What’s Remarkable About Naming Sixty?

Here’s the astounding thing Christopher Hibbert did with his estimate of how much prices in 18th century Britain had to be multiplied to get an estimate for their amount in modern times: he named it.

Superficially, I have no place calling this astounding. If Hibbert didn’t have an estimate for how to convert 1782 prices to 1998 ones he would have not mentioned the topic at all. But consider: the best fit for a conversion factor could be from any of, literally, infinitely many imaginable numbers. That it should happen to be a familiar, common number, one so ordinary it even has a name, is the astounding part.

Part of that is a rounding-off, certainly. Perhaps the best possible fit to convert those old prices to the modern was actually a slight bit under 62, or was 57 and three-eighteenths. But nobody knows what £200 times 57 and three-eighteenths would be, as evaluating it would require multiplying by sevens, which no one feels comfortable doing, and dividing by eighteen, which makes multiplying by seven seem comfortable, unless we remember where we left the calculator, and why would we dig out a calculator to read about King George III?
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Did King George III pay too little for astronomers or too much for tea?

In the opening pages of his 1998 biography George III: A Personal History, Christopher Hibbert tosses a remarkable statement into a footnote just after describing the allowance of Frederick, Prince of Wales, at George III’s birth:

Because of the fluctuating rate of inflation and other reasons it is not really practicable to translate eighteen-century sums into present-day equivalents. Multiplying the figures in this book by about sixty should give a very rough guide for the years before 1793. For the years of war between 1793 and 1815 the reader should multiply by about thirty, and thereafter by about forty.

“Not really practical” is wonderful understatement: it’s barely possible to compare the prices of things today to those of a half-century ago, and the modern economy at least existed in cartoon back then. I could conceivably have been paid for programming computers back then, but it would be harder for me to get into the field. To go back 250 years — before electricity, mass markets, public education, mass production, general incorporation laws, and nearly every form of transportation not muscle or wind-powered — and try to compare prices is nonsense. We may as well ask how many haikus it would take to tell Homer’s Odyssey, or how many limericks Ovid’s Metamorphoses would be.
Continue reading “Did King George III pay too little for astronomers or too much for tea?”