Wednesday, February 16, 2005


like me you've possibly noticed that the US gallon and the British gallon aren't the same. I'm going to explain why but you're going to have to go the long way around !

Back in 1996 I wrote MindProbe, a live trivia game program that runs on IRCX networks. (It also runs on IRC networks but with considerable loss of features). Why I wrote it is perhaps the subject of another post. Nonetheless write it I did. Naturally, as author, it behooved me to actually run trivia games and I think I was pretty good at it. It takes a certain amount of talent to 'work' a chat room and ensure everyone playing the game enjoys the experience. I ran 3 or 4 games a week from 1996 until 2001. In 1999 my now wife and I launched a website[^] and chatserver that's still going though neither of us is involved anymore.

So my game client debuted on Friday November 29th 1996, on MSN. For the most part it worked though there were some bugs. On that night I ran a game that included the following question (it may seem trivial but that was the whole point). 'How many ounces in a pint'. My answer was 20 and I marked 16 as incorrect. This, of course, provoked indignant protests from the American players but I stuck, wrongly as it turned out, to my guns.

When I was a kid Australia used the imperial system; we didn't go metric until the 70's. So in the 60's we were taught the standard litany; 12 inches to the foot, 20 fluid ounces to the pint, 2 pints to the quart, 4 quarts to the gallon. My American readers are already saying WTF? 20 fluid ounces to a pint?

Uh huh. Yet in the US it's 16 fluid ounces to a pint. What gives? The question has bugged me for years; and recently I googled for an answer. No, I can't remember what combination of words I used but eventually I found an answer.

It seems that in 1776 when the yanks* decided they'd had enough of Britain the measurement was the same on both sides of the Atlantic. But in the mid 1820's (I think it was 1824 though I'm not sure) the British Parliament legislated to change the size of a pint from 16 fluid ounces to 20 fluid ounces. Naturally, the Americans, with the war of 1812 well within living memory, didn't change. They haven't changed to this day! As for why the British changed? It seems that it was a half-hearted attempt at a compromise between the older measurement system and the basis of the metric system (I don't mean the way that metric is related to the size of the planet - rather I mean the way that metric is decimal based). But with the Napoleonic Wars well within living memory it was possibly difficult for the British to embrace metric.

*I really hope those few American readers I have aren't offended by this word.

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