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Fourth International, Winter 1956


Paul Abbott

How Honest Is Honest Weight?


From Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.33-34.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Story of Standards
by John Perry
Funk & Wagnalls Co., New York. 271 pp. 1955. $5.

A pound equals a pound. Nothing could be more obvious than that.

Yet suppose you let the pound of whatover you weighed stand around for a while and weigh it again. Will it be the same?

The substance, of course, might change between weighings. Let us discount that. Can you be sure the scales are the same? That they haven’t changed between, weighings? Can you even be sure that “the pound,” which the scales are supposed to put up as “the standard,” remains without change in a world where everything changes? Are you sure it hasn’t grown or shrunk ? In fact are you sure you know precisely what the pound in itself is?

Of course, you may agree that all this can be of some practical interest perhaps when it comes to checking up on the butcher’s scales or arguing with his attorney in court, but outside of such cases the question reduces to a mere quibble over terms, or at best involves hair-splitting questions of theory remote from the real world of precision weights and measures where science rules.

Not so fast. A precision inch equals a precision inch. Then how do you explain the strange fact that the British “inch” is no longer precisely the same today as the American “inch,” although both British and Americans agreed on what an inch is, and took the best care to keep that inch fixed? Despite all the precautions, over the years a difference developed in the standard, a difference that has grown big enough to be troublesome to scientists and engineers of the two countries using “the same” measurements.

Or take time. No matter what difficulty we may have in determining an hour precisely, we can tell when 24 of them have passed by noting the moment when a fixed star again crosses the zenith after a previous observation. That gives us our standard of Naval time. But now astronomers have become convinced that the earth’s spin is irregular.

“It is slowing down, losing about one second in 6,000 years. What is worse, its rate of spin varies a little, a variation of about one part in 25 million, for reasons not yet fully understood.

“One part in 25 million isn’t much, about 0.003 second per day, but it is more than enough to make scientists unhappy. Their present methods and instruments are capable off substantially greater precision, but only if they can be related to an even more precise standard.”

A more precise standard has been chosen. It is the vibration of the nitrogen atom in the ammonia molecule: 23,870,100,000 cycles equal one second. All you have to do is count the vibrations to determine an exact second – that is, scientists expect, exact within one part in 10 billion.

Most of John Perry’s book deals with problems of scientific standards in today’s world of incredibly exacting demands in measurement. That and the political barriers that have been placed in the way of achieving increasingly better standards, beginning with medieval England and the early days of the American Republic and culminating in the infamous scandal of 1953 when Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks sought to purge the National Bureau of Standards because of its unfavorable report on a commercial battery nostrum named “AD-X2.”

By way of background to today’s problems, Perry sketches the history of standards. For instance, the “pound.” The principal one bequeathed us from Anglo-Saxon times was the mint pound, derived from the German apothecaries’ pound. “This was the pound of the moneyers, the King’s private coiners, and while men, might tamper freely with other standards, this one was protected by the king’s wrath.” The standard one from which copies were derived was kept at the Tower of London and so become known as the Tower pound.

In addition “there was also the merchants’ pound, which, generally speaking. was a fourth heavier, thus containing fifteen Tower ounces. Another pound, much used in cross-Channel trade, contained sixteen Tower ounces.”

“Raw silk was bought by an 18-ounce pound. Dyed wool was sold by a 15½-ounce pound.” The Troy pound was brought from France. In England it contained 12 ounces; but in Scotland it contained 16 ounces. Among still other pounds some had as much as 27 ounces.

Edward III pressed for acceptance of an old French commercial pound, the one we use today, the pound avoirdupois. He succeeded in introducing it but not in eliminating the others in his day. In fact the struggle for standard weights and measures in Britain took some 500 years before success could be said to have been achieved.

This slow development was not due to the inherent difficulty of finding a standard; it was due – Perry does not bring this out – to the resistance of the rising capitalist class, precisely the class that most required exact standards. Each capitalist sought his own gain at the expense of the others and therefore was inclined to oppose fixed standards. At the same time the needs of his class as a whole impelled their eventual adoption.

How the existence of several standards fits the individual outlook of an enterprising merchant can be gathered from the fact that for many years, according to Perry, coal dealers in England and America bought by the long ton of 2,240 pounds and sold by the short ton of 2,000 pounds.

In his final chapter, the author intimates that fraud in weights and measures is still common in America. West Virginia, one of the few states to name names in its annual report on this subject, “has a chamber of horrors, where confiscated short-weight packages are on display; and the collection includes some of the best-known brands of coffee, soaps, meat products, beans, motor oil, flour, baking powder, spices and canned vegetables.”

The book is interesting and instructive, yet it does not measure up to the promise implied in the title. It is more the story of the National Bureau of Standards and its role in two world wars than the story of standards. The importance of coinage in the development of standards is scarcely indicated. The contradiction in the capitalist outlook toward standards is never really explained or developed.

At first one might feel inclined to ascribe this weakness to the author’s lack of a scientific standard in presenting his subject and to refer him to, say, Marx’s treatise on money in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy for an example of scientific presentation of a subject included in Perry’s field of interest.

But on second thought, the trouble seems to be not so much lack of a standard as possession of a false one. In dealing with tihe ambivalent attitude of Congress toward the development of more precise standards, its virtual sabotage in fact of the National Bureau of Standards in recent years, Perry displays the very political “caution,” he ridicules in the legislators. In his final chapter where he indicates that fraud in weights and measures is fairly common today, he follows the same discreet course of avoiding names. Even in hiis defense of scientists who have been victimized by the witch hunt, his standard appears to be to step on as few political corns as possible.

This unseemly caution is no doubt in consonance with the norms of liberalism today. But in the age of the atomic clock something; better is called for. An author who is so clearly interested in the development of scientific standards owes it to science to examine his own social and political outlook a bit more scientifically.

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