The usual rendering in English of the τάλαντον, an ancient Greek unit of mass = 60 mnas = 6,000 drachmas, about 25.8 kilograms, but size varied with time.
Among scholars, the term “talent” became the name for a family of units of mass in the Near East. Parise showed how the talent was held at a region-wide common value by having it equal to different numbers of the smaller local units.
Some of the units often referred to as talents:
|GÚ(.UN)||Sumerian (logogram)||x GÚ.UN....ina danniti = x talents by the heavy talent.
x GÚ.UN ..... ina qalissi = x talents by the light talent.
Postwait says “the light talent is attested only on one occasion to our knowledge, where it is also defined as the royal talent.” page 65
|GUN‑aš||Hittite||daššu GUN‑an = heavy talent|
All these “talents” apparently derived from words meaning “load”, and probably originated as the amount of weight one man could carry. Marvin Powell, a distinguished metrologist who worked primarily with Near Eastern units, remarked in connection with the 30 kg Babylonian “talent”:
It is highly probable that ca. 30 kg defines the optimum weight workload for most humans. Obviously, an elaborate controlled experiment could be devised to determine the veracity of this assertion. Based on my years of experience as a farm boy and a little experiment which I recently undertook, I will allow myself the following assertion. If a load is to be carried over a distance involving a minute or more carrying time, and this task is to be repeated throughout the working day, an average load of ca. 30 kg will result in the maximum accomplishment of work, i.e., the maximum utilization of the human power source.
Marvin A. Powell, jr.
Ancient Mesopotamian weight metrology: Methods, problems and perspectives.
Marvin. A. Powell, jr and Ronald H. Sack, editors.
Studies in Honor of Tom B. Jones.
Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1979.
Page 88, footnote 56.
Powell's conjecture agrees with military practice since Roman times. See
|Palestine and Syria||3,000 shekels, approximately 49 kilograms.|
|ancient Hebrew||= 3,600 shekels, approximately 30 kilograms.
There was also a heavy talent, twice the weight of the light.
|Assyria||about 30.1 kilograms.|
|Persia||After the reform of Cyrus the Great (circa 515 bce)|
In ancient Greece, a unit of mass equal to the quantity of gold whose value was equal to that of an ox, about 8.4 grams.
The Homeric Talent, Its Origin, Value, and Affinities.
The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 8 (1887), pages 133-158.
After the frontispiece of Modern Metrology
In Great Britain, second half of the 19ᵗʰ century, another name for a proposed unit of mass also called the foot-weight. The system of which it was a part was proposed by Lowis D'Aguilar Jackson in a series of articles and books, as an English alternative to the French metric system he deplored. His system was based on the foot, with (usually) decimal multiples and subdivisions, but often preserving old names (a mile, for example, would be 5000 feet). Weight was based on the mass of a cubic foot of water.
The commercial foot-weight, or talent, being the weight of an English cubic foot of distilled water at 62° Fahr. in air, by standard constructed and legalised in 1859 for Great Britain.
Lowis D'A. Jackson.
Modern Metrology. A Manual of the Metrical Units and Systems of the Present Century,
London: Crosby Lockwood and Co., 1882.
That standard weighed 62.3210 pounds avoirdupois, which is very close to the weight of the ancient talent. Jackson was a competent metrologist; he rejected, for example, Miller's standard, remarking “Miller's foot-weight, as everyone knows, was not made from an actual cubic foot of water; he simply made a bronze weight of 62.32106 pounds avoirdupois, a quantity he had calculated to represent it.”¹
So far as we have been able to discover, Jackson's talent or foot-weight occurs in the literature only in publications from Jackson's own publisher.²
1. Louis [sic] D'A. Jackson.
Our measures and our standards.
Journal of Science, vol 21 (old series), page 741 (December, 1884).
2. For example, on page 135 of
John George Swindell and George Rowdon Burnell.
Rudimentary Treatise on Wells and Well-Sinking.
London: Crosby, Lockwood, 1882.
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Last revised: 25 May 2014.