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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/207

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193
THE METRIC SYSTEM.

though these particular 12-divisions are undesirable, as being most of them arbitrary and unrelated to one another, yet the facts make it clear that a general system of twelfths is called for by trading needs and industrial needs; and such a system might claim something like universality, since it would fall into harmony with those natural divisions of twelfths and fourths which the metric system necessarily leaves outside as incongruities.

But what about the immense facilities which the method of decimal calculations gives us? You seem ready to sacrifice all these?

Not in the least. It needs only a small alteration in our method of numbering to make calculation by groups of 12 exactly similar to calculation by groups of 10; yielding just the same facilities as those now supposed to belong only to decimals. This seems a surprising statement; but I leave you to think about it, and if you can not make out how it may be I will explain presently.
 
III.

The promised explanation may most conveniently te given by reproducing, with various alterations and additions, a letter I wrote about the matter last November twelvemonth to a distinguished man of science. Omitting the name, the letter ran thus:—

The inclosed memoranda concerning advantages to be derived from the use of 13 as a fundamental number were written more than 50 years ago, and have since been lying unused among my papers.

I send them to you because you have lately been expressing a strong opinion in favor of the metric system, and of course your opinion will weigh heavily. From the days when the accompanying memoranda were set down I have never ceased to regret the spreading adoption of a system which has such great defects, and I hold that its universal adoption would be an immense disaster.

Of course I do not call in question the great advantages to be derived from the ability to carry the method of decimal calculation into quantities and values, and of course I do not call in question the desirableness of having some rationally originated unit from which all measures of lengths, weights, forces, etc., shall be derived. That as promising to end the present chaos the metric system has merits goes without saying. But I object to it on the ground that it is inconvenient for various purposes of daily life, and that the conveniences it achieves may be achieved without entailing any inconveniences.

One single fact should suffice to give us pause. This fact is that, notwithstanding the existence of the decimal notation, men have in so many cases fallen into systems of division at variance with it, and especially duodecimal division. Numeration by tens and multiples of ten has prevailed among civilized races from early times. What then has made them desert this mode of numeration in their tables of weights, measures, and values? They can not have done this without a strong reason. The strong reason is conspicuous—the need for easy division into aliquot parts. For a long period they were hindered in regularizing their weights and measures by the circumstance that these had been derived from organic bodies and organic lengths—the carat and grain, for instance, or the cubit, foot, and digit. Organic weights and lengths thus derived were not defi-