NEW SCIENTIST, issue 2169, 1st September 2007'em

THE metric system was born of French revolution, but though Napoleon lauded it, he did not use it himself and predicted it would be a stumbling block for generations. Warwick Cairns, in his deliciously ironic history of traditional measurements, agrees. He maintains that while the International System of Units is vital to science, everyday measures for length, volume and weight should relate to the "dimensions, appetites and purposes of ordinary people". After 10 years conducting opinion polls, he really does know what we think.

About the Size of It - Reviews

SOTERIA MAGAZINE, 20th September 2007

"About The Size Of It" is a book about common sense measurements. After a period where the government has been trying to standardise measurement in line with our European neighbours in the community this book makes interesting reading about where different types of measurement originated. A book that is basically about maths has no right to be as interesting as this book is!

The author of the book commissioned a series of polls to find out how people were adapting from the weights and measures they had always known to the newer metric measures. When people were prosecuted for using old measures and refusing to change then Warwick Cairns was brought in as an expert witness. After long discussions with lawyers and a psychologist Warwick Cairns set out to write about the origins of weights and measures. This book is written particularly with the old English systems in mind, but with reference to other countries to see how we have arrived where we are today.

This is not a stuffy book there are lots of asides and stories about practical uses of different ad hoc measures which include using all sorts of bits of the body. There is different practical advice such as the best way to divide a pie and how to take professional photographs. The book is very informal and you don't even realise you are learning. I came away from this book richer in my understanding of measures than I had from school because he explained the history of the standardised measure - where it came from, and suddenly a lot of it made much more sense than it ever has done.

It may not be everyone's cup of tea to curl up with this book and a mug of coffee, but it was definitely an interesting read, by an entertaining author, on a subject that I thought would be dull!

THE DAILY SPORT, 13th September 2007

This book could hardly be better timed, coming hard on the heels of the EU announcement that they're letting us keep pints and miles. It's a light-hearted but solidly-factual explanation of why things are measured the way they are and a stack of other useful and useless info. What a lot of sensible fun


“A quirky book that mulls over weighty matters - such as how much you can hold in your hand while doing something else - is set to become one of those publications that catches the imagination and flies off the shelves.”

Read the full article here


The SI system of weights and measures has been embraced and endorsed by scientists and bureaucrats across virtually the whole world. It is logical, consistent and it makes maths easy. So why do many of us cling to the outmoded concepts of the foot, the pound and the pint? The answer, it turns out, is because these measures all correspond to the values that are convenient for human beings to measure.

It’s an obvious thesis, perhaps, but the ramifications are wider-reaching than you would think. For example, the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters are the size they are because they have to fit through railway tunnels for transport from the factory to the launch site. These tunnels have a diameter determined by the standard railway gauge, which was based on the width of a horse-drawn carriage, which in turn was twice the width of a horse’s behind.

Connections like this between ancient and modern worlds provide a startling insight into how ingrained measurement systems have become.

Cairns’s writing style is jocular to the point of irritation, but the story of how some measures are welcomed by the public and others must be forced upon them is a fascinating one, and definitely worth the effort.

THE GUARDIAN, Review, Saturday 3rd November 2007

Steven Poole’s Non-Fiction Choice,,2204079,00.html

Why are English banana traders and others so resistant to metric measures? Because the old ones, through age-old application of what the author charmingly dubs "the Principle of Repeated Bodges", make more physical and psychological sense. We like to count in tens, but we measure better in numbers that our eye can divide into twos and threes. You can't hold a kilo of apples in one hand, but you can hold a pound of them. A pint of water (or beer) is about as much as fits in your bladder. A league is about an hour's walk; a mile is about a thousand double paces; and a furlong is about the length your horses can pull a plough before needing a breather.

And a yard is about the length of a good walking-stick, which brings us to a curious fact about its continental cousin, the metre. A metre was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator, on a line passing through Paris. Amazingly, that turns out to be roughly the length of your leg. I hereby commend this truth to the proponents of "Intelligent Design".

THE SPECTATOR Christmas Edition, Friday 14th December 2007

The Spectator’s Notes, Charles Moore

People sometimes warn against the idea that ‘man is the measure of all things’, but there is a literal sense in which he is, or should be — measurements themselves. This has been brought home very clearly to me by a short, sharp new book called About the Size of It, The Commonsense Approach to Measuring Things, by Warwick Cairns (Macmillan). The book identifies ‘the great, unwritten, unspoken unacknowledged Principle of Measurement’, which is that ‘people can’t always be bothered to do things properly’. As a result, we measure things, for daily as opposed to scientific purposes, roughly. When we do this, in almost all cultures, we use our bodies. Thus a human foot measures out a building plot; the width of a human hand, working vertically in a way human feet find difficult, measures the size of a normal brick or the height of a horse; a yard is a stick as long as your leg; a pound is about the weight you can easily hold in your hand, and so on. The only system of measurement that is hostile to these human origins is the metric one. A kilogramme of apples, for example, cannot fit in your hand. Metric is an imposition; other measurements arise from the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, and therefore work.


Charles Moore

Steven Poole

ARMADILLO MAGAZINE, 9.4, Winter 2007

Reviewed by Louise Ellis-Barrett

About the Size of It is a wonderfully entertaining and informative book about measuring things. If, like me, you have an enquiring mind and are always wondering why and how things came about, if you have an interest in etymology then this book is a must read. If you are interested in the history of measurement and measures then obviously this book is ideal bedtime reading! Not only was I laughing out loud and regaling my long-suffering husband with amazing facts about measurement, I found the book very easy to read. It is light hearted, presented in a very informal manner and speaks directly to its reader - to the extent that you are encouraged to even try out a few experiments for yourself!

About the Size of It came about because Cairns was asked to commission a series of opinion polls in order to establish what the British public thought about the change from an imperial to a metric system of measurement. After ten years working on this he became, obviously, very knowledgeable and was called up to be an 'expert witness' in court cases involving traders still using the old system. The result of this work was an acknowledgement that people, on the whole, did not have a very good opinion of the changes. Quite why not is the subject of this fascinating and insightful study into the history of weights and measures of all descriptions.

With historical anecdotes - 'George the Third declared with a smile/Seventeen-Sixty yards in a mile', instructions on how to divide cakes accurately into portions, guidelines for measuring the length of your feet, a rather gross experiment for assessing how much liquid is in a cup and some very long but insightful footnotes, this book offers something for everyone. Historians will no doubt be fascinated by the way in which measurements have changed (very little) over the years. Children will be amazed at some of the outdated and outmoded methods of measurement that still abound. Shoe shop assistants will discover a whole new range of methods for measuring feet; builders and carpenters for measuring height and length; chefs - professional and amateur - for measuring both liquids and solids. Concluding with the idea that the best thing we can do is to 'live and let live' and with an excellent glossary under the headings Systems of Measurement; Length; Weight; Volume; Distance and Area, this is a fun, fascinating celebration of the British system of measures.

THE OXFORD TIMES, 17th January 2008

Measuring up

By David Bowes

If you're easily wound up about metric measures having taken over from imperial, then this passionate defence of traditional measuring systems will surely provide solace.

Prior to writing this, his first book, Cairns spent ten years in advertising, and conducted opinion polls to ascertain what people thought of the changeover to metric.

Becoming something of an authority on the issue, in due course he appeared in court as an expert witness for market traders determined to continue selling their bananas by the pound.


It turns out that consumers remain attached to old-fashioned measuring systems for more than merely jingoistic reasons. Rather, it is because they work, based as they are on common-sense approaches developed over generations.

Take, for instance, the measurement of distance. Cairns demonstrates that traditional measures are largely derived from the proportions of the human body. Four inches', or thumbs', make up a hand' - a measurement still used in equestrian circles; three hands' make a foot' - about the size of, well, a foot; and three feet' equate to a yard' - a stick about as long as your leg'.

Meanwhile, almost every society in history has had a measure of weight equating to roughly that of a hand-sized stone, divided in half over and over to make sub-units, most commonly of 16.

So far, so good, but matters become complicated with the shift to metric. There is no problem where distance is concerned, a metre being broadly comparable to a yard. But a kilogram is significantly greater than a pound - try holding a kilo of apples in one hand and you will immediately see why it is so unpopular a measure.

All-in-all, a light-hearted and entertaining defence of traditional approaches, that more than measures up.

BRITS AT THEIR BEST, 19th February 2008

The most widely used instruments and units are the ones on the ends of your legs.

Conn Iggulden called About the Size of It "fun and fascinating – the secrets and tricks of how we measure the world around us".

Author Warwick Cairns points out in friendly, informative tones everything I did not know – the expanding size of pints in Britain (but not in America, which despite its prodigious thirst stuck with the traditional, pre-1824 British pint size); the meaning of the cryptic little marks on retractable tape measures; how to find hidden studs; why pipes around the world are the size they are; the importance of the Rule of Thirds to great art; and why the two white rocket-like appendages on the US space shuttle are the width of two horses’ backsides.

There’s plenty more in About the Size of It, including Napoleon’s hatred of the metric system and the SI passion for it as well as measuring experiments that curious adults and children will like. It’s a provocative book. Macmillan has underestimated its pragmatic American audience, and published it only in Britain, but American readers can find it at Amazon Canada

Waterstone’ Bookseller Review

Fraser Jansen, Waterstone’s Windsor

A book about measurement? Well, this is an energetic, very entertaining, intelligent and utterly fascinating book about how things have come to be measured. If you don’t know what a smoot is, then this is the book for you! Wonderful.

The Oldie review of Books, Spring 2008

This book concerns the way that humans measure things – and why ‘folk’ systems such as the Imperial system will always make more ‘physical and psychological sense’ than the metric system. Andrew Robinson in the New Scientist finds Cairns’s approach ‘deliciously ironic’ and Charles Moore was so taken with the book that he mentioned it in his ‘Spectator’s Notes’: ‘The book identifies the great, unwritten, unspoken unacknowledged Principle of Measurement,’ he said, which is that ‘people can’t always be bothered to do things properly’. He agreed with Cairns that ‘we measure things, for daily as opposed to scientific purposes, roughly. When we do this…we use our bodies. Thus the human foot measures out a building plot; the width of a human hand, working vertically in a way that human feet find difficult, measures the size of a normal brick of the height of a horse.’

Writing in The Guardian, Stephen Poole is also convinced by Cairns’s theory of ‘the Principle of Repeated bodges’. Whereas ‘you can hold a pound of apples in one hand, you can’t hold a kilo’. The same applies across the board: ‘A pint of water is about as much as fits in your bladder’, while ‘a league is about an hour’s walk’.

Poole also finds an opportunity for playfulness in Cairns’s observations about the Continetal metre: ‘one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator turns out to be roughly the length of your leg: I hereby commend this truth to the proponents of “intelligent Design”.’


Did you know that shoe sizes are based on the length of a barleycorn?  Or that the dimensions of the space shuttle's booster engines are linked to the width of a horse's arse?

Size I didn't, but I do now.  I spent much of last week boring the socks off my family (they loved it really, I'm sure) with fascinating facts about weights and measures while reading About The Size Of It by Warwick Cairns.

I really enjoyed it.  I would have finished it in one sitting had I not needed to travel across town for a meeting. I started it at breakfast and completed it over a late lunch.  It is an amusing and irreverent (but fact-filled and fascinating) look at the science of weights and measures.  One of those books that feels like an effortless read but fills you with knowledge at the same time.  It is hard to cram a book full of information and data and history while at the same time coming across as conversational.  Warwick is brilliant at that.

About The Size Of It is highly recommended as a short piece of quality non-fiction but I would also pick it out as the perfect book for blokes who don't like reading.  It is funny, not very long and full of stats - hard to find a man who wouldn't enjoy that.  Make a note for future gift purchases.