Mar 24 2008

John Barleycorn Must Die. The History of Modern Measurement.

Published by at 10:05 pm under Metrology,Thoughts & Musings

The way measurement is handled in the United States, and to some degree the UK and Canada, depending on the person’s age, is the foot. The foot has an interesting history, and there are a couple different accounts you can go with, but it has its beginnings in the Roman Empire.


Before the world was very big and there was not so much need to measure great distances, measurements were based on what a man had, er, handy! Sure there was mans foot, which is the foot’s namesake, but it didn’t keep a consistent length, so three hands, four palms and twelve thumbs worked better to more consistently derive it. So the Foot became the distance of 12 thumbs, and the width of the thumb became the inch. Welcome to base 12 measurement.

After the fall of the Roman Empire when the Anglo Saxons conquered Western Europe and called their new land, Angle Land (read England) they used the length of 3 barleycorns, as measured from the middle of the ear, placed end to end as an inch, and 6.5 inches was called the shaftment, which is equal to two palms. (Roughly 3 inches)

And so it was, until the Normans conquered England in 1066, whereupon they brought the old Roman system back to usage. King Henry I set the foot at 12 inches, the shaftment at 6 inches, and the yard at 36 inches. The standards for the inch? Three Barleycorns. So we have 36 barleycorn to the foot, and 108 to the yard. King Henry’s standard was made official by an engraving of one foot on the base of a column on the old St. Paul’s Church sometime during his reign. And so using the barleycorn and such, the system ascends upward through the inch the shaftment, foot, the yard, the furlong, the mile… It was known as “by the foot St. Paul’s”

John Barleycorn Must Die.

After the French revolution in the 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences divided the Prime Meridian into quadrants, which is 1/4th the distance around the earth, longitudinally. They then said that 1/ten millionth of this distance will be known as one meter. Going forward since, the want for the most accurate meter possible has become something measured by a standard of light waves in a vacuum traveling one meter as a function of how long it takes.

Descending from the meter we have the centimeter, which is 1/100th of a meter, and the millimeter, which is 1/1000th of a meter.

Because one quadrant, 1/4th the diameter of the earth can be considered such a consistent value, Science quickly adopted the metric system as the definitive method to measure, because all descending units were derived from mathematical divisions of something huge, which offers a real basis for accuracy, as opposed to the foot, which is a derivative of hands, palms, and thumbs, which are defined by three barleycorns.

In 1921 the American Standards Association responded to a request set forth by the Netherlands that a conversion factor be agreed upon between the inch and millimeters. 25.4 was recommended and between attempts by the Ford Motor Company and ASA to get this settled 10 years later, the final installment came in 1959 when the US sealed the deal with the Commonwealth of Nations. The US has been trying to adopt the Metric system ever since.

Since the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, and in many ways prior to that The US Military and many manufacturing firms have gone with the metric system. Despite the mile markers on our highways, many states go with the federal want for the metric system and the roads are built to metric specs.

But is John Barleycorn dead? No. Because the wood manufacturing trades find the good old inch convenient, in it’s fractional ways which can be halved and quartered and such, with the eye being able to see and mark to the 1/64th on average, as well as the way the foot continues to fit well the sizes which Americans like and prefer.

So raise your glasses in auld lang syne to the inch and John Barleycorn. Because ground into your whiskey and your ales, John laughs last, and lives on.

“They’ve hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.

And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl,
And he’s brandy in the glass,
And little Sir John and the nut-brown bowl,
Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pot,
Without a little Barleycorn”

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