Billion (Jun, 1946)

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Let’s take a trip Inside the word “billion”—that word everbody uses but nobody really comprehends. Get set for an eyeful of surprises!


“CONGRESS Appropriates Five Billion Dollars”—”Russia Asks Seven Billion Dollar Loan”—”Europe Needs Three Billion Pounds of Meat”— billion—billion—everywhere we look we see that word. What is a billion? How much? Do you know?

A billion is a thousand million, you say, and that’s right—but now we know little more than before. How much is it? What do that many things look like? We can imagine a hundred, maybe a thousand, but there the imagination stops—a million-fold short.

There’s only one way to “get ahold” of a billion, and that’s to make picture comparisons, like those on these pages. When we do this we get surprises. Who would have thought that a billion kitchen matches laid side by side would stretch for more than ten or fifteen city blocks! Yet, lay a few out, measure them, divide and multiply, and you’ll find they would stretch almost all the way across the cities and deserts and mountains which make up these United States.

(Of course I’m picturing here the American billion. The English billion is a million millions!) Science rolls on mathematics. We are now in the fringe of the Atomic Age, and our physical unit has become the atom—that particle which is the very substance of our bodies, our world, our whole future. Atom diameters range from four to ten billionths of an inch. The proton, the particle of positive electricity, has a diameter of only four hundred thousand billionths of an inch. How can we comprehend the atom without a handy size-visualizing scale!

Look at each picture. Study every one carefully, memorize a few. Then you’ll begin to get some idea of how much a billion is.

You’ll begin to. I hope.

  1. Hirudinea says: September 12, 201212:10 pm

    Or 1/16000th of the U.S. National Debt.

  2. Toronto says: September 12, 201212:31 pm

    Let’s see… today’s Gold price is $1730/oz (troy.) Each Troy ounce is 31.1 grams, so gold is $55.63 per gram. Gold’s specific gravity is 19.3, so each cubic centimeter is $1073.60. A billion dollars worth is thus 931,444 ccs, or .93 cubic metres. They show $7B in the picture, so that’s 6.5 cubic metres, or about as tall as me, as wide as I am tall, and only a little over 2 metres long. From 300 feet to 6 feet, basically, so a sanity check on the numbers works if gold was about $30/oz, which it was.

    I could probably get 2% annual interest still, though. And I’d save on storage space.

  3. jayessell says: September 13, 20124:11 am

    Did Russia ever get that seven billion dollasr?
    If so did they pay it back?
    Why would Capitalists lend money to Communists?
    There were probably conditions Russia wouldn’t agree to.

  4. JMyint says: September 13, 20126:32 am

    Russia finished paying off the debts of the USSR in 2006. From the 1940s into the late 1970s the Soviets were well known for being punctual on their loan payments. This made them a very good credit risk so organization such as the London Club and the Paris Club were more than happy to extend credit to them.

    Things changed for the USSR in the 80s with the cost of the Afghan War and their biggest creditors refusing to extend them credit on purchases.

  5. awbrynes says: September 21, 20125:37 am

    Or to someone ins Zimbabwe, $1 billion would be a loaf of bread (during the hyperinflation of course)

  6. Toronto says: September 21, 201212:28 pm

    @awbrynes: Good point, but not dollars. I have a lot of Brazilian backnotes with 5 or more zeros, and a Yugoslavian 500,000,000 dinar note (a half trillion.)

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