Making Measure


an exploration of modern metrology

Matter, Measure, Codifications

Novel metrics - environmental off-sets and carbon credits - are seen as integral for addressing climate change; they codify, convert, and connect ecosystem (services) and markets, regulating and incentivizing production decisions.

Yet, from disciplines like landscape and environmental design, there's been relatively little reflection on the broader history of the policies, forms, and constructed-equivalences of meter, measure, and standardization. Combine harvesters, berms, wind-turbines, jersey barriers, and the Jeffersonian grid have been intensively investigated as instrumental objects, while attention to historic measures has been relatively muted. Bushels and barrels have been left to economic historians and political scientists.

No matter that excavation and cultivation, containerization and circulation - the process and push to sell one more hundred weight - has long shaped the common landscape.

Museum of Science (UK): Exchequer standard bushel measure of King Henry VII (1495-1497)

Overlaid Histories, Territories

Making Measure turns to these instrumental abstractions, offering animations, excavations, and an anthropology (of sorts) by focusing on J.H. Alexander's Universal Dictionary of Weights and Measures (1850).

Collated at a moment of intense industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, Alexander's Dictionary is typical of 19th century quests to classify and compile. With over 5000 units ('antique and modern'), it catalogues measures by geography of use, materials handled, and imperial conversion. Its biggish data provides an interesting window onto:

  • commercial and cultural ambitions (ancient greek conversions),
  • metropolitan transfers and territories (tribal/colonial/hybrid metrics),
  • and, the particular intensity of cultural contacts (minute variations listed port by port as a glimpse of alternate histories, tools, terrains).

Tracing Colonial Codes: Universal dictionary of weights and measures by J.H.Alexander (1850)

Obsolete Elements, Aggregations

As a playful prolegomena, Making Measure is not an exhaustive account of embedded, constructivist tactics or a critical aggregation of the logistics born of such standards (fascinating, future studies). Rather, it is a dive into the Dictionary's codifications and conversions; its' imagination of matter-as-data.

First, The Dictionary; an interactive visualization lets viewers browse the Dictionary's units by type (liquid, length, etc.). With weighted summations by port, it can be explored to draw out relative sizes of units used and their shared cities of deployment (as detailed in Alexander's condensed colonial histories).

Second (August '16), a series of conversion calculators will let viewers a) translate directly between equivalent types, b) trace and convert '6-degrees' between linked-shipping sites, and c) speculate on the embedded metrics implied by material-specific measures. (For instance, care to speculate on how many acres and how many heads of sheep are buried in a London Last? a flannel bolt?)

Wool Lasts (4368 lbs.) to Wey (182 lbs.) to Cloves (7 lbs.) in Warehouses: Illustrated London News (1850)

Lost Conversions, Constructions

Finally (rolling release), a revised catalogue will detail how, when, and where obsolete metrics were replaced (select units only) and the infrastructures, instruments, and regulations employed to that end. A gesture towards larger constructivist histories, this section will explore the specific process- and place-based tools and institutions that are repressed in our everyday, at-hand acceptance of universal measures.

Making Measures thus offers a glimpse of the world before the hegemony of SI, Imperial, ANSI, DIN, and UTM, before the core codifications of (for the most part) post-WWII globalization. It glances back at the mechanism and metrics of liberalism to reflection on how we might cunningly craft measures and formulate footprints (both resistant and representational) in and for today's neoliberal environment.

Manufacturing Concrete Abstractions: The Brandon Manufacturing Co. . . .Howe Standard scales, (1876)