Powell’s Books and the Metric System




Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A book lovers paradise.

Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon for my daughter’s wedding. I’m happy to say that everything went wonderfully—even the weather—and I am more than pleased with my new son-in-law and his family. I welcome them with open arms.


Of course, while in Portland I had to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books being the media freak I am. My first day in town, I met with my sister and brother -in-law (also in town for the wedding) and we allotted a short period of time there before heading out for dinner.

It wasn’t enough time so I went back the next day as it was only a few blocks from my hotel.

By the end of the second trip, I had accumulated quite a few books, all of which related to this project and the early history of humankind so I could continue my research regarding our history with measures. I was bemoaning how heavy everything was going to be in my luggage when the cashier pointed out that for a flat rate (about $14, as I recall) Powell’s would ship everything to my house. That was the last thing I needed to hear (too tempting) so during my third trip there in as many days, I hauled back the books I’d already bought and acquired a few more. (Hey, great selection and a lot of used books—a bargain in my “book.”)

I had everything shipped to the house (it all arrived two days ago) with the exception of one book that I decided to take with me despite its heft (at around 1.63 kg or around 3.5 pounds).



This book will provide my ancient history dates since they vary greatly depending on the source

That book was The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan.


Why am I telling you this? Uncovering that history of our measures has been quite challenging. I already had a book called The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (along with countless other books for my research) but it didn’t contain the information I needed.

The farther you go back in time you go, the sketchier the dates get, which has been causing me problems.

I’ve been working under the hypothesis that routine measures likely arose once people transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and it made sense to erect permanent or semipermanent buildings. I’ve already illustrated, even one person building a small, grass-type hut immediately needed a measure to make a perfectly round circle for the outer wall. It then stands to reason that multiple people, building a more permanent structure over days, weeks, months or years, would have to have had some agreed upon length or, surely, uneven walls would not have withstood anything very well.


Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dates to 10,000 BCE

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg


The trouble is, the earliest cities of which we’re aware (Jericho in Palestine at around 9,000 BCE and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey at about 10,000 BCE) were already quite complex (see photo).

Smaller settlements prior to those were likely built near rivers and lakes for access to both water and the foodstuffs living in the water (fish, etc.). However, as the last ice age ended, water levels around the world rose by roughly 100 meters (300 feet) and those locations would likely be made of more perishable materials (wood vs. stone) and are under water if any evidence of them still exists at all.

Thus, my dilemma reconstructing our measurement history for the book I’m writing to go with the documentary.

Given that early dates for various things are all over the place, depending on the source, I’ve decided that based the vast number of contributors and how the book is laid out; Seventy Great Inventions will form the basis of my historical dates as I lay out that part of the story.

In future, if someone wants to take exception with my hypotheses, they can argue with me (though I’ll likely have evidence to back up my assertions) but if they want to argue dates, they can argue with the book’s authors.

I’ll continue to do research through other sources, of course, but Seventy Great Inventions will be my “go to” for dates.

Or at least that’s what I envision for right now.

Projects this large and complex can test one’s resources but so far, so good.

Thanks for reading this far!






Prehistory and the metric system       


First, I’m not implying that the metric system has been around forever—it hasn’t been, more like since around 1790—rather, I’ve been investigating where measurement standards might have come from prior to the development of writing. No one can say for sure when measurements started, all researchers can do is infer information based on archeological evidence.


A general view of the Uruk archeological site at Warka in Iraq. Image from the UK government

Most of the sources I’ve come across gloss over the prehistory of measures by pointing to the standards found in Mesopotamia and then move forward from there. Me, I’m more curious than that and thought it might be interesting to cover some ground that others might not have.

So here’s where I’m currently coming from: I believe there is an intersection between agriculture, the development of cities, architecture, astronomy and even the division of labor that related to the development of measures. I’ll go into these points in more detail in future posts while I continue to work on my metric system history book during my off hours from my day job.

Standards needed for permanent buildings

One of the oldest cities that has been documented is Uruk (from around the fourth millennium BCE.)

However, this site is very complex and it is unlikely it was the first attempt at a city but older, smaller, less-complex examples either no longer exist or have yet to be discovered. I posit that before these multi-people, multi-year building projects could begin, everyone had to agree what the standard measure was to be used, such as the much better-known cubit that was used in Egypt from around 3,000 BCE.

But let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back to around 9,000 BCE.

I’m starting from this date because it appears this was about the time that the last ice age ended and agriculture began. (The farther you go back in time, the sketchier the dates become so you might come across a source that differs from this. I had to start somewhere and I’m not in a position to argue with scholars who have spent much more time on these issues than I have.)

Back then, people were hunter/gatherers and if they settled anywhere, it wasn’t for very long and permanent structures were not needed. Some research I’ve come across indicates that people may have already domesticated some animals and they might have, for instance, moved sheep or other animals around with them.

I’ve also come across other information that the earliest agriculture may have been less planting of things in rows, as we currently think of such practices today, and more cultivation of helpful things.

Okay, so, it’s 8,500 BCE and near our settlement (likely near a water source) we come across some blueberry bushes. On either side of these food-bearing plants are some other plants that are less helpful since they flower but don’t provide sustenance.

It’s likely we figure out that by cutting back, or eliminating, the plants that weren’t so helpful and tending to the blueberry bush by watering, and possibly fertilizing, it a richer harvest results make the efforts worth our while.

Over time, it likely made sense that people started to transplant the beneficial plants closer to each other for efficiency. (There’s a reason you don’t keep kitchen equipment scattered around the house.)

Once the investment has been made in cultivating plants, it’s reasonable to expect that people kept closer tabs on their efforts and spent more time in one place, they’d want a home that would last more than a couple of seasons.

That got me thinking about how long buildings typically last. Once site I came across indicates that modern buildings can last more than 50 years. But, what about more “primitive” ones?

Modern, but primitive, hut

You too can build a primitive hut with minimal tools but lots of effort.

I found YouTube videos that show how to build circular dwellings from saplings and primitive tools in one case, and another video on how to build a wattle and daub hut, with the roof of the second building showing signs of rot only four months after construction.

Interestingly, in the first case, the builder needed to measure equidistant sides for the hut from a center post. In essence, he created a standard made from a sapling that might only be used for that one hut, but he did need a standard unit to make even a primitive building.

Had two people worked on the sapling hut, they would have both needed to use that same measure for the hut to have properly turned out.

Perhaps, in this case, as Protagoras of Abdera indicated thousands of years ago, man is the measure of all things…

I’ll write more next month and in the meantime, I’ll slog through more research on the ancient world and possibly confuse myself.