Foot, Yard or Furlong

My dad was a mathematician and a poet. That combination made a pretty interesting guy. He was fascinated by the beauty of numbers, and he SAW the beauty of numbers. He talked about it a lot and introduced me to all kinds of amazing things, among them the duodecimal — base 12 — system

The tug-of-war between the duodecimal system and the decimal system is almost a battle between the toes and the feet. Long ago people would measure the foot of the new king and that would be the standard unit of measure as long as that king reigned. It didn’t vary much. The average man’s foot is 12 inches long, more or less. The featured image above is the exact measure of Louis XVI’s foot. A measure like this would have been placed all over the country so people could use it.

And the king — if he’s lucky — has ten toes, so maybe it’s a question of counting vs. measuring, except we buy eggs by the dozen. We count out the days of our lives in hours that are fractions of 12. Our years are divided into 12 months and there are 12 celestial scrawls that helped sailors navigate. If we think it’s more natural to count the ten fingers, that’s purely point of view. What if you view the thumb as a thumb, not as a finger and each hand a tiny abacus with three units in each finger? 12. Counting that way gives us a lot more units per hand than the decimal system does.


Royal Observatory, Greenwich England

BUT… the problem comes when one wants to convert from one system to the other. Then the signs come out and the marching begins. That’s silly. I’ve lived by both systems. No one has to convert anything. Science (and most of the world) uses the decimal system now. The only hold outs? The US, Myanmar (Burma), and Liberia… I, personally, hope we always hold out.

12 thoughts on “Foot, Yard or Furlong

  1. Love that post, brings some old memories back. I can do both, must be a mathematical genius (I do not think). I grew up in England at home with feet and inches, gallons and pints, and stones. Furlongs – no problem. My dad loved horses and all the races were measured in furlongs and everyone know that there a 8 furlongs to a mile of course. If the horses knew how to handle it, then where is the problem. I have been living now in the decimal system since 50 years. When in Switzerland, just do how the swiss do. Although nailed to the wall of an old established restaurant in Solothurn are the old measures in metal.

    • There’s a bronze foot somewhere along the Lake of Zürich that is the last prince’ foot measure. I have seen it but I can’t remember much about it. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but the only time I saw it was 1994.

  2. I once wrote a (humorous) document on how to use digital time. 10 months, 10 hour days. Lots of bells to tell you when to get up, go to bed, etc. Turns out there’s no reasonable way to divide a circle into 10. DRAT!

  3. Here are some measurements off a blueprint I got from GA Tech: 6 2/8″, 4′ 8 6/8″. This because we fabricated to the eighth of an inch. A hell of an engineer my ass.

Comments are closed.