In the old days, before there were meters and centimeters and millimeters, people measured things in feet. When a man said “I just built a hut that’s twelve feet long!” he meant twelve of his feet. But when he bragged, “My hut is twelve feet long!” his neighbor would say “Hah! But you have very small feet!”
And so it went for many years. People became more and more confused. Those with small feet, like Sam Papermaker, were in demand as measurers of feet. A man who built a hut would hire Sam and pay him a farthing to measure it. Sam would walk toe to heel, heel to toe, from one end of the hut to the other. Then he would say, “Your hut is twelve feet long!” But when the hut-builder bragged about it, his neighbor would say, “But those are Sam Papermaker’s feet. Your feet are great huge clodhoppers of things, and your hut could never be as long as twelve of those!” What with scenes like this there were many fights and confusions, much to the disturbance of the kingdom.
But after a many years of such troubles, Good King John, who ruled the kingdom in that time, said “Enough of this! My foot is the foot! Throughout all the kingdom, when anyone counts the number of ‘feet’ it will mean my foot! Nobody else’s foot will count for anything, because I am the king, and when I say a thing is, it is.”
And so, all over the kingdom the king’s heralds blew their g-flat trumpets and announced “Hear ye! From this day hence, King John’s foot will be the only official foot; nobody else’s foot will count for anything!”
But wherever the heralds went, people would ask, “Well, then, how long is King John’s foot?”
And the heralds would answer, “Why, it’s one foot long!” which didn’t help at all.
Throughout the kingdom, people would say “My hut is twelve feet long!” but this time they would mean “My hut is as long as twelve of King John’s feet.” And a few simpletons, never having seen the king, nor his feet, believed that Good King John had twelve feet. But, as no one outside the palace had ever seen King John without his socks and boots, no one still knew how long a foot should be.
After more years of confusion and fights, a bright young man named Harry decided, “Enough of this! I will go to the palace and measure the king’s foot. I will take a stick of wood, and make a mark on it where his longest toe begins, and I will make another mark on it where his heel ends. Then I will take this stick from town to town and charge people half a penny for copying down these marks on sticks of their own. Then everyone will know just how long a foot should be.”
And so he went to the king and said, “O great sire, I want to measure your foot so that everyone in the kingdom will know how long a foot is.”
And King John said, “Certainly. You may very well do that.”
The king took off his right boot and sock, and Harry made two little marks on a stick and went from town to town around the kingdom letting people copy his marks onto their own sticks for half a penny a pop.
But one day, a bright young woman named Janet saw that Harry was becoming very rich on his ha’pennies, and said to herself, “I can do that as well as he can! If I could measure the king’s foot, I would make a fortune, too!”
So Janet went to the palace, and went to the king, and said “O great sire, last year you let Harry measure your foot so that all the kingdom would know how long a foot is. But he travels slowly, and there are more people who want to know how long a foot is than he can get to. So if you would let me measure your foot, more of your subjects will know how long a foot is, information they vitally need in pursuit of commerce.”
“And besides,” said the king with a wink, “you will make a great deal of money.”
“Exactly,” said Janet.
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