Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Weights and Measures

Ford Madox Brown,  The Manchester Murals:
"The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures, 1556."
Antonio Neri's glass recipes depended on precise amounts specified in units as small as the 'grano,' [grain] named after the weight (mass) of a single grain of wheat or barley. In interpreting his formulas, the glassmaker must understand the quantities he used. For us, there are unfamiliar units like the 'fiasco' and the 'dita.' The dita or digit was simply the width of a finger. A fiasco or flask was the volume of a glass wine bottle, about two-and-a-quarter liters in Florence or two-thirds of a US gallon - about half of British imperial gallon. (As an aside, there are many fanciful stories of how the word 'fiasco' came to be synonymous with failure or disaster, perhaps the most believable is that the losers of competitions or bets were expected to buy the next round of drinks.)

In addition to unfamiliar units, there is the problem of standardization; a pound in Florence weighed different from a pound in other areas as close as Massa or Piedmont. Each Italian city maintained its own set of master weights and volumes to which merchants were expected to adhere. In reality, the differences were minor and may have been more attributable to politics than accuracy. Since antiquity, commodity merchants realized that if their own set of weights used in sales were ever so slightly below the norm, over time a savings would be realized, not large but significant. Towns could apply this principle as well; it paid to set standards slightly above or below neighboring towns from which one was buying or selling various goods. In truth, the differences were not great simply because successful commerce demanded that buyers and sellers could agree and strike a deal.

Even in different countries throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, we find close agreement in the various units of measure. Neri's first translator, Christopher Merrett, made an interesting substitution in his 1662 English version of L'Arte Vetraria. In chapter 132, Merrett writes "six pints of water" for Neri's "libre sei di acqua," changing pounds into pints. At first, it seems odd to be converting weight into volume, but this was perfectly valid. At that time in England, the pint was defined as exactly a pound (of wine or beer). Sailors were often each allotted a pint a day; the pint was also one-eighth of a cubic foot. (A cubic foot was equivalent to a gallon.) This system was very convenient for shipping companies who needed to calculate cargo volume and ballast in their trade ships as well as avoid mutiny by running out of beer at sea. Later, in 1824 King George IV increased the gallon from eight to ten pounds of water, invalidating Merrett's substitution.

Other conversions were more problematic. As absolute measurements varied from place to place, the size of a batch would be larger or smaller; not a big worry. However, ratios were of critical importance to a recipe. Just as in baking a cake, an entire batch of glass could be ruined by changing the ratio of materials. This sort of difficulty was especially prevalent with the size of an ounce; the troy and apothecaries system were based on a twelve-ounce pound while the avoirdupois system used a sixteen-ounce pound. When Merrett wrote his translation, England had officially been under the avoirdupois system since Henry VIII and in 1588, Elizabeth I complicated matters further by raising the weight of a pound by about twenty-one percent. Meanwhile, Florence and much of Europe continued to use the troy system.

English glassmakers who wished to use Neri's book as a working document would need to know which system to use. Merrett's direct translation added a hurdle that would confuse the unaware. In order to approximate Neri's intended composition under the prevailing avoirdupois system, Merrett's "ingenious" British readers would need to decrease by 1/5 quantities specified in pounds, and increase ounces by 1/15.

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