Words and Photograph by Chris van Ryn
READERS MAY REMEMBER THE changeover from imperial to metric. But how many of us have a good understanding of the origins of measurement? In an effort to standardise measurements, the metric system has been adopted by the majority of the world, except for a few notables such as the US. The establishment of the metric system of weights and measurements was one of the significant results of the French Revolution. European scientists had, for many years, discussed the desirability of a new uniform and rational system to replace the variants that existed in the imperial system, which made scientific communication difficult.
The French Academy of Sciences proposed a unit of measure based on a meridian from the north pole to the equator, passing through Paris, and that one ten-millionth of this arc be termed the "metre" and, further, that a new unit of weight be derived from a cubic metre of water.
This proposal contained three major characteristics of the metric system:
• Decimalisation (denominations rising by ten, which results in the simple shifting of the decimal point , as opposed to the imperial unit of twelve);
• Rational prefixes (millimetre, centimetre etc); and
• Natural phenomena as a basis for definition (eg, length defined initially in terms of the Earth's circumference and now defined in terms of the wavelength of light).
In 1795, the firm decision was taken to adopt the metric system in France and was accompanied by the motto, "for all people, for all time".
The British imperial system was evolutionary, growing more or less haphazardly out of custom. Body measurements provided PRODESIGN AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 1995 the most convenient bases for early linear measurements. The Egyptian cubit (the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger) is generally recognised as being the most ubiquitous standard of linear measurement in the ancient world. It was standardised by a royal master cubit of black granite, against which all the cubit sticks used in Egypt were measured. The accuracy of the cubit stick is attested by the measurements of the great pyramid of Giza, whose sides vary no more than 110mm in 230m. This system was passed first to the Greeks and then to the Romans, who deemed that 24 fingers equalled one cubit, and that 16 fingers equalled one foot. The Romans then subdivided the foot into 12 ounces or inches. They made five feet equal to one pace (the distance from the heel of one foot to the heel of the same foot when it touched the ground next) a thousand of which made a mile. Milestones at the edge of the road marked each mile.
For several centuries, these measurements were used in Europe. However, the bases of the units were indefinite. By the time of the Magna Carta in England, abuses of the measures were so common that a clause was inserted in the charter to correct them. An inch was equal to three barley corns "round and dry", laid end to end, and a yard was equal to the distance from the tip of King Henry 1st's nose to the end of his thumb of his extended arm.
Basic to the whole idea of weights and measures, are the concepts of uniformity, units and standards. Fundamental to a designer's craft, is an understanding of measurements in relation to scale and its effect on human beings. A constant awareness of human size, over and above standard ergonomics, can produce startling effects. Is it reasonable to lower the height of a ceiling to provide better balance in a home for the aged? Entry to Milan's Duomo is by way of a remarkably small door, where one has the urge to duck, but in turn, this small door adds to the incredible presence of the cathedral.
Some would argue that the imperial system is the more appropriate method for designers, as it is, in the main, based on the human form. Since the designer's occupation is one that revolves around people, I suggest that this logic has credence.