Monday, March 23, 2009

A Denarius for Your Thoughts (Jim Davies)

Jim Davies on inflation and the rise and fall of empires, from the Romans to the British to the common collapse of the United States:

Britain has turned out some pretty good mathematicians over the years, and one reason may be the complexity of its old currency system, which we were expected to understand by the age of six or so. Its structure was that of Pounds, Shillings and Pence; symbolized £, s and d and pronounced LSD (which may be why Brits of my generation did not all immediately tune in to Timothy Leary upon hearing those letters spoken).

There were 20 shillings in the pound and twelve pence in the shilling, hence 240 pence per pound. One was therefore introduced at that tender age to base-12 and base-20 number systems, as well as the more usual base-10. When in the 1960s IBM and others marched in to the island to market their punched-card tabulators and computers, designs had all to be modified, if any commercial tasks were to be performed; and it was quite a brain-strain sometimes to squeeze an extra machine cycle out of them because those mods used circuitry intended for something else.

Overlaid on that basic structure came the coinage. There were farthings (4 to a penny) and ha'pennies (2 to a penny) and threepenny bits (3d) and silver sixpences (6d) and florins (2s) and half-crowns (2s 6d or 2/6) - a hefty coin, that half-crown, and to further confuse the scene it was sometimes called the half-dollar, because at some point the exchange rate had been $4 to £1. I hope you're still with me, for it was not feasible to go shopping for candy or fireworks without mastering all this.

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