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Plato's Mistake (cont.)
By Nick Kollerstrom, PhD


A couple of millennia roll by, and gradually the size of the Earth starts to be known; whereby the subject of geodetic metrology can arise: this examined indications that the ancient units of measure had originally come from the size of the Earth. (The endeavour to define the metre geodetically, around 1800, in terms of a polar meridian passing through Paris, such that a Great Circle around the Earth would be 40,000 km, was nearly right, it turned out to be 40,008.6 km.) The British Platonist philosopher John Michell gained especial insight into this endeavour, and he wrote:

The Greek foot is the most obviously geodetic of all units. In the earth's meridian circumference there are 129,600,000 Greek feet. 1,296,000 is the number of seconds in the 360 degrees of a circle... [6]

The Ur-number has here reappeared - but neither John Michell nor any of the other Earth-metrologists (if we want to call them that) twigged that early mathematics had in fact come across this big number, or that it once had a central meaning.

What we might call the main-sequence of British Earth-geodesy books - Nicholson, Men and Measures (1912), Berriman Historical Metrology (1956), Ivimy The Sphinx and the Megaliths (1976), and Michell Ancient Metrology (1981) – all made a similar comment upon the Greek foot as being the primary, geodetic unit: and found themselves having to burden their readers with the hard-to-believe concept that some culture way back in prehistory had divided up the Earth’s circumference into degrees, minutes and seconds: ‘possibly the circumference was rated 604 units in remote antiquity,’ opined Berriman (p.19). Both Nicholson and Ivimy discussed how the Greeks had inherited a base-60 system of length measure even though this was foreign to their maths: ‘At least sixty centuries ago the Chaldean astronomers had divided the circumference of the Earth, and of circles generally, into 360 degrees (that is 60 x 60) each of 60 parts.’ (Nicholson p.15, see also Ivimy p.55)

All of these authors postulated a definition of the ancient Greek foot comparable to that of the nautical mile in the 19th century, such that there would be 6000 Greek feet in a nautical mile. To quote Wiki (N.Mile),

'Both the Imperial and US definitions of the nautical mile were based on the Clarke (1866) spheroid: specifically, they were different approximations to the length of one minute of arc along a great circle of a hypothetical sphere having the same surface area as the Clarke spheroid.'

It was agreed to define the Nautical Mile as 6080 feet.

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  1. Robin Heath & John Michell, The Measure of Albion The lost science of prehistoric Britain, 2004, p.80 (Chapter written by John Michell). Strictly the 604 division of Earth’s circumference gives 10 Greek feet, see equation below. [back to text]

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