How Big Is an Acre?

THE writer has asked a thousand schoolchildren, who from time to time have visited various observatories with which he has been connected: ‘How many square feet to the acre?’ and not once has the correct answer been given. The children guess wildly or stand mortified. He believes he might ask a hundred school-teachers the same question, and if two answered correctly, these could be easily stumped by the further casual inquiry: ‘And how many square inches, would you say?’ Perhaps, gentle reader, you would like to try the problem? You know what an inch is and you know that ‘acre’ is a term quite frequently used.

Of the same groups of children, a second question was invariably asked: ‘How many cents in four hundred thirty-five dollars and sixty cents?’ There is a moment of hesitancy, then a flash of recognition, and a jubilant chorus booms forth: ‘Forty-three thousand five hundred and sixty.’ They always put the ‘and’ in. They feel that they valiantly met the enemy and got the better of him.

But why this ability to answer so promptly a problem in values, and the complete failure to solve the problem in measuring an area?

Perhaps the explanation is to be found in this. A dollar is a hundred cents; but a link is 7.92 inches, and 625 square links make a pole, and 16 poles make a square chain, and 10 square chains make an acre. So one must multiply 7.92 by 7.92, then multiply this by 625, then multiply by 16, then by 10; and finally divide the total by 144. This gives, if you’ve made no mistake, 43,560 square feet. If you want the number of square inches, omit dividing by 144, and the answer is: 6,272,640 square inches in an acre.

There are two things to be noticed. We do not use a scientific and sensible unit to begin with: and the method of extension is unscientific, in that there is no constant and easily comprehended ratio of values. It is quite easy to devise a suitable unit and there is already a legalized method of extending values, but we do not try to use the system, although it is used successfully by a large majority of the civilized communities of the world and there is no valid reason against universal adoption. Great Britain and the United States are not wholly to be classed with the rest of the world, because, while the United States — also the English-speaking communities which make up the British Imperial Union — use a logical and scientific method in connection with money, they still retain — except in scientific usage — a cumbersome and antiquated system of weights and measures.

And so it is that the schoolboy must spend precious hours trying to memorize the relation of the foot to the rod, and the yard to the mile; or the square rod to the perch; or the gill to the gallon; or the tierce to the hogshead; the pipe to the butt; the tun to heaven knows what. Luckily for him, there is a limit to scholastic requirement, and the arithmetics generally add in fine type: —

These measures of capacity do not express any
fixed measure but are usually gauged and have
their capacities in gallons marked on them.

Like ready-made clothes, they need a tag to tell how much they are worth!

Then there are the bushel and the peck. There are sixteen pints in a peck; but these are dry pints. There are eight wet pints to the gallon; but who would dare to trace the relationship between a gallon and a peck?

An ounce is a small thing, but not always the same thing. We now have two kinds of ounces, one contains 480 grains, one has 437.5 grains and is still considered a respectable ounce. And the pound? Ah — it is a fickle fellow! If, dear reader, you should step into the Mint and ask for a pound of gold, — of course, you would go fully protected, — you would get just twelve ounces, or 5760 grains. Come home now with your gold and buy a pound of golden butter. The honest groceryman will give you 16 ounces, or 7000 grains — or you can incarcerate him in jail, upon application to an inspector of weights and measures somewhere near the State House. Is not this another case of acquiring knowledge in Wall Street and paying for it?

But forget eatables like butter and sugar for a moment.

The winter is long and cold, and we cannot all go to the sunny South, or the golden Pacific Coast. We try to keep warm by buying and burning coal. We buy it by the ton. And how much is a ton? Why, that depends upon how much coal you buy — and how much money you have. The United States Government requires in its fuel-contracts 2240 pounds to the ton. Many large corporations tell the coal barons to deliver likewise unto them the ‘long’ ton. With them, a hundredweight means one hundred pounds, plus twelve more. For a ton is made up of four quarters each 560 pounds — those who devised the English system of weights here missed a fine chance to make a ton five quarters — or 160 stones. Everyone in America knows a stone to be just exactly 14 pounds, no more, no less. But, gentle reader, when you buy a ton of coal, you may get some stones to be sure in each ton, but the coal baron will see that you get just 2000 pounds. He gets 2240. That’s that. An ounce is not always an ounce; a pound is not always a pound; and a ton is not always a ton.

Now let us come back to the schoolchildren and the size of an acre. There is no need of sticking to the link; but if we must, at least let us be able to answer how many links there are in any given piece of ground — call it an acre. A square link would be 404.6873 square centimetres. Ask foreign schoolchildren: ‘Howmany square links in an acre?’ Philippine children, Mexican children, Russian children, German children, Swed ish child ren, Spanish children, Austrian children, Belgian children, French children, in fact, all the children of the world except our own and those in Great Britain, would answer without delay: 40,468,730.

Is it not time that our school superintendents took a hand in the game? The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would undoubtedly be glad to second any effort to protect defenseless youngsters from the cruelty of memorizing ancient and no longer honorable tables of weights and measures. That the system fails utterly is attested by asking so simple a question as: ‘How big is an acre?’