Modern Marvels taken for Granted: Weights & Measures

Tscale2hose of us who need to lose a pound or two hover over the bathroom scale. Scientists think of it abstractly as the realm “weights and measures” when it comes to the ubiquitous device. We surely take this modern marvel for granted. You hop on each morning to take a reading and then you are on your merry way. So who exactly invented the scale and why? It was no doubt for commerce and the exchange or trading of goods. You had to know how much you were selling before you could name your price.

To do business in any society, you need accuracy of your merchandise to be fair. If you say it is cotton, it cannot be silk. If you say it weighs a pound, it cannot be 15 ounces. You can’t always count it out like a dozen eggs. It could be in powder or liquid form. Weights and measures as a concept have to be reliable and uniform. In the early days it was no doubt somewhat speculative. You had seeds, grain or stones as a countermeasure or for the measurement of length you had the span of the hand. Standards soon became stringent to avoid cheating and finagling. During the days before the American Revolution, a bushel of oats would weigh something different in Virginia, New Jersey, or Connecticut. By way of explanation, it could weight from 28 to 32 pounds. In California during the Gold Rush, measuring land or grain in exchange for gold was imprecise. It seems that each mining camp had its own rules.

To make things more exact, basically, it comes down to units. In measurements, you have inches and feet, or meters. In weights you have ounces and pounds or liters (or to go to extremes—tons). As is obvious, there is no worldwide system at present, although the metric system is always gaining ground. The US remains the only industrialized system that does not use it as their standard. Whatever system is used, the units must be the same in all places. At present we have the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington D.C. to safeguard our precious units. You want some type of authority to ensure that the quantity is correct when purchasing certain products. Laws for weights and measures have stabilized the process to protect consumers from fraud.

So without you even knowing it, weights and measures to some degree permeate your entire life – especially if you’re looking at scales for weight loss – because you’ll probably also be using a set in the kitchen to measure all of your food every meal as well. It is all behind the scenes in factories or labs where ingredients are measured for medications and chips are manufactured to scale for watches and phones. The bathroom scale is unfortunately lagging behind the times. We do have more accurate digital models, but they can be off due to a false initial tabulation. Scales used to operate by means of a stretched spring that moved a lever. This little device activated the dial that shows you the calibrated weight. Electronic versions are a considerable advancement using a strain gauge attached to a springy metal. When you stand on this type of device, this metal bends. Since it is connected to a circuit, it serves to compare changes in current through the strain gauge to a fixed current. You then read the results in a digital screen.

And yet, your average weight can be several ounces different from one scale to another, give or take – except on the most accurate scales. God forbid it should be off a whole pound from one day to the next! We have come to accept inconsistency with such scales, a fact we would not tolerate in other areas of our life. We don’t want to pay more for our gas than we buy and we don’t want to fork over extra money for incorrectly weighed premium cheese sold by the pound.

Weights and measure therefore matter. We can’t live without them. All of our packaged food contains a label regarding weight which correlates with price. When we buy lumber, it must be accurate to a 32nd of an inch. Why do we agree to use a bathroom scale that tells lies? Can we trust the deli department for accuracy when wrapping cheese? We don’t think too often about it, but maybe we should. Weights and measures are here for a reason to help humanity come to terms with the necessities of fair commerce. No one wants to be hoodwinked in the grocery store any more than on the scales. Maybe it’s wise to drop a few extra pounds to be on the safe side.