Diaries, and a glimpse into the past

Many of us have probably bought a diary for 2018 recently. Ronnie Cohen takes a look at the conversion tables found at the front of many sold in the UK.

If you look inside the pages of a typical diary, there are probably one or two pages devoted to conversion factors between metric and other units in both directions. They often contain conversion factors within these systems. One notable contrast in these conversion factors is that the metric-to-metric conversion factors are usually based on powers of 10 while the other conversion tables contain seemingly random and obscure numbers.

The one minor exception among the metric-to-metric conversion factors that I have seen is the one related to the number of metres in an international nautical mile, an SI derived unit. It is, however, a standardised international version of the various nautical miles that differed slightly between various countries that were used in the past.

One diary for 2018 that is supplied at my office contains a factors for units whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Many of them are seldom used in modern life in the UK and would be unfamiliar to most Britons.

Its listed measurements for volume include:

  • 5.8 cubic feet = 1 bulk barrel
  • 1 register ton = 100 cubic feet (used in shipping)

Its listed measurements for capacity include:

  • 2 UK gallons = 1 peck
  • 4 pecks = 1 bushel
  • 8 bushels = 1 quarter
  • 36 UK gallons = 1 bulk barrel

Its listed measurements for weight include:

  • 437.5 grains = 1 avoirdupois ounce
  • 16 drams = 1 avoirdupois ounce
  • 28 avoirdupois pounds = 1 quarter
  • 480 grains = 1 troy (fine) ounce

The diary shows the different measurement systems used for different alcoholic drinks and different commodities.

For beer:

  • nip = 0.25 pints
  • small = 0.5 pints
  • large = 1 pint
  • flagon = 1 quart
  • anker = 10 gallons
  • tun = 216 gallons

For wines and spirits:

  • tot (whisky) = one sixth, one fifth, one quarter or one third of a gill
  • noggin = 1 gill
  • bottle = one and a third pints

Various volume measurements are expressed in terms of how much water they weigh:

  • 1 US gallon weighs 8.345 lb of water
  • 1 UK gallon weighs 10.022 lb of water
  • 1 cubic foot weighs 62.428 lb of water

Believe it or not, a variety of different bushels are shown for weighing different things. For a few of the same commodities, the British and Americans use different bushels:

  • UK and US bushel of wheat: 60 lb
  • UK and US bushel of rye: 56 lb
  • UK and US bushel of rice: 45 lb
  • UK and US bushel of maize: 56 lb
  • UK and US bushel of potatoes: 60 lb
  • UK bushel of barley: 50 lb
  • US bushel of barley: 48 lb
  • UK bushel of oats: 39 lb
  • US bushel of oats: 32 lb
  • UK bushel of linseed: 52 lb
  • US bushel of linseed: 56 lb

Some of the same terms are used for different medieval measurements. The term “quarter” is used for both capacity and weight. As well as the bushel of 8 UK gallons used for capacity, a variety of different bushels are shown for the weights of different commodities, some of which differ between the UK and US for the same commodity. The term “barrel” is shown for the bulk barrel of 36 UK gallons. This differs from the oil barrel of 42 US gallons or 35 UK gallons. The term “ounce” can mean avoirdupois ounce, troy ounce or fluid ounce.

Some diaries are more up-to-date than others, but all of the measurements noted above were found in a single 2018 diary. Why do publishers feel the need to publish so many old units in a diary to be used in the 21st century? Who is likely to find such information useful? Who is likely to use such information?

Compare all that to the rationality, consistency and simplicity of the metric system. It is hard to believe that there are still those around who defend this chaotic, irrational and cumbersome jumble of measurements.

Note to publishers Рsurely some of the space devoted in diaries to conversion factors can be put to better use. Now is the time to ask your customers what they would really like to see at the front of their 2019 diaries, noting that much information can be found on their mobile phones, including conversion factors for archaic or obsolete measurement units. 

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