Life + Outdoors » Field Notes

Measuring our Lives



Hodgepodge. Mishmash. Dog's breakfast. How else to describe the many and various systems we blithely use to measure everything from time to gasoline to dress sizes to Starbuck's coffee? We divide our pounds into sixteenths, pizzas into eighths, dollars into hundredths, hours into sixtieths, weeks into sevenths, whiskey into fifths, days into twenty-fourths (but clocks — and feet — into twelfths), football games into quarters, baseball games into ninths, circles into three-hundred-sixtieths, reams of paper into five-hundredths (based on 20 quires of 25 sheets) and on and on. Be thankful you don't live in the UK, where your weight comes in stones and pounds, 14 pounds to a stone. And where there are 112 pounds in hundredweight.

Dividing things into halves — the binary system — is probably the oldest such mechanism. For instance (although I'm not sure anyone actually uses all of these anymore) 1 tun = 2 pipes = 4 hogsheads = 8 barrels = 16 kilderkins = 32 bushels = 64 demi-bushels = 128 pecks = 256 gallons = 512 pottles = 1,024 quarts = 2,048 pints = 4,096 chopins = 8,192 gills. Notice the doubling each time. To further confuse matters, British Imperial measurements are about 20 percent larger than their U.S. equivalents — except for the imperial fluid ounce, which is about 4 percent smaller. Go figure. To help you in your calculations, you can start with the useful tidbit that the American gallon is based on "Queen Anne's Gallon," which equals 231 cubic inches.

The Babylonians famously gave us the base-60 system, the source of seconds and minutes (both temporal and angular), which makes all sorts of sense when you're looking to divvy up, say, sheaves of grain without scales. You can easily divide 60 sheaves into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, tenths, twentieths and thirtieths without incurring a remainder. The decimal system (with a zero) came later, thanks to Indian mathematicians. Handy for beings with 10 digits (or 20 if you count your toes, which the Mayans seem to have done. But not so useful for dividing your pile into quarters and thirds, which is probably why we're still stuck with 12 inches in a foot and 24 hours in a day (8 hours of sleep, one-third of our existence, being the norm).

Whatever we may think of it, our current mess isn't going to go away soon. Look what happened when, in the middle of the revolution of the late 1700s, the French assembly tried to rationalize time by dividing each day into 10 hours of 100 minutes each. Adopted in October 1793, the system lasted barely a year before the tried-and-true 60/24 minutes/hours system was readopted. The Revolutionary Calendar — three weeks of 10 days each in a month, 12 months-plus-a-bit in a year — fared slightly better. Napoleon dumped it after 12 years of use.

The takeaway from all this is our willingness to just go with the flow, barely noticing what a kludge it all is. Like irregular verbs and laws that make no sense, we accept these systems and pass them on to our children, no matter how messy, irrational or confusing they are.

Barry Evans ( has gone metric: 170.2 cm / 64.9 kg / 74.7 years / 237 cm3 coffee cup.

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