A Pound For Pound History Of New England's Weights And Measures

Apr 13, 2018

Thumb on the scaleloading the dice -- the English language is full of idioms for people who cheat the system.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many of those expressions invoke images of weights and measures, a good “rule of thumb” is to look back at New England’s colonial history, when standardizing the way we define our world today was a priority.

In a lab filled with scales and measures, Frank Greene fired up an old movie on his laptop.

It’s a 1936 film called “Great Guy,” starring James Cagney.

In the movie, Cagney played Johnny Cave, a no-nonsense weights and measures inspector, working the streets of New York City.

In a typical day, Cave investigates a grocery store, citing a deli clerk for surreptitiously loading chickens with hidden pieces of lead to make them weigh more, and making them more expensive. In another scene, he investigates a gas station, conducting an undercover buy to ensure the pumps are giving out the gas customers are paying for.

Greene, director of the Food and Standards Division at Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection, can’t help but laugh.

“It’s funny,” Greene said. “Weights and measures, we have a major motion picture with a major motion picture star on it. Of course, it’s 1936."

 

While hardboiled panache isn’t a job prerequisite today, Greene said the action depicted in the film isn’t far off from his department’s modern work.

“Most of what we do is food or fuel,” he said.

Outside the lab, Ion Daha, an inspector with weights and measures, explains some of the fuel inspections.

He pointed to a truck with tanks in the back that are calibrated to a certain measure. At a gas station, Daha can fill one up, and it’s easy to see if gas pumps are cheating customers -- or giving gas away for free.

“If it’s under -- we take it out of service. We ‘stop use’ that pump,” Daha said. “If it’s over -- giving away more -- we order, ‘repair it.’”

 

DCP's fuel truck contains three separate tanks (for differing grades of fuel). Inspectors can also -- using a different truck, conduct audits on home heating oil trucks -- to ensure they are properly monitoring, and billing, dispensed oil.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

Then there’s all the other stuff DCP measures. Small stuff like jewelry scales at pawn shops; big stuff like railroad and truck scales; and weird stuff like the scales those half-naked boxers step onto before fights.

All those scales, Greene said, are standardized to a common system.

But how did everyone agree on what that system would be?

“The thing that most surprised me, when I looked back even at the colonial times, is how extremely difficult -- and complex -- this process of standardization was,” said Walt Woodward, an associate professor at UConn and Connecticut’s state historian.

Woodward said for early settlers, the weights and measures issue was an immediate concern.

Records of Connecticut’s General Court bring it up as far back as the 1630s. Before Connecticut was even a colony.

“People are really having trouble over standardizing weights. They feel like they’re getting cheated at the mill or they’re getting short changed because this guy says it was a bushel, but it wasn’t a whole bushel,” Woodward said. “So in 1638 they get together. In 1639 they formulize the colony. But they still haven’t got this weights and measures thing worked out.”

A few years later, the General Court tackled it again -- asking each town to bring in their local standards, compare them, and agree on shared one, but those talks fizzled.

Woodward said the debate continued, and in 1644, it was decided newly-minted “town clerks” would take over weights and measures.

Each clerk brought their local standards to Hartford, where they measured against a standard for the whole colony.

 

These gold-plated standards are what Consumer Protection calls its "primary standards." Greene said the primary standards are used to calibrate the lab's "working standards," which are used in the lab's day-to-day activities to certify unknown weights. In its Windsor Metrology Lab, DCP also keeps old brass weights from the 19th century.
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

“So they really are trying to get a uniform system of measurement,” Woodward said.

That uniformity is an idea called traceability. One weight standardized to another to ensure everyone is talking a common language.

Eventually, Connecticut decided to make its weights and measures traceable to standards in England.

Woodward said by the 1750s, the issue was basically settled. But measurement debates have cropped up over the years, like American resistance to the French metric system.

 

Standardizing weights and measures was a big issue in colonial New England and following the American Revolution. In 1817, Connecticut Governor Oliver Wolcott (pictured above) directed the state to prepare a report on its use of weights and measures. Details from that report made it into an influential 1821 paper on weights and measures by soon-to-be President John Quincy Adams.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Today, the U.S. standardizes to weights and measures in Paris. And those standards are managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

NIST formed out of the rise of American industrialization. A time when the U.S. needed standards for pretty much everything.

Ken Butcher, a program leader in NIST’s weights and measures office, said there was a need for obvious standards like electricity. But then there was the not-so-obvious-stuff, like fire hydrants.

A shortcoming was discovered following a 1904 fire in Baltimore.

“Fire departments from all over the region went to Baltimore, to help fight the fire, but then they couldn’t hook up to the water hydrants because of non-standard fittings,” Butcher said.

Today, just as it’s always been, Butcher said new technology creates a need for new measures. Fields like computers, energy, robotics, agriculture, and even dental adhesives, are all driving an ever-growing need for standardization.

“So, just about anything,” Butcher said. “It amazes me sometimes.”

Meanwhile, just like Jimmy Cagney’s hardboiled Johnny Cave, DCP’s Frank Greene said consumers are watching. Whether it’s too much packaging on their deli meat, or a gas pump cheating them out of hard-earned cash, “people are very savvy. And they do look,” Greene said.

After all, America runs on commerce -- and commerce runs on measurement.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies including Rhode Island Public Radio joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.