The Measure of Man (and Wife)
Only once have I ever seriously considered getting a tattoo and it was in a dream, but what a tattoo it was! Almost every surface of my body was covered with some sort of graduated scale: one arm bore a metric ruler, the other its English equivalent; my elbows and knees measured angles and my cheeks were marked in such a way that I could determine the volume of liquid in my mouth by their stretching. When I woke up, I toyed briefly with getting a scale tattooed on my abdomen to measure the aging of my body. A perfectly accurate scale would stretch with the inevitable appearance of a gut and later sag as my skin lost its elasticity and my gut its girth in my later years. What a depressing thought.
There’s something infinitely fascinating about anthropometric graphics, especially historical ones that overlay scientifically and/or proportionally iffy mappings and measurements over the body. Despina made the point this week that everything we create is anthropometric in nature—our sense of scale exists in relation to our bodies, to our hands, to our particular sensory apparatus. No big surprise there. The problem, of course, is that when you mass produce something—say you’re an industrial designer making a table—you do so for the average body. A 60cm tall table might be ideal for the majority of people, but the extremely short and the inordinately tall on either side of the height distribution curve are shit out of luck.
Vitruvian Man and his French cousin Le Corbusier’s modulor are abstractions and averages of our bodies’ proportions. As our bodies are abstracted, so is our experience of the world. It’s possible that Americans’ totally irrational attachment to feet and inches, an attachment responsible for the loss of a $125 million Mars orbiter as well as my perpetual befuddlement when looking at motors’ torque ratings, is actually an attachment to a more personal way of understanding the world.
While the meter owes its origin to the distance from the Equator to the North Pole (it was supposed to be one ten millionth of that distance), the foot’s origins, as its name suggests, are humbler and closer to home. It makes sense that since we’ve always seen the world as it relates to us, long before platinum-iridium bars we measured it with our bodies.
The wikipedia entry on the history of measurement has this to say:
The common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.
It was divided into the span of the hand (one-half cubit),
the palm or width of the hand (one sixth),
and the digit or width of the middle finger (one twenty-fourth).
If Noah had been cursed with short arms, his ark with all its cubits and spans might not have fit all the animals he was responsible for saving. But imagine an entirely bespoke world, where my dining room table was 29 of my inches off the ground and yours was 29 of your inches off the ground. It would be a nightmare to coordinate measurements but it would also transform the world from human scale to this human scale or that human scale.
Which only highlights the utter anachronistic idiocy of the English system, as it is now as much an abstraction as the metric system, only more unwieldy. And it was this that led me to my project for this week.
THE REMOTE RULER
I really have no sense of English length units. My wife has no sense. [Drum hit cymbal crash] Of metric units, of metric units. This has proven a problem on more than one occasion when only one of us had access to a measuring device. For instance, I was out looking for a bookshelf to fit a narrow space and found one on the sidewalk I thought might work but hadn’t measured the space exactly so I couldn’t be sure without calling my wife. Even with the exact measurements of the space, I could only guesstimate the shelf’s measurements by eyeballing, and I didn’t want to carry the thing ten blocks if it wasn’t going to fit.
To make sure this would never be a problem again, I sanded off the scale on one side of a standard yardstick and replaced it with two scales based on separate measurements of three parts of our bodies available in duplicate to ensure ease of use: the length heel to toe of our feet, the width across our palms from index knuckle to pinky knuckle, and the width of the middle segment of our middle fingers (which were identical at 3/4 in. and thus provide us with a common if slightly inconvenient unit of measure). I tried to select measurements that would not vary too much with time or normal wear and tear. The result is a ruler that allows either one of us to easily convey measurements to each other remotely by converting between units of our bodies into standard units of measurement. And my wife thought it was sweet in an OCD kind of way.
Feeling chuffed with this idea and my yardstick, I realized that my system would break if neither of us had access to it, but then I remembered that I’m a high technologist and dutifully banged together an online version:
REMOTE UNIT CONVERTER
Wikipedia also says that the yard may also have come from the measurement of the waist. Note the 36 inches. I’m the fucking Vitruvian man.