The fundamental unit of length in a jocular system of weights and measures (and time) that owes its continuing fame to the prestige of its author, the renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth, and the publisher, Mad Magazine.

Knuth published his first “scientific” article, a teenage parody of metrology, in a school magazine in 1957 under the title “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures.”

He then submitted the material to Mad Magazine. Paying him $25, they published part of it in issue 33 (June 1957). At this point Knuth was a college freshman and the page was his first publication. He ever afterward listed it as publication #1 on his curriculum vitae.

In the system the fundamental unit of length is defined as the thickness of MAD magazine #26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. A standardization in terms of the wavelength of the red line of the emission spectrum of cadmium is also given, which if the 1927 definition of the angstrom is taken for the value of that wavelength, would equal 2.263347539605392 mm.

Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halavah, which is “a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416”. The system also features such units as the whatmeworry (the unit of force), the vreeble, the hoo and the hah.

Time is measured in seven named units, decimal powers of the average earth rotation (equal to 1 “clarke”), providing a 10-clarke “mingo” for a month and a 100-clarke “cowznofski” for a year. The date October 29, 2007, is rendered as “To 1, 190 C. M.” (for Cowznofsko Madi, or “in the Cowznofski of our MAD.” The C.M. era began on October 1, 1952, the date MAD was first published.

The Google search form can convert to and from potrzebies.

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A video of Donald Knuth describing the history of the system:



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