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QUESTION: What is the origin of common measurements, such as the foot, the yard and the meter?

ANSWER: In the 12th century, Henry I of England decreed that a yard would be the distance from his nose to the thumb of his outstretched arm. Not bad, Henry, you were only off by one-hundredth of an inch from today’s version. Aspects of measurement evolved over time, based on who was doing the measuring and what instruments of measurement existed during that time period.

The foot is said to come from Roman times and Celtic times and Greek times. America was once ruled by the Brits so early settlers relied on hand-me-downs from Britain. Queen Elizabeth I introduced a new uniform yard measurement in 1588. It’s what we know as the 36 inches in one yard. This decree is what the United States uses today.

The French introduced the Metric System on Dec. 10, 1799, after the French Revolution. The meter was defined to be exactly one ten-millionth the distance between the North Pole and the equator, which calculates out to be 39.37 inches. It was a chaotic mess in France before that. They standardized lengths and weighs based on a decimal system of 10.

Today, the metric system reigns supreme throughout the world. In the United States, the metric system is dominant in our aeronautics and space industries and even in the liquor industry. The military is all metric. Large swathes of our major industries have switched to metric. In fact, because of the Metric Conversion Act of 1988, the metric system became the “preferred system of weights and measures for the United State trade and commerce.” You will see food and beverage labels printed with both the customary and metric units, thanks to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. We are content to buy a 2’ X 4’ and a quarter-inch nut and a 12-ounce beer.

There’s three reasons why we Americans have not gone whole hog on metrics. One is cost. Changing road signs in the United States would cost a bundle and with a national debt of $30 trillion and rising, we don’t have a bundle. In fact, we owe a bundle.

A second factor is that people don’t like to be told what to do — not by our government or by foreign governments. Recall the blowback on COVID-19 vaccinations? As a rule, the rest of the world would like us to go metric. That does not go over well with U.S. citizens. Imagine us telling the French to stop talking French and start talking English, even though English is close to being a universal language.

Another factor of our reluctance to go metric is that the general public does not see a real need to change. Very few people need to make conversions and if they do, they can ask Google or Alexa.

When I was a boy on the farm, our 5-foot McCormick Deering hay mower cut off a paw of Boots, our farm dog. The dog leg was patched up and Boots hobbled around on three legs. We renamed him “Tripod.” Tripod stood out on the front lawn, a constant reminder there are 3 feet in a yard.

Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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