Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Sorry, I was kilometres away


WHILE I was reading Frances Ashcroft’s 2001 book Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival, an oddity struck me: it gives aviation altitudes in metres. A pilot friend confirmed that the entire world uses feet for altitude, as in ‘cruising at thirty thousand feet’. There is an exception: Russia, which uses metres. (Pilots flying there use conversion tables.) Did Ashcroft have in mind the Russian market when she chose her units?

In Helen Pilcher’s Small Inventions that Made a Big Difference (2021) we read of WWII Spitfires flying at kilometres per hour and a seventeenth-century Royal Naval ship distant from its home port by 80km.

I got to thinking more about inappropriate metrication on reading about caskets of royal bones stored in Winchester Cathedral, as described by Cat Jarman in The Bone Chests: Unlocking the Secrets of the Anglo-Saxons, published last year. Jarman provides a plan of Winchester Cathedral with a scale bar in metres. Note that the metric figures are provided not for conversion purposes, but as the exclusive measurement system. This was not the system used by the masons who built the cathedral and if Jarman had converted her metric mush into feet she would have learnt much about what was in their minds and been able to inform us better. The author has us journeying around Anglo-Saxon England in kilometres, which is an anachronistic aberration.

Another traveller across Britain in kilometres is Helen Czerski. (I wonder if she and other metricators realise that the display of metric units on road signs in the UK is illegal.) Her Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes Our World (2023) is an oceanographic calling-to-mind: we need to understand and look after the maritime environment more, says the author, who roves around global history as well as geography. She takes us to the Caribbean for the first bathysphere descent in 1930. A bathysphere is a manned spherical chamber for deep-sea observation, lowered by cable from a ship. The vessel was American and the naturalist on board, William Beebe, wrote a book about his adventures, published in 1935: Half Mile Down. Yes, the expedition was in imperial units, with ocean depths off Bermuda in feet. Inches also come into it, including for pressure measurements in inches of mercury, not millibars. Czerski metricates the whole venture; America is thus haplessly metricated. Cultural appropriation, I would call that.

Czerski admires the Cutty Sark, berthed in London at Greenwich, and the men who sailed the sublime tea clipper in the second half of the nineteenth century. She admires the vessel so much that she gives it the exclusive metric makeover, migrating us away from understanding what was in the minds of the vessel’s architects and builders, not to mention the sailors.

We visit the Pacific to admire the extraordinary feats of ocean-going Polynesian master navigators. The Hawaiian outrigger canoe is described in metres, with one decimal place. What were the units used to fabricate these remarkable vessels? We are not told.

The metric system is a barrier to understanding in historical studies. An author should help us dwell in the centuries. The metric system’s exclusive use is especially obfuscatory.

The metric system is also a clunkily charmless mouthful: kilometres, metres, hectares, kilograms, versus homely miles (walkable in 20 minutes, 1.6 km), feet (an adult man’s shod foot, ~30 cm), acres (ideally, everyone should have one of God’s acres, 0.4 hectares) and pounds (fondly used for Shylock demanding his 454g of flesh).

Something is ‘a metre and a half away’ versus ‘a few feet away’. No contest.

For period charm the imperial system offers leagues for distances (three miles), fathoms for depths (six feet underwater) and furlongs for horse racing (an eighth of a mile).

Many adult males on the planet are within inches of 6 feet in height but few are within centimetres of 2 metres.

On the other hand, the metric system offers scientists in particular a decadal scale for a billionth of something (nano) or less, right up to a billionfold amount of something (giga) or more. At the frontiers of science and technology, the MKS system (metre, kilogram, second) is easier to use, granted. But the metric system was not the measure of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth or much that came after.

Four British women writers have been cited. One senses that they are – how to put this delicately? – unlikely to be enamoured of the notion that Brexit represents the nobility of self-rule. I deem them to be woke metricators, though the woke part of that descriptor may be doing them an injustice.

Czerski, a vegetarian, expresses repugnance for Bovril. Inspired by this, I prepared a couple of pieces of buttered toast, spread with a dash (informal unit) of Bovril.


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John E Hart
John E Hart
John E Hart is the author of The National CV of Britain.

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