Odd Thoughts: Measuring the mystery of fun

The superiority of the metric system was recognized by scientists even before the French settled its details and adopted it.

But the rest of the world… not so much.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson, known more for his political prowess than for his significant scientific contributions, proposed that the American Congress adopt a metric system similar to the one that would be adopted by the French a few years later. But apparently, Congress realized he would eventually become president and consequently ignored him.

Little has changed down there.

It took Canada almost 200 years to follow the French. We were dragged into the metric system – kicking and screaming – in the 1970s.

And people old enough to remember the mystery and playfulness of the former system of weights and measures continue to complain to this day.

Canadian kids who have been weaned on the metric system have little understanding of the joy and contentment derived from mastery of the apparently random tables of avoirdupois and imperial measures.

Twelve inches make a foot. Three feet make a yard.

But then 3-1/2 yards (or 16-1/2 feet) make a rod. And four rods make a chain.

How about 1,760 yards (or 5,280 feet) in a mile?

Compare that to the utterly boring 1,000 metres equals a kilometre, 100 metres is a hectometre, 10 metres is a dekametre, one-tenth of a metre is a decimetre, 1/100th of a metre is a centimetre… all the boring way down to nanometres and femtometres and beyond.

And it’s the same boring progression in every form of measurement: just replace metre with “gram” or “litre” or whatever.

American kids still have the pleasure of learning that a cubic foot is made up of 1,728 cubic inches – reminiscent of yards and miles… but not quite!

Or that a gallon in this country used to be four quarts – but not the same as Americans’ four quarts, because our quarts were each populated by different pints.

Americans have 16 ounces in a pint, while the anti-metric stalwart British have the 20 ounces we used to have in our pints. Cups are eight ounces, while there are two tablespoons in an ounce, and three teaspoons in a tablespoon – but take heed! Those teaspoons and tablespoons weren’t the ones at your dinner table or stirring your tea.

And that ounce… that’s an ounce in volume.

An ounce of weight was another matter. We had 16 of them in a pound.

And if you’re not quite confused enough yet, some of the folks in the British Isles still measure their personal weights in stones – get this: a stone is 14 pounds.

Personally, I just cannot understand why Canada ever turned to the metric system.


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