February 1857: Time for a change? Probably not

While always championing innovation, The Engineer hasn’t always been in favour of change for change’s sake — and it could be pretty scathing when the mood took it, as this mid-19th century review demonstrates

Engineering has always been, among many other things, something of a haven for eccentrics. It was no different back in the early days of The Engineer, as a short review article in February 1857 reveals.

Our predecessors were taking a look over a pamphlet entitled ‘The Decimal System as a Whole in its Relation to Time, Measure, Weight and Money,’ credited to Dover Statter. A quick perusal of a resource the Victorian journalists didn’t have — Google — reveals that the author’s name was actually Richard Dover Statter; it’s also turned up a copy of the actual pamphlet, courtesy of the National Library of Australia’s online resources.

The pamphlet is an archetypal piece of 19th-century idealism, proposing a new system of units that would unify all the measurements so that their relation to each other would become obvious. ‘Neglecting as partial and irrational all existing standards and modes of measurement,’ the review says, ‘Mr Statter proposes as the universal standard the girth of old mother earth in her most protuberant quarter, ie, at the equator.’ This would be divided into 100 degrees, each of which would be divided into 100 units, and so on down. The length of the day would then be divided into 10 ‘hours’, each of those into 100 ‘minutes’ and each of those into 100 ‘seconds’, each of which would represent the time taken for the earth to rotate through one of Statter’s smallest equatorial subdivisions.

Statter also suggested redividing the year, and suggested names for the new months that would be created, including Unusber, Duober, Quatuober and Quinqueber. The Engineer deploys some scalpel-sharp sarcasm on this suggestion. ‘We cannot complement Mr Statter upon the euphony of the new names,’ it says. ‘One good thing, however, would result, we should have oysters in season all year round, since every month would have an R in it.’

The current staff of The Engineer can only wonder at such a sentence, not least for the word ‘euphony’, which we’re pretty sure hasn’t appeared in these pages since 1857.

But the journal reserves its deepest reserves of scorn for poor Mr Statter himself. The pamphlet is the result of ‘that kind of one-sided thinking which men who live in a world of their own are apt to indulge in’, it says, dismissing Statter as ‘a curious ingenious sort of a man, with an utter contempt for all conventional and established usages’ and ‘a radical of the very redest (sic) description’.

But lest anyone think that The Engineer was setting itself against original thought, the review points out that ‘We by no means wish to imply by these remarks that we consider all innovation impious or undesirable… but we are sufficiently conservative to think that even the slightest alteration of the existing methods requires infinite caution’, and that Statter’s new methods ‘are both impossible and undesirable.’

What they might have thought about the wholesale shift of units towards SI, reflecting what was then a French Revolutionary measurement system, we cannot know.