Friday, 3 October 2008

Measure For Measure

For the last couple of months there’s been a builder’s skip outside my friend’s house. His mother, who my friend has decided is on a Mission to make everyone around her – including herself – as miserable as possible, had commissioned an extension to the kitchen.

To say work is going slowly is somewhat similar to saying that light travels fast. The workers, having no particular job to go to next, have settled in for the long haul – complete with copious cups of tea and biscuits.

But although the builders of today are well known for their excuses not a single one of them can hold a candle to the builders of the 10th and 11th century.

“Prithee” they must have said, as they stood looking at a half-completed hovel, “Tis sad that I am unable to complete my promise – but verily King Henry is a very busy man”

Because one of the absurdities of measurement is how random it all used to be: until 1963-65 we in the UK had a bizarre system of counting and money that involved farthings, shillings, crowns and probably the odd florin thrown in for good measurement. When everything went decimal there were those who complained – even today we resist the metric system of measurement for food and forced a change in the law to continue to sell in pounds (llbs) and ounces of weight, rather than kilos as everyone in Europe wanted us to.

But the measurement I wanted to talk about was the Yard.

Used for measuring…well, yards as it happens, the Yard was useful in measuring gardens in complicated maths problems as well as in providing people at trendy bars the chance to prove themselves idiots by drinking from an extra long glass called a Yard of Ale.

The truth is that no one really knows exactly where the measurement originates – but one of the most popular theories is that it was designated by King Henry 1st of England (1100-1130 ish).

Fourth son of William the Conqueror of Normandy Henry’s own descendants founded the royal house of Plantagenet. Henry 1st himself is believed to have defined the Yard (approx 0.9144 metres, or 3 foot) as “the distance from his nose to the end of his thumb” (with arm stretched out in front)

Pretty odd way to measure something – and not very useful to the average man in the street: I mean – how many of us have a handy King of England mooching around on our sofa when we need to measure whether it will fit through the door or not?

“Oi, King-y – I can see you’re busy forming a seat of power against the French and all that, but could you just pop round for a minute? It’s just the wind is coming in through the roof and I want to get the new sink fitted before the Black Death gets a good grip” – not particularly likely is it?

Mind you, as expressions of ultimate power go it’s not so bad. When you consider that previous kings had commanded such various things as having the first born son of every couple to be killed on the off chance that one of them would grow up to be messiah like King Herod – or that everyone should wear the same size shoes as him like the Emperors of China then suddenly the idea of a King who goes about demanding everything measured according to how far he can reach seems all warm and fluffy. Very possibly King Henry was a frustrated landscape gardener and liked nothing better than popping round to criticise someone's back patio - we will never know!

This method of measurement could explain a lot about the problems of my own house. Built in the 1950s as part of the Councils’ mass advance on the wilderness that was there before I’m sure that more than one of the workers must have stood outside my house when it was finished: looking at the poor plaster and ready-made holes for local pigeons, with the regulation 2 inches of butt-cleavage showing from the back of his trousers and whistled through his teeth before saying, “Well Guv, it would’ve been perfect – if only Henry 1st had been available…”


pohanginapete said...

Hmmm... if the definition of a yard depends on comparing it to Henry I's anatomy, it's likely to be rather difficult now. It probably got quite inaccurate a few years after he died, too — not to say messy.

Lisa Allender said...

I always learn something new, see things in a new way, when I visit here! Come visit my blog soon, too.

raccoonlover1963 said...

I really wish everybody used the same units of measure. It would be so much simpler. For you a pound is money, but here, it's a weight measurement. I don't like having to go online to find a measurements converter to figure out what somebody from somewhere else is talking about!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

pete - yuck! I hadn't thought about that! Maybe he donated his arms and had them embalmed or something?

Lisa - thanks for visiting. I will definately return the favour.

Lisa - to make things difficult we use Pounds (llb) to measure weight and Pounds (£) for currency. But we can't even agree on that half the time!

Anonymous said...

I would the yard would then be relative to the length of a person's arms.

Anne-Marie said...

Ha! Nice one, Hungry Pixies. I wouldn't have a clue how long a yard is - I don't do Imperial measurements. We use metres here. But I'm sure there's a story about how metres were invented - some thing about the French king measuring from his palace in Paris to his palace in Versailles and dividing it by 10,000.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

samurai - if everyone went around measuring based on their own reach we'd have some pretty strange cities!

anne-marie - interesting theory, i'll have to look that one up. When you think about it pretty much everything we take to be true was made up by someone at some point!

Lydia said...

Relating such an interesting history lesson to the idiosyncrasies of your house (love those ready-made pigeon holes!) was sure a way to attract and keep my attention. This was truly fun!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

lydia - thanks and glad you enjoyed. The pigeons are regular visitors to my loft every year and have been known to nest in the wall by the fence which the cats love!

Buddha said...

This is rather a non comment since I have nothing to say about non metric systems other than they make my life miserable... ok, so I made a comment... oh well. The reason I'm writing this is because I noticed your comment on Lydia's blog - the one about God and religion – may I take you up on the debate offer?

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Challenged to a debate on God by Bhudda! What a start to the day!

I will certainly come and visit your site!

Buddha said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment. You got me thinking, but I'm so tired (1:21AM here in Hollywood)I'll just go to bed and crush.
Be loved!

flight risk said...

Here in the US we are fighting the metric system tooth and nail

I would welcome the change from SAE . Metric math is much easier , plus one system would cut down on conversion mistakes.

As an electrician that would mean all new tools , 3 to 3 1/2 thousand dollars to replace what I already own and I'll have to keep the SAE tools to do old work .Besides I'm built like Henry the width of my thumb is 1 inch , My boot covered feet are 1 foot long , and my arm span is 2 yards , quite useful if you ask me .

As you can see us Americans gave up on learning English long ago and I fear the same will hold true for the metric system .