Conversion Therapy

REVIEW: ‘The Curious History of Weights and Measures’

July 16, 2023

One of the many things I learned from Claire Cock-Starkey’s delightful book The Curious History of Weights & Measures was that if you were serious about sticking it to insufferable multinational corporations that send their CEOs to Davos every year, there would be no better way to do it than to insist on measuring everything in bushels and barleycorns. The old way of measuring things was so wonderfully confusing that globalization would come to a screeching stop.

Take the barleycorn and wheat grain, for example, which are two of the oldest ways of measuring weight. Both grains vary according to how much moisture they contain, but generally four wheat grains were considered to equal three barleycorns. Both grains were used in England and elsewhere to determine larger weights like the pound, which was brought to England by the Romans. (The abbreviation for the pound, lb., comes from the Latin libra, which is a shortened version of libra ponda, or "pound scale.")

The troy pound, which may have been named after the French city of Troyes and was used mostly to weigh precious metals, came in at 5,760 grains. But the merchantile pound, which was used for trading, weighed 6,570 grains. William the Conqueror created the Tower pound after he invaded Britain in 1066. It was supposed to become the standard pound and was used to mint coins. It weighed 5,400 grains, but both the troy pound and the merchantile pound continued to be used. In 1588, Elizabeth I created the imperial pound, which weighed 7,000 grains and remained the standard unit of measurement in England and most English-speaking countries until 1959, when it was replaced by the international pound.

The barleycorn was also used to determine the length of a foot, which varied widely from place to place. The Welsh foot was 27 barleycorns. The Saxon foot was 39. In 1324, Edward II decreed that the English foot was 36 barleycorns. Today, one foot is 304.8 millimeters, but according to one scholar it was 294.86 mm in ancient Rome and 302 mm in ancient Greece. In 790, Charlemagne decreed that the Frankish foot "should be set at 1/6 of a toise, which is the span of an average man with his arms outstretched." This set the Frankish foot at 326.66 mm. "Recent analysis of buildings built across Charlemagne’s kingdom during his reign, however," Cock-Starkey writes, "show a number of different values for the foot, from 296 mm to 340 mm, indicating that his decree did not translate into common practice."

I could go on, but you get the idea. I know some people blame "liberalism" for the triumph of consumerism and the rise of a supposed woke international economic order, but if you are going to blame anything, blame the metric system.

Most early forms of measurement, Cock-Starkey notes, were established to facilitate trade. "Fingernails, fingers, palms, forearms, feet," as well as "a good-sized stone," helped to determine the comparable length and weight of things in an exchange (as well as the amount of tax). In addition to the pound and the foot, there were measurements like the rod and perch, the furlong and acre, again, all of which varied from region to region or town to town. But as trade increased, an international standard of measurement became increasingly important. Hence, the metric system. One Mr. Greenall complained to Parliament’s Select Committee on Weights and Measures in 1862 that "a stone of wool at Darlington is 18 lbs., while at Belfast it is 16¾ lbs. A stone of flax at Downpatrick is 24 lbs., and a stone of flax at Belfast is not only 16¾ lbs., but it is also 24½ lbs., so that it was two values in one town."

An international standard of measurement became increasingly important for science, too. This can be seen as recently as 1999 in the example of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which burned up as it approached Mars. "This was because," Cock-Starkey writes, "the engineers making the Orbiter used imperial tons to calculate the force the thrusters needed to exert, whereas the software used to deploy the thrusters used metric measurements." The imperial ton weighed 2,240 pounds. The metric ton weighs 1,000 kilograms, or 2,204.6 pounds.

One of the joys of The Curious History of Weights & Measures is to learn the history behind English measurements and how they changed over the years. Nearly all of them were first determined with reference to common objects or activities or the human body. A furlong was originally the distance two oxen "could plough without resting." An acre, which can be traced back to the Latin ager for "field," was the area "it was thought a single ploughman could work in a day." The mile comes from the Roman mille passus—a thousand paces. Every other time a foot hit the ground was a pace—or the length of two steps.

Did you know that the word "ton" comes from the French word for thunder (tonnerre), which is the sound huge wine casks would make as they were rolled across the floor? Or—since we’re now on the topic of alcohol—that a keg is not an official measurement for beer, but a hogshead is? (A hogshead is 54 imperial gallons, or 432 pints.) Most British kegs have the capacity of a firkin, which is from the Middle Dutch vierdekijhn for "fourth," and refers to a fourth of a barrel, or nine imperial gallons.

The Curious History of Weights & Measures is a must-read for introverts—or anyone for that matter—forced to attend the occasional cocktail party or business dinner. It has all sorts of odd facts that will keep a conversation superficially interesting for a whole evening.

Plus, it might help you make the most of your expense account. The next time you are out on the company’s dime, why not order a jeroboam of champagne instead of a bottle? That’s three liters of bubbly and more than enough to make any business dinner a delight. The guys in accounting won’t have a clue.

The Curious History of Weights and Measures
by Claire Cock Starkey
Bodleian Library, 200 pp., $25

Micah Mattix, a professor of English at Regent University, has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and many other publications.