February 17, 2011

That was all lost in the changeover to decimal currency that occurred forty years ago this week. Prisoners of some absurd fantasy about making themselves “modern” and “European,” the British people threw away a thousand years of heritage, exceptionalism, and challenging arithmetic in hopes they would be able more easily to sell their tinny cars, obsolete electronics, and spotted dick to the French and Germans.

The metric system naturally followed, to the nation’s further loss. George Orwell, ever a reliable index of Anglosphere reaction, had pointed out the problems thirty years before:

Obviously you have got to have the metric system for certain purposes. For scientific work it has long been in use, and it is also needed for tools and machinery, especially if you want to export them. But there is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your bearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image.
“€”As I Please, March 14, 1947

The schizophrenia kicks in when I have to do mental calculations. All that youthful juggling with roods, furlongs, and noggins was great for developing general abilities, but in actual computations the metric system, with its easy-to-remember relations between length and mass, is hard to avoid.

I was recently required to figure, on the spot, how many 42-gallon black plastic contractor bags I would need to transport a yard of mulch. Piece of cake:

“€¢ “A pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter,” so since there are eight pints to the gallon, a gallon of water weighs ten pounds.
“€¢ There are 454 grams to a pound, so a gallon of water is four-and-a-half thousand grams; near enough.
“€¢ That’s four-and-a-half thousand cubic centimeters, since a cc of water weighs one gram.
“€¢ One foot is 30 centimeters, near enough, so a cubic foot is 30 times 30 times 30 cc; or 30 times 900 cc, or three times nine thousand, or six times four-and-a-half thousand cc.
“€¢ Which is to say, six gallons.
“€¢ Since there are three feet in a yard, there are 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard.
“€¢ Six times 27 is 162, so that’s the number of gallons in a yard.
“€¢ Four 42-gallon contractor bags should be ample.

It’s always like that. You end up plugging into the metric system somewhere. The damn thing weasels its way past you.

Ah, well; we can take some small malicious satisfaction from the news that the whole business is unstable. The standard kilogram, incarnated in a platinum-iridium cylinder kept in a vault in Sèvres, France, seems to be losing mass. An honest imperial pound would never show such inconstancy.

* £33 – 1s. – 6d.  Wake up there in the back row!



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