The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

New Bridge to Lyndesfarne: Chapter 22

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One of the more useful and (Kevin thought afterwards) interesting consultation sessions introduced him to the systems of measurement used in Lyndesfarne. Several times during the early days of the New Bridge project, Kevin had driven to Newcastle University for a briefing from Professor Alan or one of several of his colleagues at NISSA.

This particular session was presented by one Doctor Willis. The Doctor was a man in late middle age, rather short and painfully thin, clean-shaven and completely bald. Overall, the Doctor presented a (Kevin suspected) carefully cultivated "mad Professor" look, including a heavily-stained white lab coat with numerous pens in the breast pocket. The Doctor also had glasses with black plastic frames, which he wore most of the time, and took off to play with when he wanted to appear to be thinking. Kevin had noticed that the glass lenses did not appear to be particular thick, and the Doctor seemed perfectly capable of seeing what was going on even without the spectacles.

Kevin assumed that this briefing had been suggested by some bright spark at his company, who had thought it necessary for him to gain an understanding of the weights and measures used in Lyndesfarne to support the civil engineering work. The meeting, or tutorial as Kevin thought of it, was held in a small office at the University. Kevin was introduced by Professor Alan, and then Kevin settled himself in a chair with his notebook and pen in hand.

NISSA Building frontage

"The system of units in common use in Lyndesfarne," the Doctor started, once the initial introductions were completed, "is very similar to the old British or Imperial measures."

Kevin, who's modern engineering training had guided him almost entirely to the use of metric units, was astonished, and said so.

"It's quite true, I assure you," the Doctor replied.

He explained, at possibly unnecessary length, that the weights and measures used on the Island were, in some cases, expressed in units which were now obsolete - perhaps even archaic - on the Mainland.

"The same measurement systems might even have been used in Lyndesfarne and in Britain at one time," the Doctor speculated, "But if so, they must have diverged hundreds of years ago."

Kevin wondered about the coincidence. They build a bridge, making it much easier to communicate between the worlds and, at about the same time, we start using different measurements. Was it deliberate, he wondered, or was it just because of the complex history of our own world?

The good news, from Kevin's perspective, was that the clock and calendar was much the same in both worlds. The names of the days of the week and months of the year were of course different. Nevertheless, the calendar had the same number of months and number of days in each month, and there was a direct correspondence between the names used in the Lyndesfarne language and in English.

Similarly, timekeeping used the same measurements of hours, minutes and seconds, except that, on Lyndesfarne, a twelve-hour clock was always used. In an aside, the Doctor mentioned that the length of a second was thought to be identical in either world, as far as it has been possible to determine. It was difficult to be absolutely sure, since precise timepieces from the Mainland (using clockwork or electronics) failed immediately when brought to Lyndesfarne. Similarly, magical timepieces failed when they were transported the other way across the bridge. Nevertheless, as far as anyone knew, time appeared to pass at exactly the same rate on either side of the straights.

Doctor moved on measures of distance. He was really getting into his stride now, and Kevin was beginning to find it difficult to take notes fast enough to keep up.

Short distances were measured in inches and feet. As at home, a foot was defined as twelve inches, but there was a very slight difference between the inch, now internationally defined in Kevin's world as being exactly 25.4 millimetres, and the inch on Lyndesfarne. Kevin knew that, in the past, slightly different definitions of inches had given rise to compatibility problems even in his world. For example, at one time, ammunition manufactured in US did not fit into guns made in the UK. Or perhaps it was the other way around? Kevin could not quite remember.

The Doctor paused, to attract Kevin's attention, before continuing.

Whisky Glass, filled

"There are a couple of other measures which are used frequently: fingers and hands."

"A finger is half an inch - a Lyndesfarne inch, to be precise. For example, people will describe snowfall as being 3 fingers deep, rather than an inch-and-a-half."

Kevin, whose previous experience of three-fingered measurements had been limited to the contents of a whisky glass, smiled wryly.

"Hands are 4 inches, and used more generally than just for the measurement of horses," continued the Doctor.

"Indeed, this illustrates the fact that these measurements were originally defined in terms of the length of convenient parts of the human body. An inch, for example, is the length of the top joint of the thumb. And so the Lyndesfarne word for inch is the same as the word for thumb, as it is in some continental European languages."

Kevin looked at his hands for confirmation, which the Doctor must have noticed but pointedly ignored it.

Longer distance was measured in chains and furlongs, which Kevin could just dimly remember from primary school. In both worlds, a chain was 66 feet, and a furlong was ten chains. In the nineteenth century, surveying work in Britain (and other parts of the world where the Colonial influence was felt) was based on chains, and it seemed that much the same process occurred in Lyndesfarne as well. In particular, the acre, being an area defined for ploughing and growing food crops, was defined as begin exactly one chain by one furlong. This was the unit used for almost all land area measurements in Lyndesfarne.

A big difference was that miles were not used as a measure of distance on the Island. Instead, long distances were measured in leagues, defined in Lyndesfarne as 250 chains. This meant that a league was a little over three miles. Kevin wondered idly about the seven league boots he recalled from children's stories. That would mean that, on the Island, someone wearing such boots would take about 22 miles per step.

The Doctor spent a considerable amount of time dissecting the measurement of speed. Velocities were usually measured in leagues per hour.

"People on Lyndesfarne seem to distrust high-speed transportation", the Doctor explained.

"Do we know why?" Kevin asked.

"We're not entirely sure. Our best guess is that they think that fast travel is just too dangerous, and that they limit speeds on the grounds of public safety."

Apparently, no transport was permitted which was capable of moving at more than ten leagues per hour, which would be a very good pace on a fast horse. Kevin was not convinced. He was very unclear how a sophisticated and modern society could possibly function without some form of high-speed travel.

Kevin asked about magical means of determining speeds and distances. According to the Doctor, there were all sorts of devices used, but they had no very clear idea of exactly how they worked. Nevertheless, the land of Lyndesfarne was clearly very well mapped and measured, and they had no real problem in making measurements.

The Doctor's spiel moved on to the measurement of weight, which used the familiar units of pounds and ounces. It appeared that the Lyndesfarne pound was slightly lighter than the Imperial measure, but that the discrepancy was very small. A major difference was that the heavier unit of weights used was not a 'stone' or a 'hundredweight'. Instead, the measure was identified by a word which appeared to have no direct translation in English, but was usually transliterated as 'block'. A block was equal to thirty pounds, and a hundred blocks made up a Lyndesfarne ton. This meant that a ton on the Island, mused Kevin, was significantly heavier than it was here.

Liquid measures in Lyndesfarne used pints and gallons. However, as in the United States, a pint was defined to be the volume of a pound weight of water, and therefore less than the pints Kevin was used to in England. This particular observation was of considerable personal importance to Kevin, since it meant that the glasses of beer he drank in pubs on the Island were quite a bit smaller than those on the Mainland.

Beer Glass

It also meant that the old expression "A pint's a pound, the world around" was actually true in Lyndesfarne, contrary to the opinions of some of Kevin's American colleagues. He recalled a drunken conversation in a hotel bar with an acquaintance from the US. Each of them had consumed several (British) pints of beer, and Kevin was trying to explain to the American that the pints served here really were larger than he was used to. He had finally got through by recalling the old ditty that went "A pint of fresh water weighs a pound and a quarter", which was true in England. His American colleague has retired to bed shortly after that, and was late in arriving at the business meeting the following morning, presumably since he had drunk more beer than he thought.

There was quite a lot more detail in the remainder of the presentation from the Doctor, and Kevin made copious notes which turned out to be largely unnecessary. The Doctor concluded the session by handed him a sheaf of notes, clearly recently produced on a computer printer, giving conversion factors and several handy ready-reckoners.

Kevin left the session in a daze, clutching his notebook and the printed materials provide by NISSA. Although he felt sure that he could deal with the intellectual aspects of conversions between units, the insight that the other world's different history and engineering approach had given him a great deal to think about.

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