Of Inches and Feet – Or the Origin of a Poor Measuring System

Have you ever wondered why we use inches and feet in the United States or where it came from when the metric system seems to make so much more sense. I mean, really, 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard. How is this easier than 100 centimeters in a meter? Additionally, the centimeter being smaller than the inch, the metric system, without even addressing millimeters, allows for greater precision. More precision, simpler extrapolation from one unit to the other, where in the world did inches and feet come from?

Well, the inch, according to some, was originally the width of a man’s thumb. Therefore, as he was working he could simply measure out three thumb widths, or four, or five, or whatever length he desired, and he would have consistency in his measurements – within some measure of variance. The important thing to remember is that HE would have consistency in HIS measurements. If another man measured out the same three thumb widths, the actual length, width or height would vary. But, since every item created in the days of yore was a one-off item, this was not a real problem for many craftsmen.

Eventually, around the 14th century, the inch was defined as three corns of barley placed end-to-end. Of course, whether you use the human body or a plant member to define measurement, you are going to end up with inconsistency.

The yard was originally the length of a man’s belt or his girth, according to some sources. Again, depending on your dietary practices, your measurement would be different from another man’s. And your measurement would differ throughout life – at least mine would.

Interestingly, over the years, consistency was developed not for a pure desire for standardization, but out of governmental desire for more taxes. According to The Weights and Measures of England, by R. D. Connor, standardizing on yards and inches (instead of yards and handfuls) was implemented to prevent cloth merchants from avoiding taxes. We can always count on the greed of rulers to provide a standard if nothing else will do.

Thankfully, the modern world is moving more and more to the metric system (in fact, most of the world outside the U.S. these days) and we can get away from what is now a consistent but confusing system and use a consistent and simple system. No longer will I have to teach my small children or grandchildren creative techniques for remembering 12 inches make a foot and 3 feet make a yard.

Now we just have to get rid of miles so we don’t have to talk about 5280 feet in a mile anymore. 1000 meters in a kilometer is so much easier, don’t you think?

What If? Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if we always listened to the experts?

You walk down the front walk of your summer home and approach the moving truck parked in the driveway. It is a normal thing in today’s advanced society to work for the same company, but roam from place to place. You think to yourself, “How did they ever live without these portable computers all those years ago?” The ability to take a computer on the road with you wasn’t even a dream in the beginning, but now it’s a reality.

You open the rear door of the moving truck and step up through the narrow opening. The area is very crowded, but there is just enough room for your office chair and a few spare square feet of desk space. “Ahhh… advancements in technology,” you say to the bare walls of the truck. “Now then, let’s kick start this baby.”

After a long day of work in these tight quarters, you step out of the twenty-six foot moving truck and walk back into the house.

You are probably thinking, “C’mon, Tom. What are you talking about? There are no portable computers that require a moving truck to haul them.” Right you are, but this is – WHAT IF?

Here is what was reported in 1949:

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps only weigh 1 1/2 tons.
-Popular Mechanics, March 1949

Didn’t know someone said that? Just hold on because there is much more to follow.

The truth of it all is that we’ve all been deceived. They have tried to convince us that these computers are worth something. The things we’re doing with them aren’t really productive, they are worthless. You don’t agree? Why not? A couple of really important people did:

-Sir George Bidell Airy (Astronomer Royal of Great Britain), in reference to the potential value of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Charles is considered to the the inventor of the computer today.

“What the ____ is it good for?”
-Robert Lloyd (an engineer at IBM) in response to colleagues who insisted that the microprocessor was the future of the computer industry in 1968.

Do you agree? Neither do I, but what if we had listened to them?

How many new computers are shipped every year? Not too many, as a matter of fact it has averaged .09 computers every year for the last forty-five years. Wow! How did we ever do it? Since 1943 we have developed and marketed five whole computers.

I realize that this sounds a little far-fetched, but I can prove it:

“I think there is a world market for about five computers.”
-Thomas Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943

In reality, however, we have produced and marketed, not only millions of systems, but literally hundreds of different kinds of computer systems as well. He said five computers, but look at this list of computer types over the last thirty to forty years:

  • ATARI 800
  • IBM
  • Apple II
  • Apple IIe
  • Apple IIgs
  • Apple Macintosh
  • Commodore VIC-20 (I loved this one.)
  • Commodore 64 (Another personal favorite.)
  • Commodore 128
  • Commodore Amiga
  • TRS-80
  • Tandy 1000
  • Adam

I could go on, but I believe that my point is made – but what if?

We don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.
-HP Executive, 1976

Get your feet off my desk, get out of here, you stink, and we’re not going to buy your product.
-Joe Keenan, President of Atari, 1976

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home.
-Ken Olson, President of DEC, 1977

It is a really good thing that we didn’t listen to these wise people. If we had, we would have undoubtedly been greatly delayed in the development of the personal computer system. The first one, the HP executive, was responding to Steve Jobs when he offered HP his Apple II computer design. The second quote was Atari’s response to Steve, and the third quote is just a bit of wisdom from the era.

Steve ignored these people, and financed the development of the Apple II himself. This act launched the personal computer revolution as we know it today – for the most part anyway. But – what if?

Well, we could go on talking about people like Bill Gates and others. But I’ll be nice and simply end by saying I am really glad I have over 8 GB of RAM in all of my computers. Aren’t you, Bill? Or maybe he still has 640k.

Aren’t you glad that you have never said anything that turned out to be wrong in your life? I know I am!

Oh yeah… now for my prediction of the future. I predict that we will all evolve into computers and then the computers will rule the world. It will be like a matrix kind of thing. I wonder if anyone else has ever thought of anything like that?

The reality is that experts can often get caught up in their knowledge of the present and lose sight of the possible.

The point of it all is this: as we enter the new year of 2017, dream. Dream and don’t let those around you say your dreams are impossible. Just dream, plan and act and see what your future may hold.

Happy holidays!