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“Imperial is lit, but Metric is liter”…*

 

barleycorn

 

The English-speaking world has been famously (and, many argue, problematically) slow to switch to the metric system of measurement.  One of the reasons is the way in which traditional “imperial” measures are baked into our understanding of products and services we use every day.

Consider the barleycorn, which is still used as the basis of shoe sizes in English-speaking countries.

In ancient Rome, the inch (which was one twelfth of a foot) measured the width across the (interphalangeal) joint of the thumb. By the 7th century in England, the barleycorn became a standard measurement with three ears of corn, laid end to end, equalling one inch. It took until the thirteenth century before the inch was officially sanctioned. Under pressure, Edward II (r. 1307-27) eventually succumbed to appeals from scholars and tradesmen to issue a decree to standardise measurement (Ledger, 1985).

Henceforth an English inch was the distance measured across three barleycorns. Thirty nine (39) barleycorns laid end to end became a foot, and 117 laid end to end became a yard. Whilst the barleycorn decree of Edward II had nothing to do with shoe sizes per se, many shoemakers began to use shoe sticks. Tradesmen had traditionally used the hand span method of measurement, which preferred the quarter of an inch unit, but after the introduction of the barleycorn measure, many began to adopt the third of an inch unit. With 39 barley corns approximating the length of a normal foot this was graded Size 13 and became the largest shoe size. Other sizes were graded down by 1/3 rd of an inch or one barleycorn…  [source]

The barleycorn is but one of the old English measures that. more or less obviously, still shape our encounters with and experience of the world:

406px-English_Length_Units_Graph.svg

Forgotten, but not gone: the barleycorn.

* bad joke

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As we muse on measurement, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Charles Franklin Kettering; he was born on this date in 1876.  An engineer, businessman, and inventor (the holder of 186 patents), he worked at National Cash Register (where he created the first electric cash register with an electric motor that opened the drawer), co-founded DELCO, and was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947.  He invented the key-operated self-starting motor and developed several new engine types, quick-drying lacquer finishes, anti-knock fuels, and variable-speed transmissions.  In association with the DuPont Chemical Company, he was also responsible for the invention of Freon refrigerant for refrigeration and air conditioning systems.  While working with the Dayton-Wright Company he developed the “Bug” aerial torpedo, considered the world’s first aerial missile.  In 1927, he founded the Kettering Foundation, a non-partisan research foundation devoted to answering the question: “what does it take for democracy to work as it should?”

220px-Time-magazine-cover-charles-kettering source

 

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