Upon signing up to this ‘substack’ ‘website’ which is so fashionable among the ‘youth’ I was shocked to discover that I was not provided with a secretary or even a simple ghost writer. Apparently I’m supposed to ‘write’ my ‘thoughts’ instead, so after a couple of beers I have decided to grace my subscribers with my learned thoughts on the art of measurement.
Long ago, people had no way to measure anything. People simply looked at objects, animals or people and notices which was larger, heavier or further away. For a long time, this method sufficed, our ancestors ate whichever mammoth was larger, carried whichever load was lighter and mated with whoever was closer. If any dispute arose as to which cave was closest, the decision was made by whichever male had the most testosterone.
The development of civilisation made this process harder. Now, the male with the most testosterone lived in a large palace in the centre of the people over which he ruled. Small civilisations could, for a short while, summon this male, or ‘king’, to decide which thing were larger, heavier or further away than other things. But before long, civilisations grew too big and developed too many things to measure (for example the ‘value’ of things, which is a far more complicated matter than their size) for this rudimentary system to operate.
At this stage, one of the cleverer kings decided to take up a stick and draw notches on it with his knife (kings in those days carried large knives wherever they went as a symbol of their virility). This stick, he declared, would be used by the wise men of the kingdom to determine the size of things when the king was not available, he then retired to his chamber to spend the rest of the evening bathing with his wives.
The wise men of the kingdom quickly saw the advantages and drawbacks of the king’s new stick. They quickly realised that by counting the notches they could not only determine which of the things was bigger, they could also determine how much bigger it was. Of course, multiplication was still a rudimentary science in those days so they tended to express this as ‘this apple is 5 units bigger than this one’ rather than ‘this apple is 1.25x the size of this one’, as modern appleologists would. This system also allowed the wise men to compare the size of things that were very far apart, particularly if they could not be moved. A wise man could simply remember the number of units tall a thing was, then move to another location and measure another thing. If he was able to keep both of these numbers in his head at once, he could ascertain which was of greater size - one learned wise man used this method to determine which of two pyramids was greater.
The wise men noticed several drawbacks. This method was useful at determining size, but it was totally useless at determining which of two things was heavier. It was also tricky, though possible through immense effort, to determine which of two things was further away. How many hours were lost in trying to measure the distance between two cities, only to lose count half-way through? We may never know. Another drawback, noticed by the more astute wise men, was the difficulty in measuring things which were very small or very large.
An apple is approximately 3 inches wide. The Great Pyramid of Giza, surely one of the smaller monuments of the ancient world, is 5,472 inches tall. A grain of rice is a mere 0.28 inches long. Upon receiving a copy of the king’s stick, wise men quickly noticed the vast variety in the size of things. Before, things had simply been larger or smaller than other things: a grain of rice was smaller than an apple which was smaller than a pyramid. The advent of numbered measurements made this more complicated because a unit which is adequate to measure an apple is far too large to measure a grain of rice and far too small to measure a pyramid. Some wise men decided that it would be better if they had some larger and smaller units of measurement which could be used for these large and small objects.
The larger unit was far easier than the smaller unit. A measuring stick, which archaeologists believe were all cut to the same number of units, was appropriated as a ‘large’ unit of measurement. Smaller units were harder to find, the king had to be taken out of his bath to produce a new one.
Soon, the possibilities seemed limitless. Why stop at a stick for larger units? And why a smaller unit for smaller ones? Soon, the king was hassled by thousands of letters from wise men throughout the land who all requested new sticks of ever greater and lesser size. The king was getting old at this point; his youthful passion for measurement had long been replaced by a love of baths and wives. In order to save time, the king decided that the wise men could come up with their own measurements, they just had to define them based on the king’s original unit.
Soon there were dozens of rival systems, each used by different regions and wise men. The most successful of these systems were tailored to be useful to the surrounding populace. Units like ‘the league’ became popular. A league is the distance a normal person can walk in an hour1. Other units abounded, all were based on the sorts of things that people needed to measure. The modern imperial system is the proud inheritor of this tradition.
Then, after only a few millennia, the system was upended. It all began in the year of out lord 1789 when a bunch of French people were annoyed that they had to pay taxes and weren’t allowed much bread. They decided that the king who had decided how large the units of measurement were was silly and a waste of money. As a result, they raided his cellars, broke into his house and chopped his head off. They soon grew tired of living without an alpha male in charge, and decided to crown Napoleon as their new Emperor. Of course, they were reluctant to acknowledge that they had been wrong to get rid of their previous King, so they had to pretend that their new ruler was something entirely different.
In order to differentiate himself from previous kings, Napoleon decided to come up with a new system to measure things. He stayed up all night with a brand new stick and drew various notches in it with his knife (the tradition of carrying a knife was continued).2 In the morning, he emerged with his new stick in hand, and declared it the official system of the land. Soon this stick was copied by the million and copies sent out to the wise men of Napoleon’s rapidly expanding Empire.
Alas, so many years after his death, many remain in bondage to this foolish system. Unlike the wise and lazy kings of old, Napoleon was foolish and enthusiastic. He was one of these people who want to make the world a better place, and inevitably this lead to disaster. The system which Napoleon came up with was the natural product of this personality type. Rather than letting the wise men decided which units would be of most use, Napoleon decided to do it himself. As a result, the units are of little use to anyone. There are far too few gradations between the tiny ‘centremeter’ and the ‘meter’. Whereas the wisdom of the old kings placed the convenient ‘foot’ betwixt units of such small and medium size, Napoleon did not see fit to do so.
I’m going to fetch another beer now. I don’t know how to conclude this masterful and well researched history of measurement. So I’m just going to sort of trail off after a bit.
Alas, the invention of time has been skipped by this essay
My editor continues to insist that this is not how it happened