Deblackboxing the Ruler

Tianyi Cheng

Ruler is never regarded as containing high technology. But as a medium, it carries necessary message that is communicated to construct social order. It indicates the material technologies and symbol forms are not different domains.  Ruler bridges the observer and the observed, creates the relationship between interpreting and using, making innumerous human creations compatible. The marks on rulers involve in human’s own standpoints into investigations. By making diagrams with rulers, they also carry out the process of objectification of abstract ideas. But all of these are just the activities of communication; rulers also transmit, which deserves “thick description”.

The two natures of transmission, the technical device and the organic device, can be clearly found on this simple rectangle tool. Their textures change with the adoption of new materials and their sizes are various for different purpose. Technology is just one aspect of the process of mediation. From the organic aspect, the symbolic system that later was mediated on ruler can be traced back before the birth of ruler. The object of transmission does not preexist the mechanism of its transmission (Debray, 1999). The earliest known unit of measurement is cubit, widely used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamian and India, at least around 2800 BC. A common cubit was the length of the forearm, hand and other certain lengths on human body. These units of measurement assign numbers or other symbols to material world. The inch, foot and yard evolved from these units through a complicated transformation. Although the process has not yet fully understood, rulers using different measurement system became cornerstones of technology, economics, and judiciary in different societies (Pedhazur, Elazar & Schmelkin, 1991).

Mediation takes place as the milieu changes. The conflicts of different measurement grew when the world started to be linked together. In 1668, the English philosopher John Wilkins proposed a universal measure with a decimal-based unit of length. In 1675, the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini, used the phrase “metro cattolico” to denote the standard unit of length derived from a pendulum. Scientists kept looking for more concise definition of meter. In the wake of the French Revolution, French Academy of Sciences suggested a basic unit of length equal to one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator, to be called mètre. And 1 centimeter was defined as equal to 0.01 meter. The definition has been periodically refined to reflect growing knowledge of science. Since 1983, it has been defined as “the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second” (17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, 1983). I believe it is a good example of interactions across systems.

Copies of the International Prototype were distributed to many nations from France in 1880’s, which provided accurate standard to manufacturers. Here, a broad actor-network was immobilized in the way of “translation” (Restivo, 2010). The historical event constitutes transmission as “duty and obligation, in a word, culture (Debray, 2004).” Englishmen and Americans refuted this culture. However, although complicated international situation made American government reluctant to make the metric system compulsory, the fundamental definitions of length and mass in the U.S. were based on metric units, which were stipulated by the Mendenhall Order of 1893. But the recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into practical use. Several reasons “locked” the U.S people to slowly adopt the metric system. Converting technical drawings and operations manuals for complex equipment with many parts can take thousands of man-hours. In addition, cultural and social psychological reasons also leaded to the failure of Congress to make the metric system mandatory in all 50 states (William, 2011). In U.S., a ruler is commonly marked in both the metric system and the U.S. Customary System.

Works Cited

Debray, Régis. (2004). Of Tools and Angels. Theory, Culture & Society21, 3. P5

Debray, Régis. (1999). “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique: 32. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Harris, William.  “Why isn\u0027t the U.S. on the metric system?”  04 October 2011. <>  04 February 2014.

Pedhazur, Elazar & Schmelkin (1991). Measurement, Design, and Analysis: An Integrated Approach (1st ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 15–29. ISBN 0-805-81063-3.

Restivo, Sal (2010). “Bruno Latour: The Once and Future Philosopher.” Entry in the The New Blackwell Companion to.

“17th General Conference on Weights and Measures (1983), Resolution 1.”