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Bobs Rule: News and Guide

This article first appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide on October 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Woodworker graduates to a new dimension

For Dunstan, 1/16 of an inch is too big and makes for tough math.

By Angus M Thuermer Jr.

Jackson cabinet hardware distributor Bob Dunstan has dozens of boxes of freshly manufactured tape measures ready to take the world into a new dimension the Bob.

The entrepreneur, who owns and operates Whitechapel Ltd. and distributes furniture-building hardware worldwide, accumulated his inventory of 5,000 retractable tapes after encountering a pressing problem. Existing methods of calibrating the size of objects with which he works just didn't measure up.

"Neither feet and inches nor millimeters and meters are suited to the type of measurement and calculation woodworkers and other craftsmen use day in and day out," the 48-year-old Dunstan said.

Among his gripes: 1/16 inch as a measurement is too large for fine work. And while the millimeter meets that requirement, large metric measurements are easily corruptible and hard to remember.

Dunstan's solution was to divide the inch into 24 equal parts. "It's the type of thought you get in the middle of Nebraska," said Dunstan, who often travels to the East for trade shows.

"Without wishing to sound vain, I would suggest that this [1/24 inch] unit of measurement be called the 'Bob,'" Dunstan wrote in an essay published in his most recent Whitechapel catalog. The "Bob" name recalls the old British word for shilling (12 pennies back then). Dunstan, a British-born naturalized American, said the word "Bob" itself would be dropped once the world converts to his modest proposal. Then, measurements would be called out simply as "four foot, eight and ten" four feet, eight inches and 10/24ths.

Dunstan said he bears no illusions that he will change universal measurements from light years to Bobs, despite the storeroom of retractable tapes and assorted rulers he's manufactured.

"It's semi-tongue-in-cheek as a psychic product," he said. "There is a fallibility to this enterprise that I recognize. It may be a better mousetrap, but nobody's going to beat a path to its door."

While Dunstan is not convinced the world will follow his carefully measured footsteps, he's unabashed regarding the usefulness of his new gauge.

"I'm totally, fully invested intellectually in this proposition," he said. "It is a beautiful unity of conception. It deserves success."

Of the hundreds of people who have considered Dunstan's sub-unit, none has found a flaw, except to say that converting the world is unlikely, the inventor said.

"The problem is 'How are you going to get people to use it?'" Dunstan said. "Not that it has no credibility."

Dunstan outlines his reason for inventing the Bob in detail in his catalog essay. The millimeter excels over the 1/16 inch measurement because it "can be distinguished easily without reading glasses while at the same time is fine enough to be a basic increment of woodworking precision."

But the millimeter is too difficult to keep track of when there are a lot of them, Dunstan said. Take for example, he says, the measurement of seven feet six inches. Easy to remember as "seven and six," it becomes 2286 millimeters, a series of numerals "that might easily become 2268 in our fallible memories." The metric system, he wrote, has "long, easily corrupted numbers."

In addition to its clumsy smallest subdivision, feet and inches suffers from a "multitude of unsatisfactory fractions," Dunstan wrote. They make "addition, subtraction and division an exercise in mental agility and provide ample opportunity for error. Nobody can quickly and reliably add 11 7/16 inches and 4 5/32 inches then divide the result by two, let alone by three."

Not so with the Bob.

"An inch made up of 1/24s can be divided into halves, thirds, quarters, sixths, eights and twelfths (try that with the metric system)," Dunstan wrote. If a mini-Bob is needed, Dunstan recommends dividing the measurement in half, easily done by eye. Further subdivision could create a "fat Bob" or "thin Bob, " resulting in accuracy to about 1/100 of an inch.

The Bob also is ideal for drafting drawings on a scale where one inch equals a foot, a common reduction, Dunstan said. In that reduced format, two Bobs amount to an inch, a convenience unavailable with the 1/16 inch scale.

Dunstan is regretting that he gave the measurement his first name. "I hate it already," he said. But there remains a practical application for the Bob. Dunstan said he believes woodworkers, at least, can graduate to a finer order.

"I'm not yet enough of a megalomaniac to think that this revolutionary system of measurement will roll back the tide of metrification that has swept the entire world with the singular exception of our own shores," he wrote. "I seriously doubt it will make noticeable headway against the system of fractions used here. But it may have a good future in the workshop as by far the best way of measuring, marking, remembering and calculating. It is within the confines of that environment that I pin my hopes."

Dunstan said he can't precisely remember the moment he came up with his new calibration. Before getting into the hardware business, he was a furniture maker devoted to English and American work from the 17th to early 19th century. Often he worked in millimeters for the fine scale. A Bob turns out to be close 1.058333 millimeters.

As the owner of Whitechapel, he makes regular road trips to trade shows on the East Coast. He plans the trips by road specifically to allow him time to think. Somewhere along one of those trips perhaps on the Great Plains the Bob surfaced.

Dunstan early on dismissed the notion of creating a rule or tape. But the concept persisted and a progression of reasons for creating the new scale followed, Dunstan said. About three years ago he realized he had to develop his project.

With Whitechapel as a vehicle, Dunstan said he can pursue his passion without worry about failure. Secure in his regular business, which offers more than 3,000 pieces of hardware, he doesn't have to pin his life's hopes on the Bob. The Whitechapel catalog serves as a platform for launching Bobsrule, as he calls his tape, and resolves the worry of promotion.

The cost of manufacturing the rules and tapes was about as much as "a very small car," Dunstan said. Also, Whitechapel used to give away as promotional items scalpels handy for fine work. Now, customers will get Bobsrule retractable tapes instead. Others can buy one for $5.

"I can lose nothing," Dunstan said. "I'll be happy whatever comes down the pike. Failure or success, it's all the same to me and I'll have a bunch of rulers."

The next project is to manufacture a series of adhesive rules, so carpenters can affix the scales to tools like table saws. And after that?

Don't get Dunstan started.

There can be no rational argument in favor of a system that divides and multiplies by 10, Dunstan said. He points to the day, the hour, the minute, and the compass as measures that are subdivided without using base 10. "Ten is bogus," he said. "It's because we have 10 fingers."

"This is the start," he says of his rule. "The end-game is to add two extra digits between one and 10. This is just the thin end of the wedge."

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