PC 177 Numbers (2) 484065


Was mathematics created or simply there to be discovered? Discuss …… or not! A natural number 1, 2, 3 and so forth is represented by a symbol called a numeral; for example ‘5’ is a numeral representing the number five. A zero, ‘0’, was included at some point. When I was commissioned my officer cadet number 24067711 (See PC 176) was discarded and I was given my officer number, 484065.

PC 177 1

Whenever I idly think someone’s late I remember, for whatever reason (?), “Come in No 35, you’re time is up!” spoken over a loudspeaker to someone who had hired a dinghy for 30 minutes or so and needed to be encouraged to come back to the jetty.

In June 1968 the sailor Robin Knox-Johnston left Falmouth to take part in the Sunday Times non-stop, single-handed, Golden Globe Race, sailing his 32ft yacht Suhaili on to victory. He reached his home port 51 years ago yesterday, on the 22nd April 1969. At some point during the race his on-board generator, essential for powering the limited electronics in those days, failed. Robin determined that the spark plug gap was not right but didn’t have any feeler gauges. (note 1)

PC 177 2

Here is a clear case where necessity really was the mother of invention. Long hours of thought produced a light bulb moment (cf Thomas Edison and the electric light bulb – 1000 ways of not working!). Robin took a book and measured its depth; let’s say it was half an inch (these were pre-metric UK days!). Then he counted the pages and found the book contained 100; so each single page was 5 thousandths of an inch ……. and he needed a gap of 0.025 thou. He counted out 5 pages and that thickness was the gap needed for the electricity to jump the gap, to spark, and so ignite the fuel vapour and bring the generator to life. So clever! (Note 2)

The current credit-card sized UK Driving Licence has been around for a few decades but when it was first introduced there was some sensitivity about whether it should show the bearer’s age. The Driving Licence number is in the following format: one’s name followed by a sequence of numbers and letters. It didn’t take long to realise it shows your date of birth, albeit in a convoluted way. For example …..CAMERON610096DWD58CP …. is for a David Cameron whose birthday is 9th October 1966 …. and the last sequence is random (I think!!)

PC 177 3

Some numbers have become simply part of our day-to-day language. We know that 7-11 means the shop is open from 7am to 11pm and that ‘24/7’means the enterprise is open all-day, every day. Sadly 9/11 had also become imbedded in our memory, just as in the UK 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month (November) 1918 marks the end of the First World War.

When you travel you travel with numbers!! Holding your passport B265371 and your Boarding Pass, with its e-ticket 349623492634 for flight BA 249 departing from Gate 56 at 1120, you board looking for your seat number!

PC 177 4


Numbers featured highly in my Royal Artillery days. Not only did we serve in regiments with differing numbers (for me in 27 Medium Regiment, in 39 Medium Regiment and in 32 Guided Weapons Regiment), the batteries within these regiments had numbers and a strict order of seniority dating back over two hundred years. It seems a long time ago now, having retired over 33 years ago in 1987, but I served for instance in 132 Medium Battery The Bengal Rocket Troop RA (raised in India in the days of the Raj) and commanded 43 Air Defence Battery (Lloyd’s Company) RA, established for the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by a William Lloyd. (See note 3)

PC 177 5

Being reasonably numerate helped in the technical art of field artillery; in those pre-computer days taking down, with some urgency and accuracy, the 6 figure grid references of potential targets over a crackly radio link required a clear head. I am reminded, as I scribble this, of an error I made on a Colloquial German Course. I was play-acting handing over an observation post to another officer, a German, and was asked to tell him there was a large enemy tank behind the barn (one that you could see some distance away). Full of ill-found confidence I said: “Hinter der grossen Bauer befindet sich ein feindlicher Panzer.” In fact I had mistaken the word for barn (Scheune) with the word for farmer so we had the large tank hiding behind a fat farmer – makes me smile to remember it and the laughter of my fellow students!

In PC 174 I scribbled about the issue of the functionally illiterate, meaning that their grasp of our language is actually so poor that they can’t contribute to the society in which they live in any meaningful way. I also highlighted the statistic that some 47% of 16 year old school leavers (2006) didn’t achieve a basic level of functional mathematics. Since 2015 it has become compulsory for a teenager to be in either education or some form of training until their 18th birthday, but I am not sure this will necessarily alter this percentage much. I am ashamed when I watch someone reach for their calculator to do some basic mathematics, an addition or subtraction or even answer a ‘Can I have a 10% reduction?” question. Doing a daily Killer Sudoku puzzle may help my mental arithmetic – certainly keeps the brain from atrophying.

In English there’s an expression “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” meaning that if you are generous to someone be careful as they’ll demand even more. Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring about it if converted to the metric system: “Give him 2.54cms and he’ll take 1608 metres.”!!

You may remember PCs 43 & 44 about our trip to Alaska in 2015, following in the footsteps of my great grandfather George Nation? Outside the tiny settlement called Eagle, itself 66kms from the Arctic Circle, was a workshop/timber yard/scrap heap that had a couple of rusted pumps for fuel, one diesel and one petrol. It was run by Ron who chatted while he operated the filler. He had an interesting perspective on the world and I chose my words carefully, not wanting to irritate him at 0830 in the morning, or at any other time come to think of it! When I asked how much I owed for the 40 litres of petrol, he said US$25 and then “cheaper huh compared with where you’re from ……. you pay for your petrol by the gallon instead of by the litre?” Blink twice and you almost believe it!

Richard 23rd April 2020

Note 1 A feeler gauge is a tool used to measure gap widths, eg a clearance between two parts. A spark plug has a central electrode that protrudes through an insulator into the combustion chamber. A spark is initiated between this and the earth electrode. The size of the gap needs to be accurate in order for this to work!

Note 2 It’s possible that this tale was not about Robin Knox-Johnston but someone else sailing around the world. I can’t verify it as I no longer have the book in which I read it!!

Note 3 Completely coincidentally my Honda Accord, which eventually rusted to bits, had as its number plate SAM43S. Lloyd’s Company was a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) battery whose number was 43.



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