How Small Is Lilliput?

On his retirement as one of the leading advertising agents in New York City, EARNEST ELMO CALKINS devoted himself to the hobbies which had long been inviting his spare hours. He wrote about the ordeals and compensations of being deaf, and his autobiography, Louder, Please, is a standard in its field. He developed his passion for woodcarving, and from his bench has launched a fleet of precise and beautiful ship models. He also indulged himself in mathematics, as in this paper.


A SCALE model, animate or otherwise, should above all things be consistent. The faithfulness with which the adopted scale is adhered to enhances the illusion and indeed is one of the tests of verisimilitude. As a child I was perturbed to find the dove in my Noah’s Ark as tall as the giraffe. And as a ship model enthusiast I kept in mind that the crew of my little vessel was composed of tiny men three fourths of an inch tall. The perfection of the model depended on the just relation of the parts, the proportions of the masts and spars, the nice variations in the sizes of the lines of the rigging, not only to each other but to the imaginary crew that supposedly would maneuver it.

And so when I came across a bit of scale model construction in literature I subjected it to the test applied to, say, Henry Culver’s magnificent model of Sovereign of the Seas, pride of the navy of Charles the First. When Dean Swift undertook to create an empire in miniature did he have in mind a fixed scale or did he go by rule of thumb? Are there dimensional inconsistencies in Lilliput? Swift had a strong sense of mathematics, of that detail which gives an illusion of actuality. He did not leave much to the imagination. He realized, as did Defoe, that a few figures give an air of authority. He knew that when he started to introduce his little people the first instinctive question would be, How little? Early in ihe story the scale is given. When Gulliver awoke after his stormy landing on the shores of Lilliput he found himself flat on his back lied down by numerous cables the thickness of packthread. One of the bolder Lilliputians walked up his stomach and thus came into view, and Gulliver notes “a human Creature not six inches high.” There is the scale almost as graphic as the legend in the margin of an architect’s plan — one inch equals one foot, convenient and easily remembered.

They brought their prisoner food and drink. A shoulder of mutton was smaller than the wing of a lark. Gulliver ate them English fashion, bones and all. A cask of wine slung up by a derrick held about half a pint. To Gulliver the cask was about the size of a modern tumbler — that is, three and a half inches high by two and a half in diameter. A hogshead three and a half by two and a half feet is logical. But one pauses at “Loaves about the bigness of Musket Bullets.” Half an inch would be a large bore for a musket, and at that it would give but six inches as the size of the loaves, either small bread or large rolls. The expert mathematicians connected with the court of Lilliput estimated that their giant guest would require the equivalent of rations for 1724 natives, and catering was ordered on that basis.

My first thought was to try to work that out by calculating how much food per man the Lilliput allowance meant as compared with a man the size of Gulliver, but that led nowhere. Beef cattle run in weight from 400 to 1000 pounds and there is equally great variation in the amount of meat each animal yields. The allowance of meat in the ration of a British soldier in the seventeenth century was nearly a pound, but the amount of meat in Lilliputian pounds that six beeves and forty sheep comes to among 1724 eaters is beyond even that monstrous computer in the offices of International Business Machines. The scale of 12 to 1 cannot be applied to measuring appetites. Or can it ?

Gulliver himself must have thought of this dilemma, for later on he gives his own explanation: The Emperor stipulated to “allow me a Quantity of Meat and Drink sufficient for the Support of 1724 Lilliputians. Some time after, asking a Friend at Court how they came to fix on that determined Number, he told me that his Majesty’s Mathematicians, having taken the Height of my Body by the help of a Quadrant, and finding it to exceed theirs in the Proportion of Twelve to One, they concluded, from the Similarity of their Bodies, that mine must contain at least 1724 of theirs, and consequently would require as much food as was necessary to support that number of Lilliputians” — the first time, probably, that appetite was measured by what architects like to call “cubage”; for 1724, it may be well to remind the careless reader, is a little less than the third power of 12. At least it is obvious that Gulliver was well fed.

He slept in a large abandoned temple near the palace that to him was about as large as a dog kennel. He was able to creep in, for the door was unusually large, about two by four feet (24 by 48 Lilliputian scale). They made him a bed by taking 600 beds “of the common Measure” (meaning mattresses, no doubt) and sewing them together four deep. If Lilliput beds were in the same proportion as ours the mattresses would be four or five inches by six. The only sensible arrangement of 150 in an oblong for a bed is ten across and fifteen down. Thus Gulliver’s bed was ample, say four feet wide and seven and a half long. It would have been better if they had sliced off the two bottom rows. As to its thickness Gulliver ruefully observes; —

“It kept me but indifferently from the hardness of the floor.”

Other dimensions are not so easily pinned down. The page who carried the Emperor’s train “seemed somewhat longer than my middle finger.” Trees were seven feet high — that is, 84 feet Lilliput. To a native a letter of Gulliver’s handwriting was about “half the width of my Palm,” at least a quarter of an inch, a bold round hand. A warship was nine feet long, 108 Lil., not large in Gulliver’s England. Capital ships in King James’s navy averaged 175 feet, some even 200. It will be remembered that Gulliver swam away with the entire Blefuscu navy attached to strands of “packthread” twisted together to make a stronger towrope.

There is one incident that offers something of a puzzle. This was a construction of Gullivers for the entertainment of the Lilliputians, in return, presumably, for the hospitality they had shown him. As Gulliver describes it, “by order of the Emperor there were delivered to me several Sticks of two feet high and the thickness of a Cane” — that is, Lilliputian logs 24 feet long and about 10 inches in diameter. “I took nine of these Sticks and fixed them firmly in the ground in a Quadrangular Figure, two feet and a half Square; I took four other Sticks and tied them parallel at each corner about two feet from the ground; then I fastened my Handkerchief to the nine Sticks that stood erect and extended it on all sides till it was tight as the top of a Drum; and the four parallel Sticks, rising about five inches higher than the Handkerchief, served as Ledges on each side.”

Schoolboys in second-year Latin have sometimes made a miniature model of Caesar’s bridge as described in his Gallic War, but I defy a model maker to duplicate this structure. First, how far in the ground? It would need at least six inches to hold steady, especially with the pull of the tight handkerchief. So how could the horizontal members be about two feet from the ground? And for that matter, how do you arrange nine sticks in a quadrangle? And finally Gulliver says the elevated stage was two feet and a half square, apparently impossible when it is remembered that the uprights were bound together with sticks two feet long. The stage must have been two feet square no matter what was done with the mysterious ninth.

Gulliver then lifted twenty-four of His Majesty’s horsemen to perform their evolutions on his stage. Without stopping to speculate on how practicable such a platform would be as a foothold for mounted horsemen (one horse put his foot through it), and how twenty-four could perform evolutions in an area which to them was only 24 feet square — smaller than any circus ring — one might ask, why an elevated stage? Only Gulliver could see the spectacle at such a height. Nevertheless the Emperor was so pleased with the spectacle that he commanded several repeat performances.

On the whole, however, Lem Gulliver passes with a good mark as a model maker.