Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/209

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

that this system of multiples and sub-multiples has its most conspicuous illustration in the commonest of all processes—retail payments—and that, too, in the usages of a nation which is above all others mercantile.

Now it seems to me that the two facts—first, that in early days men diverged from the decimal division into modes of division which furnished convenient aliquot parts, and, second, that where, as in America, the decimal system has been adopted for coinage, they have in the focus of business fallen into the use of aliquot parts in spite of the tacit governmental dictation—not only prove the need for this mode of division, but imply that, if the metric system were universally established, it would be everywhere traversed by other systems. To ignore this need, and to ignore the consequences of disregarding it, is surely unwise. Inevitably the result must be a prevention of the desired unity of method; there will be perpetual inconveniences from the conflict of two irreconcilable systems. [At the time this prophecy was made, I did not know that in California the "long bits" and "short bits" of the dollar already illustrated this conflict of systems and its evils.]

I fully recognize the difficulties that stand in the way of making such changes as those indicated—difficulties greater than those implied by the changes which adoption of the metric system involves. The two have in common to overcome the resistance to altering our tables of weights, measures, and values; and they both have the inconvenience that all distances, quantities, and values named in records of the past must be differently expressed. But there would be further obstacles in the way of a 12-notation system. To prevent confusion different names and different symbols would be needed for the digits, and to acquire familiarity with these, and with the resulting multiplication table, would, of course, be troublesome; perhaps not more troublesome, however, than learning the present system of numeration and calculation as carried on in another language. There would also be the serious evil that, throughout all historical statements, the dates would have to be differently expressed; though this inconvenience, so long as it lasted, would be without great difficulty met by inclosing in parentheses in each case the equivalent number in the old notation.

But, admitting all this, it may still be reasonably held that it would be a great misfortune were there established for all peoples and for all time a very imperfect system when with a little more trouble a perfect system might be established.

Thus far the letter. And now let me sum up the evidence. Professedly aiming to introduce uniformity of method, the metric system can not be brought into harmony with certain unalterable divisions of space nor with certain natural divisions of time, nor with the artificial divisions of time which all civilized men have adopted. As 10 is divisible only by 5 and 2 (of which the resulting fifth is useless), its divisibility is of the smallest; and having only a makeshift fourth and no exact third, it will not lend itself to that division into aliquot parts so needful for the purposes of daily life. From this indivisibility it has resulted that, though men from the beginning had in their ten fingers the decimal system ready made, they have, in proportion