little further, and modified his invention to make the scale more logical, useful... and truly metrical!
He did try. His first goal was to measure human body temperature. He decided that this fundamental measurement would be 100 degrees. Next he measured the coldest temperature that he could create, using ice, water, and a salt (ammonium chloride). When the thermometer reached its lowest point, he named it 0 degrees. He discovered that pure water began to freeze at 32 degrees.

Perhaps he had a fever when he set that initial 100 degree human body temperature, but later he recalculated and stated that 96 was a more accurate reading. We Americans now use 98.6 as the standard for human body temperature. 
My temperature usually falls around 97. For some people, 99 is normal. Clearly, human body temperature is not a good constant. And that salt water is far from the coldest temperature we can measure!

When Swedish astromomer Anders Celsius invented his scale in 1742, using the boiling and freezing points of water as 100 and 0 degrees, he created a more sensible system. The rest of the world has adopted his scale. But we Americans still use Fahrenheit. Why?

We don't like change, especially when suggested by foreigners. Funny. Fahrenheit lived in Holland, but he was of German descent, born in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth... Sounds like your average American to me!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Roman Numerals, Football, and Tradition

From my basement, I hear the whistles and cheers of Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl XLVI: who wants it more.

Isn't it great that American football keeps interest in Roman Numerals alive? Everyone should learn Roman Numerals, so that they know how many years the Super Bowl has been played. So that they can figure out the dates on statues, old gravestones, and movies. I love the brain stretching exercise kids experience when they learn Roman Numerals.

Quick. Which Super Bowl was this? Why is the I before the V on this one, and after the V on this year's logo? That's an easy one. What year is this: MCMLXXXIV? I got married that year.

And that husband of mine just insisted that I join him in the basement for the half-time show. Madonna in Roman Centurion garb. She gets it. Football. Roman Empire. Now, back to my thoughts.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, everyone in the Roman world used this system of numeration. Then Rome declined and fell; over time, people adopted Arabic numerals and the Roman kind fell out of favor. I wonder which culture held out the longest, insisting that Roman Numerals were part of their heritage, a tie to the grandeur of the Empire.

But at some point during the Dark Ages, by around the 14th century, Arabic Numerals had replaced Roman Numerals, except in certain esoteric domains: on clock faces, in scholarly books' prefaces, in enumerating royalty.

A system that worked better replaced the traditional one. And that's how it should be in measurement. We can keep yards for football stadiums and feet for baseball records. But let's adopt kilometers for our highways and centimeters in our schools.

History has long ago forgotten the culture that clung to its Roman Numerals. I'd like to find out who they were. Perhaps I will uncover that bit of history someday. But I can't imagine that America wants to be the modern version of that culture. Isolated in commerce and industry. Left behind in mathematics, science, and engineering. How did we find ourselves here?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Water Bottle Mysteries

Our well provides us with delicious drinking water. We drink from the tap and fill our own water bottles whenever we head out the door. I avoid buying bottled water.

So I had to wander about my house looking for a plastic water bottle to photograph. I found this one in the freezer where I store plastic bottles to use when I want to keep food cold in a cooler.

Check the label. First the fluid ounces. 16.9. Hmmm. That's more than 2 cups: 1.05 pints. But look: the 3rd number is a nice round 500 mL. Why is the metric unit listed third? Is someone trying to hide it?

Bottled water can also be purchased in liter and 2-liter bottles. Everyone knows how much liquid those bottles hold. They've become familiar.

But we also buy water in gallons. Why gallons? Why not 4 liters? Maybe we already had those milk jugs. That gallon sure does look clunky and out of place among the other sleak bottles.

I spent a while looking for an explanation of how water came to be sold in metric units. And why the gallon is now the only non-metric container for water. It must have been one of those laws passed in the metric 1970's. I'll have to keep digging for the rationale.

But that gallon catches my eye. Clunky. Old-style. Time to update. And time to call 500 mL by name, not hide it behind 16.9 fluid ounces.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Why 750 mL bottles of wine?

In the United States, wine may only be sold in 750 mL bottles, or certain standard fractions and multiples of 750 mL. This law was passed in 1979, back when America was "going metric" withing 10 years of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. European wine bottles had varied in size, but they were standardized in order to match the American 750 mL standard.

Why did we opt for 750 mL instead of one liter or 500mL, in which we bottle water?

The 750 mL bottle was chosen because it is close to the traditional "fifth" in which liquor was sold in the US.

So why package liquor in fifths of gallons? Why not quarts?  

Here's a great explanation:

"The fifth had been invented by the spirits industry many years before to avoid being taxed, since taxes were assessed for quarts or larger volumes of wine or spirits."

Apparently, this was a great loophole in the tax law. Bottlers who sold quantities of gallons and quarts had to pay excise taxes. So for a while, fifths were tax free!

People began to expect their liquor in fifths. Now we buy wine in 750 mL bottles. And so does the rest of the world!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When milligrams won out over drams

I just read an angry polemic that George Will wrote in 1992 about how the Commerce Department Gestapo was going to put up metric road signs, an attack on the American way of life, in an attempt to "Brusselize" the United States.

Short-sighted pundits like Will must be feeling a bit silly as they take their milligrams of medication. Or perhaps he converts this information into drams (1/16 ounce)and grains (1/27 dram). Quick now, how many grains in an ounce? Let's see. That's 27 x 16 x 16. Where's my slide rule?

1000 milligrams in a gram, any schoolchild around the world could state by the end of 3rd grade.

Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists made this leap in 1971. It took a while. The American Medical Association first adopted the metric system in the 1870's. The Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry of the American Medical Association adopted the metric system in 1944. But not until 1971 did a true conversion to the metric system take place, in prescribing and labeling. Does anyone feel that using milligrams in pharmaceuticals is the result of Gestapo tactics?

Well, what about liquid medicines? What does George Will do when he has a cough? Can he read the label of his medicine bottle without feeling that the government has invaded his home? I'll bet he just uses the handy dosage cup that came with the medication, pouring out the correct dosage in milliliters. We no longer dose ourselves in teaspoons and tablespoons. Lots of people used kitchen spoons to dose themselves; dosages were inaccurate.

And when he goes on a trip and wants to see whether he has enough liquid medication, he can do one simple computation: mL in the bottle divided by mL in one dose. What about the old way? How many teaspoons in 4 fluid ounces?  Surely you remember. You must have studied that in school.

Mr. Will would no doubt say that this conversion was adopted voluntarily, and that we should simply wait for the American people to speak up and ask for change. But for drug companies who had to change their manufacturing, packaging, and labeling, for pharmacists who had to throw away old measuring devices and purchase new ones, and for consumers who were used to teaspoons and drams, adopting the metric system was real change. They did it. We did it. And now we have a simpler, safer system.

Senior citizens talk about milligrams every day. I've never heard anyone long for the good old days when we measured in drams, grains, scruples, and minims. But you can read online about the advantages of the old apothecary system of measurement. Its complexity worldwide is shown on Wikipedia at this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apothecaries'_system

This chart showing the apothecary system comes from that Wikipedia page:
96 ʒ
5,760 gr.
8 ʒ
480 gr.
1 ʒ
60 gr.
20 gr.
metric equivalent
373 g
31.1 g
3.89 g
1.296 g
64.8 mg

Notice that on this chart there are 8 drams in an ounce, 3 scruples in a drams, and 20 grains in a scruple. What I was using above (16 drams per ounce, etc.) is from the Avoirdupois system. Seems like too many systems of measuring drugs might prove deadly!

George Will doesn't think we Americans should give up our traditional systems of measurement. Does he really not understand how this attitude limits our ability to conduct trade: raising the costs of goods we import, and making our exports either less desirable or more expensive to produce? Does he really not understand that change can be good?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Maria Montessori met My Grandfather

This morning I visited the website of the United States Metric Association, www.metric.org where I found the minutes of the first meeting of the American Metric Association which was held in 1916. My dad's father, Howard Richards, Jr. was one of those present. He was named Secretary. I wonder whether that means that he actually recorded the minutes. Perhaps there was a stenographer. The document is typed. Was Grandfather the typist?

As far as I could tell, all of the founding members were men. But, most remarkably, the guest speaker who addressed this founding meeting was a woman: the Italian educator Maria Montessori. Here is an excerpt of the her talk, as translated by her interpreter:
Wow. Maria Montessori has long been an idol of mine. I had no idea that my grandfather had ever met her. And I had never thought about her use of the metric system in working with children.
She would only have been 46 in 1916, when my grandfather was 39. I wonder if the group posed for a photograph?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Let Each State Decide

"It should be left up to the states." I hear this sentiment expressed often by politicians: health insurance, defining marriage, allowing abortion, determining curriculum... Given our mobile society, with people moving from state to state, I wonder how valid this notion is in this 21st century.

Weights and measures? Should each state really be able to decide? Wouldn't that create havoc in commerce and industry? Didn't our founding fathers really create the union in order to avoid such confusion between the several states?
Here is one section of the Virginia legal code, relating to agriculture:

§ 3.2-5603. Two systems of weights and measures recognized; definitions and tables of National Institute of Standards and Technology to govern.
Both the system of weights and measures in customary use in the United States and the metric system of weights and measures are recognized, and one or the other, or both, of these systems shall be used for all commercial purposes in the Commonwealth. The definitions of basic units of weight and measure, the tables of weight and measure, and weights and measures equivalents, as published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, are recognized and shall govern weighing and measuring equipment and transactions in the Commonwealth.
(Code 1950, § 3-708.2; 1962, c. 298; 1966, c. 702, § 3.1-920; 1993, c. 604; 2008, c. 860.)

Hmm. Either system may be used. What if one state led the way? All states already recognize both systems, thanks to visionaries like my grandfather.
As I ponder how to encourage conversion to the metric system, I realize just how intransigent our system is. Could one state choose to use the metric system while others stuck with "customary" units? Seems unlikely. Think of the confusion when people went to buy gas, follow speed limits, or buy and sell produce.

Well, what about school curriculum, I wondered. So I searched the Code of Virginia for Education. School prayer is well covered, as is character education, and topics related to sex and drugs. Even "competitive foods," which means food that student may purchase during school hours. But all that I could find about teaching measurement in the early grades is included in this statement:

§ 22.1-200. Subjects taught in elementary grades.
A. In the elementary grades of every public school the following subjects shall be taught: Spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, health and physical education, drawing, civil government, history of the United States and history of Virginia.
B. Physical education shall include activities such as, but not limited to, cardiovascular, muscle building, or stretching exercises, as appropriate.

Arithmetic. Not even mathematics. So really, the code does not require the teaching of measurement at all. Or the wide range of topics now taught in elementary math: data analysis and probability; geometry; algebraic thinking; and measurement.

But perhaps that level of specificity is found at the level of the school district.

Change will be mighty slow in coming if we have to wait for each school district to decide.

I will have to look for models of new technologies that brought about rapid change. Cell phone access. Cable TV. Broadband internet. How did they gain approval in all 50 states, in all counties and school districts?
But how do you create demand for something that has existed for centuries?

I wish I would talk to my grandfather. He pondered these same issues deeply a century ago. I'd like to ask him about the current antipathy for the federal government, for intellectuals, for science. A century later, what approach would he recommend?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Metric Grandfather

Excerpt of my grandfather, Howard Richards, Jr.,
 the Secretary of the American Metric Association, testifying before a
congressional subcommittee in 1921 about a bill that would
have adopted the metric system as our national system
of weights and measures.
I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Richards. And not just because he was my grandfather!

If a farmer spent a week working with grams and kilograms of feed and seed, he'd be familiar with them within a week. No problem. Same for meters and kilometers of fencing. Grandfather had plenty of supporting documentation: letters from the PTA, from many industrial companies like US Steel, from a general, and testimonials from a variety scientists, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, all supporting the Metric System and saying that it would be simpler and more cost effective in the long run. 

But then, as now, congress did not want to "force" anyone to do anything. Well, we do have to pay taxes, whether we like the way they're spent or not. Men do have to register with the Selective Service when they turn 18, and go to war if they're drafted.  And someone once decided what our customary units of measurement would be. There are lots of offices in Washington, DC and throughout the 50 states where such things are regulated. How much gas is in a gallon? The government decides!

If gas was sold by the liter, I think I could master the change within a week. And every penny of increase would seem like a really big deal! If the speed limit signs changes to kilometers per hour, I'd just check the gauge that's already in my car, and feel like I'd just been told to drive really fast! If bananas were sold by the kilogram, I'd figure it out. Maybe I'd carry a conversion chart for a while, to make sure the prices seemed fair. But pretty soon, I'd be a master at living metric.

My grandfather, Howard Richards, Jr. is sitting next to his
father, Howard Richards. My dad, Owen Richards, is wedged
 between his father's knees.

Not because my grandfather was the founding secretary of the American Metric Association in 1916. Not because I'm especially good at math. But because we humans adapt to change. That's what makes us remarkable creatures!

My grandfather was born in 1877. In his lifetime, cars replaced carriages, electricity replaced oil lamps, and plumbing moved indoors. He died of post-surgical infection in 1940, just before penicillin began to be mass-produced. He'd be amazed at all of the advances in medicine, technology, and communications. But how dismayed he would be that the United States of America was still foolishing measuring in pounds, inches, and pints. 

Penny wise. American money was the first decimal system of currency in the world.
Pound foolish. Our customary system of weights and measures is archaic and complex.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

America: A Young Stick-in-the-Mud

Why do people love to measure things so much?
·         To compete? (My pop is bigger than your pop. I can jump farther than you. Well, I can run faster than you! Oh, yeah, prove it!)
·         To make life fair?  (Make sure everyone gets an equal share. Kurt always gets the big one—I want the big piece this time!)
·         To avoid waste? (Oops. I cut that too short. What will I do with that short piece of wood?)
·         Because it’s there? (How tall is Mt. Everest anyway? Can you prove that it’s the tallest mountain in the world?)
People have been measuring since long before they began to write or read. To measure length, they used their hands, their feet, their strides. To measure time, they created sundials and lunar calendars. To measure weight, they built balances. Measuring is one of the hallmarks of civilization!
People also love to borrow what works. Hindu-Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) are not the only system ever devised for writing numbers. But people discovered that they were easier to use than Roman Numerals, Egyptian Numerals, or Chinese Numerals. Over time, they have spread throughout the world.
The same is true for systems of measurement. From the beginning of civilization in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, people have used the barleycorn to measure length and weight. It was so useful, that before long people all over Europe and Asia used it. Settlers brought it to the Americas.
During the Scientific Revolution, another idea began to spread, that of a system of measurement based on the logic of the Base Ten number system.  Before long, scientists all over the world were using the Metric System as they compared their discoveries. Gradually, countries all over the world adopted this system as their official system of measurement. And people switched from pounds to kilograms, inches to centimeters, and gallons to liters.
Worldwide, people love their national traditions, but they also love new ideas that work. They adopt systems that make life simpler. Here in America, we refuse to give up our traditional system of measurement. It’s kind of funny, really, that our young culture is so tied to the old, while cultures as old as India, China, Italy, and Egypt have adopted this upstart system of measurement.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A True Span

My dad taught me to use my hand’s span as a useful approximation of length. His span, when he stretched his thumb and his pinky as far as they could reach, was 9 inches. Before he moved a dresser, he’d measure the dresser in handspans and then measure the wall space to see how well it would fit. If he wanted an accurate measurement, he’d use a tape measure. But for “ballpark” calculations, he used his hand.
When I was growing up, I often measured my handspan. As I grew, it grew. I went from skip-counting by 6 to 7 to 8 inches. By the time I was 14, my handspan was 9 inches, just like my dad’s was. For a woman, I have huge hands with very long fingers. Excellent measuring devices. I often skip count by 9’s as I measure.

But saying, “This table is 5 handspans long” does not provide useful information unless everyone agrees on the definition of one handspan. Since human hands vary tremendously, how could there be a single accurate measurement called a span? Or a finger? A palm? A foot? Someone had to define each measure, and make sure that the relationship between them was constant.
I just discovered that the handspan I inherited from my dad is 27 barleycorns in length: a true span in the English Imperial System.

Knowing that, I could calculate the length of a fathom, a furlong, or even a league. But I’d probably make an error in calculation.

Look at those simple metric measures along the righthand side of the chart. Each level increases by a power of ten.

My handspan is 23 centimeters long. I could learn to count by 23’s.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Taking the Measure of John Barleycorn

          If you like vegetable beef soup in a red and white can, you may have eaten barley. People all over the world bake barley bread and use barley to brew beer and ale. Lots of animal feed contains barley.
          But not many Americans know that every time they measure an inch or weigh an ounce, they are using a unit based on the barleycorn!

          Long ago, when civilization first began in the Fertile Crescent, barley was farmed along with wheat. Barley was even used as money. And because the grains were so uniform in size, barley was used as a unit of measure. People in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, and in Europe lined barley corns side-by-side or end-to-end and measured length. They counted barleycorns onto a balance and measured the weight of copper and silver and gold. The carat is based on the barleycorn!
          Noah probably even used barleycorns them when he measured short distances on his ark. In his part of the world, people used this system:
6 hairs of a camel or horse = 1 barleycorn
6 Barleycorn = 1 assbaa or finger
4 Assbaa = 1 Cabda or palm
8 Cabda = 1 Coudee or cubit
Noah built his ark 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall. That’s a lot of barleycorns!

          Eventually, 6-rowed barley made its way to England, and became the basis for the English system that is still used in America today:
·         3 grains of barley, lined up end-to-end, equals one inch
·         24 grains of barley weigh one Troy Ounce
Any time you use inches or ounces, you’re measuring in barleycorns!
A remarkably informative history of barley, written by Michael J. Ferrar, can be found at this link: http://www.cartographyunchained.com/pdfs/ms2_pdf.pdf
And some fascinating arguments about the length of Noah’s Ark can be found at http://www.worldwideflood.com/ark/noahs_cubit/which_cubit.pdf
John Barleycorn is an old English folksong. At first listen, it seems to be about a fellow who can’t be killed. But in reality, it’s about the amazing barleycorn which can be buried, and grows. Its stalks can be cut and flayed, but the seeds remain. The seeds can be ground on stone, and produce flour. And the mash can be brewed in a vat to make ale. Nothing you can do to barleycorn can kill its value to humankind!
I found this version online at http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=3228CLICK TO PLAY

There were three men come out of the west
Their fortunes for to try
And they have made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die (2x)

Fa la la la, it's a lovely day
Fa la la la lay o
Fa la la la, it's a lovely day
Sing fa la la la lay

They plowed him in three furrows deep
Laid clods all on his head
And they have made a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead

Well then there came a shower of rain
Which from the clouds did fall
John Barleycorn sprang up again
And so amazed them all

Well then came men with great sharp scythes
To cut him off at the knee
They bashed his head against a stone
And they used him barbarously

Well then came men with great long flails
To cut him skin from bone
The miller has used him worse than that
He ground him between two stones

They wheeled him here, they wheeled him there
Wheeled him into the barn
And they have used him worse than that
They bunged him in a vat

They worked their will upon John Barleycorn
But he lives to tell the tale
We pour him into an old brown jug
And we call him home-brewed ale

        Mighty invincible that Barleycorn. Quite a survivor. As he traveled across the world, he made himself indispensable.  Food, drink, units of length and weight. Quite a guy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

If the Shoe Fits...

What size shoes do you wear? Seems like a simple question. But the real answer is, it depends. It depends on many factors:
·         where were the shoes made?
·         who made those shoes?
·         where do you live?
·         how old are you?
·         are you male or female?
Let’s say your feet are 20 centimeters long. (At some point in your life, your feet were this size. Or if you're young, it's very likely that one day they will be 20 cm in length.)
In Asia, where many shoes are made, you would wear size 20 shoes. But to find out what size shoes to buy in other parts of the world, look at this chart if you’re a child:
or at this chart if you are an adult:

You might wear any of these sizes: 31, 12 ½, 13, 1 Y, 32, 0, 1, 2, or 3.

          If you bought your shoes from a local cobbler,

who measured your feet and then matched them with a wooden last that he carved,

and then cut and stretched the leather to fit, before sewing it together and nailing it to the sole cut just to fit you, then a uniform system of sizing would make no difference. He could call his sizes whatever he wanted, and no one would care.

But when was the last time you went to the shoemaker?

When you order your shoes online, you want them to fit, sight unseen. One system, one size, world-wide. Think how much money people would save on returning shoes that didn’t fit! Think of all of the energy saved!
Of course, everyone would have to be honest and admit the true length of their feet. But if you're ordering online, who will know?
If everyone's shoes fit, the world would no doubt be a kinder gentler place. Sadly, it would make one of my Granddaddy Bedell's favorite expressions obsolete...
Whenever my mother complained about a grouchy salesperson, or a mean comment made by a teacher, or any other slight by a friend or acquaintance, he would respond, "Forgive him. His shoes must be too tight."

Sunday, January 1, 2012


   “Hazel, come wash your hands!”
As her mother answered, 2 ½ year old Hazel’s grandmother turned to me and confided, “She just entered the WHY? stage last week.”
The WHY? stage! I love that phase, when toddlers provoke adult conversation. Their vocabularies grow exponentially. They listen for phrases to mimic. They demand instruction in their native tongue.
We humans outgrow this stage.  Early in life, we learn to take pride in knowing routines and traditions. Wave bye-bye. Say grace. Answer the phone. Our way of life provides comfort, and even helps to define us as members of distinct cultures. Accepting society’s norms makes everyday life livable.
But adherence to the status quo can also stymie growth. Think of all of the innovations that have changed modern life, and of all of the stick-in-the-mud nay-sayers who have tried to maintain the-way-we've-always-done-it.
"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" --H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value." --Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." --Western Union internal memo, 1876. 
Cultures must evolve, borrowing ideas from others, embracing inventions, and winnowing the chaff of the past to ensure a better future. I love sundials, letterpress printing, and homespun wool. But I use digital clocks and computers, and I wear polartec fleece.  Mature adults learn to adapt and change.
America once was like a toddler, pushing the staid cultures of the world by asking why their traditions should stand. Why a monarch? Why not use a sensible currency, dollars and cents? Why should government be tied to religion? We seem to have outgrown that phase, but are now trapped in tradition.
As a nation, there are many changes that we could make to signal our adulthood. Stop spending money we don't have. Do unto others, as we wish them to do unto us. Set priorities: nurture the young,  heal the sick, and honor the elderly.
I propose one bold but simple first step: Proclaim to ourselves and to the world that we can change:
Adopt the Metric System!
Throw off the chaff of inches and gallons and degrees Fahrenheit, and implement the system of measurement that is used throughout the world.
“Why?” you might ask.
I hardly know where to begin. So many stories to tell. Tales from history, of politics, of stodginess. This bold step offers a bounty of benefits.  In 2012 I plan to explore them all.