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Even before the Norman Conquest, the English foot was decreed to equal the length of 36 barleycorns laid end to end. The 10th century King Edgar ordered that the legal yard was the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his middle finger. From such whims grew the system of weights and measures that has bogged down the English-speaking world in the non-decimal swamp of pounds and ounces, bushels and pecks, acres and furlongs. The simpler system of meters, grams and liters, invented in France around 1800, spread through Napoleonic Europe in the early 19th century; it...

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