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!