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Contribution to Second Round
of Foresight Discussions

a personal view by A.F.Whillock (Information Secretary, DSGB)

a) Firstly I should introduce myself by explaining that I represent bodies of opinion both in this country and the United States, with worldwide connections, who consider that decimalised systems do not conform to natural arrangements into which entities, ideas, perceptions or details of space, time and matter most readily fall. Groupings by twos, threes and fours - close-spaced factors of twelve - and their unit fractions - halves thirds and quarters - are the instinctive choice for dealings with our every-day affairs and material surroundings.

b) Ever since the introduction of place-value notation about 400 years ago, mathematicians have recognised that the primitive finger-counting scale they had inherited was suitable for nothing more than addition or subtraction, so became a handicap for their higher operations, which were acquiring a framework of the above values. Many have agreed that the common numbering scale should be augmented by single symbols for ten and eleven, so converting it to a divisible one. As our title suggests, we exist to affirm this view.

c) The present dispute over measurement is, at heart, one over arithmetical numeration and the adequacy of it to express in concise terms spatial relationships and the groupings into which objects can best be assembled. On this premise, an extension of overall decimalised methods to ordinary use will fossilise us into the simple counting stage. In a report to Congress on the metric agitation of his day, John Quincy Adams declared that "decimal division is not a property of Time, Space or matter, nature has no preference for the number ten." Its use for describing the objective world thus suppresses relationships necessary for its understanding. Napoleon, who was very critical of the whole metric project, and so unjustly blamed for its introduction, held a similar opinion.

d) From as far back as records are available, weights and measures over the use-range, have complied with a need for the simple and much needed proportions mentioned above... Only for large quantities dealt with by merchants and administrators was there a reversion to multiples of tens, when no question of division arose. Units themselves were, and should be, suited ergonomically to human needs and perceptions. Present attempts to force decimalised processes into areas where they are inappropriate ignore, perhaps reject, the above considerations.

e) The motivation seems to be a drive for uniformity, thought necessary to commercial and administrative convenience. As a result, in lieu of simple division for a required quantity, chiefly binary for weights and volumes, resort is had to three figure amounts of diminutive quantities, all too readily manipulated at the purchaser's disadvantage. The deci-metric system has, in effect, become milli-metric. Can this be progress, if so, Cui Bono ?

f) It must be recognised that a need for divisibility, hence flexibility, utility and comprehension in social measures is not shallow-rooted. Those we now have were developed down the ages for convenience in use and there hasnot been any change in that. Their present sizes are virtually the same as when first authorised in the twelth century, as specimens in museums will testify. The stability of measures acceptable to the users is not surprising, how long would the awkward metric sizes survive without support of sophisticated equipment and legal sanctions?

g) Metric is being imposed on us to forward quite narrow interests, but continentals, adept at countering specious legislation, have adopted a cavalier attitude to it. Correspondents refer to a 30 cm unit (a metric foot) with its twelve 25 mm 'inches'. Architects have either a 90 cm (metric yard) or a 120 cm (metric ell) design module to obtain whole numbers for important spacings. Le Corbusier, who should know, referred to the metre as a "dangerous tool. . . with an abstract obedience to numbers". Dressmakers tapes (made in Japan!) have 2 cm pouces, pollices, pousardas, depending on which country you are in. An appropriate spacing for a woman's thumb.

h) We have bright new legislation zealously guarded by teams of inspectors, so evasions of strict SI will be more hazardous in a country that tends to honour its "scrap of paper". Without suppression by law, traditional means and methods would remain in regular use. The street trader who was threatened with the 5000 fine for rating his Christmas trees by the foot during the last season of goodwill to all must have wondered what it was all about!

i) I was disappointed with the leisure and learning section in the consultation programme, assuming it would contain some reference to illiteracy and innumeracy over which there has been so much concern. Several studies of the last have repotted a dim understanding of the decimal place-value system, but found that children happily reverted to simple fractions when away from school. Aversion to science is also evident, perhaps due to the esoteric nature of some subjects, but not entirely since neither arithmetic or science is described in terms that accord with ordinary experience.

j) Children's primers introduce division by citing twelve objects to be shared out amongst friends, and the Cuisinère rods had a twelve unit one, presumably for the same purpose.. But the hapless young mind is soon brought back to the less accomodating scale with which simple relationships have to be expanded into rows of figures. A dozen set of numbers would express these by single figures, thus demonstrating not only is it true, but why (see the Ralph Beard article1). The interest that children show when given a multidivisible number of blocks to arrange into patterns has been noted.

k) Perhaps I refer to matters at too low a level, which have been discounted for your assessment ? Allowing that all societies pass through phases of corruption, and, as biological systems, operate at low levels of efficiencies, there are two distinct trends, identified by H G. Wells:

(1) One of unquestioning conformity and obedience (or resignation) with no knowledge or interest in their past, and detached from their world by artificial measures bearing no meaningful relationships to it, or themselves. People stop trusting to their senses and rely on equally meaningles calculations for some guidance.. One comment from the continent is that sizes are not described by official measures, but by comparison with common objects. like 'the length of a matchbox'.

(2) The other encourages questioning and heuristic attitudes. Its measures, with their divisions, would be human- orientated, conforming to real practical situations and providing a perspective to their surroundings as required for the highest quality of life. Diversity would be encouraged, an important prerequisite for progress - even survival. Biologists have declared that a species perfectly fitted to its environment is on the way out!

l) The above dissertation In admittedly idealistic, and we are under no illusions as to the difficulties of its implementation. However, it does serve as a foil against which the difficulties and inadequacies of the present metrological scene can be displayed, and "nothing that is inefficient, even relatively so, can last for ever". With their binary and ternary divisions, our historically evolved measures are potentially more scientific than any committee-designed assemblage of artificial units. Within a rational arithmetic frame-work they could unify scientific and social requirements at all levels of use. Nobody has any right to destroy something we have yet to learn how to use properly.

m) Assuming the foregoing is not regarded too harshly as heresy, and treated as such, I offer the following suggestions:

1) Mrs Dunwoody's Early Day Motion that will remove the compulsory element from recent metrication legislation should be given sufficient support to be agreed.

2) In agreement with Dr. Evans (enclosed2) there should be no difficulty in allowing the two systems of measures concurrant use. Weighing machines in stores already display pounds and ounces, printing out the cost in decimalised money. They could also show grammes. As an engineer I have worked in both Imperial and metric, but prefer the more flexible with its internal relationships for design purposes.

3) Consideration could be given to adapting metric to provide social measures with simple divisions but compatible to its technical elements. Napoleon's Système Usuel was one such attempt (see our Measurement, Natural Means and Methods3). The metric foot is already in use in all but name for timber sizes and thicknesses, bolt lengths, tape widths, etc. A metric 'Pound' of 480 grammes would be closer to the true lb than half a kilogramme, and eminently divisible into binary stages well know by every cook.

d) It Is not premature to consider arithmetical needs of the future. We, of course, are interested in having a recognisable dozen scale. The Dozenal Society of America uses the telephone numbers * and # to augment Arabic, but we prefer the Pitman numerals 4 as a more aesthetic fit. They continue the practice of inverting and reversing existing letters to represent differing phonemes. What could eventually be needed is a complete net from minus one to 'fifteen' for balanced ternary up to hexadecimal. The use of letters A - F for the latter is an un-imaginative expedient, the Pitman solution would have mnemonic advantages.

It does seem unreasonable to assume that never, ever, will additions be made to the alpha-numeric set of symbols we now have. Anything new would be readily adopted for all manner of purposes besides that of the original intention.

Footnotes

  1. (not available at present)
  2. (not available at present)
  3. (to be published here later)
  4. inverted 2 and 3 (see relevant page)