Cumberland Times-News

October 19, 2013

There’s a reason we measure it in ‘feet’

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— This writer often wishes that Americans would adopt more rational British ways, particularly in politics. An exception is our retaining the standard British units of weights and measures.

But the British have modified their units due to their continental trade. My reference is a delightful book, “About the Size of It” by Warwick Cairns, published in paperback in Britain by Pan Books in 2008.

If we go back several centuries, a number of cultures had very similar units of distance. The shorter units are related to the human body. The easiest way to measure distances is to use your own foot, putting one foot forward and then placing the heel of next foot just in front and so on. An average adult male boot in length is very close to a U.S./U.K. foot.

In measuring the heights of animals (from the ground to the highest part of the back, around the shoulders), farmers use their hands held side wards from the lower edge of the palm to the thumb joint held against the hand. (In this position, your palm faces towards you with the fingers pointing horizontally.)

This is typically four inches, so three hand widths makes a foot. A smaller distance is the width of your upper thumb joint, which averages an inch.

In Britain, bricks tend to be slightly less one hand high and about as long as the length of a man’s hand, so they can be easily grabbed and put into place. So there are four brick layers in a vertical foot and four bricks lengthwise measures three feet. (This allows for the mortar between the bricks.)

Cairns points out some interesting “rules” of proportion for the human body. When standing, the distance between your knee cap and the ground is very close to twice the length of your head.

The distance from a palm of your outstretched arm to the opposite shoulder is very close to three times the length of your shoe. This length is close to the distance from the ground to your hip joint when standing.

In many cultures, adults have used walking sticks, about the same length as one’s leg. These walking sticks are close to a yard in length.    

Consider units of weight: we use a pound, which is the weight of one pint of wine. There are two pints in a quart and four quarts in a gallon. So a U.S. gallon of water weighs about 8 pounds. The British pint, based on distilled water contains 20 fluid ounces. With this larger pint, the British Imperial gallon (4 British quarts) is about 10 of our quarts.

The British often use a kilogram (a unit of mass) rather than a pound. To convert from pounds (weight) to kilograms (mass) divide by 2.2 (for Earth’s surface). As a kilogram consists of 1,000 grams, there is a need for a unit in between the kilogram and the gram.

The British use the twenty-five gramme. There are 40 twenty-five grammes in a kilogram. This unit is a little bit lighter than a U.S. ounce (16 ounces in our pounds) in weight.

The British also use “stones” in weighing themselves. A “stone” weighs 14 pounds, so a 280 pound lineman in American football would weigh 20 “stones.”

A very big unit of weight is the our short ton, equal to 2,000 lbs. The British use a hundred weight which is 112 pounds. An English ton has 20 hundred weights or 2,240 pounds. Scientists use a tonne or 1,000 kilograms for large masses.

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: Tonight, the moon is two days past full, rising a little more an hour after sunset. By Oct. 24 evening, the moon won’t be rising till after 10 p.m. So this coming weekend will offer good evening observing of faint star patterns (such as the Little Dipper) and star clusters (the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster).

In the late evening sky, the moon will appear south of the bright planet Jupiter on Oct. 25. On Oct. 26, the moon will appear half full in the southern dawn sky. The planet Mars is now rising just before 3 a.m.

The planets Saturn and Mercury are very low in the western dusk and lost in the sun’s glare.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.