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Metrication matters - Number 5 - 2003-10-10


1 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 2 Editorial 3 Oddities - measurements from around the world 4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier. 5 Signs of the times 6 Quotations 7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers 8 Rule of thumb 9 History 10 Hidden metric

1 Feedback

Paul Trusten, a pharmacist from Texas, commented on my assertion that: 'the United States is the last nation to admit the extent to which it uses the metric system'. Paul included the acronym, WOMBAT that he created some years ago. WOMBAT stands for:

Ways of Measuring Badly in America Today.

I have to admit that I have unashamedly stolen Paul's idea and used WOMBAT to mean:
Ways of Measuring Badly in Australia Today.

2 Editorial

It's strange how discussions about old measuring methods often get side-tracked into debates about conversion and conversion factors. At a second hand book sale, recently, I found an old book by the great science fiction (and science fact) writer, Isaac Asimov. As I have been an admirer of his writing for many years, I put the book, 'Realm of Measure' (Fawcett 1960) aside to read later. When I finally picked it up again I was appalled to find that it consisted of 144 pages of conversions between units of many old measuring methods. Isaac Asimov did not clearly state his measuring preference, even though he worked all his scientific life using metric units, as he seemed to be enjoying the mathematics of the conversions so much that he got lost among the conversion factors.

3 Oddities

Many cooking terms that you see in old recipes come from an medieval English 'doubling' method for measuring volumes, that went something like this (please use old classroom style chanting):

Two mouthfuls* are a jigger; two jiggers are a jack;
two jacks are a gill**; two gills are a cup;
two cups are a pint; two pints are a quart;
two quarts are a pottle; two pottles are a gallon;
two gallons are a pail; two pails are a peck;
two pecks are a bushel; two bushels are a strike;
two strikes are a coomb; two coombs are a cask;
two casks are a barrel; two barrels are a hogshead;
two hogsheads are a pipe; two pipes are a tun;
and there, my friend, my story is done!
* It's probably best to avoid cooks who use mouthfuls as measures! ** a gill was often pronounced jill.

Of these the jack and gill were very popular because they were used for selling spirituous liquors and wines. So the jack and gill were watched very closely by the public and by the tax collector. When the tax collector checked a local public house he would measure the jack and the gill, used to measure spirits and wines, and if they were a fair measure he would stamp a crown into the pewter. After the departure of the tax collector, the publican sometimes scraped some metal off the top of the measure so they held less – in this way he invalidated the crown seal by filing the top (crown) of the measure – in short, he broke the crown by breaking the crown. This practice has been recorded for us in a nursery rhyme.

Jack and Gill

Jack and Gill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Gill came tumbling after.

Sadly for the doubling system, it never worked, because many other traders – like the cheating publicans – continually changed the sizes of their measuring containers to suit the size of their profits.

4 Tips

Coffee making: – Multiply by 100 to work out your coffee needs. A kilogram of ground coffee can make 100 cups of coffee. As these are 200 millilitre cups, 1 kilogram of coffee will make 20 litres.

5 Signs of the times

A friend, from the USA, sent this to me: 'Recently I was reminded at the rate that we, in the USA, are converting to metric. On the I-75 in Ohio there is a sign that says: 'All signs metric Next 20 miles'

6 Quotation

Grabel's Law: '2 is not equal to 3 – not even for very large values of 2'.

7 Q&A

Somebody sent me some metric 'jokes' wanting to know if I found them funny. My highly restrained responses (at least I started out that way) are marked with an asterisk *.

The metric system is great, but: A miss is as good as 1.6 kilometers. * A millimetre miss is a kilometre miss

Put your best 0.3048 of a meter forward. * Every journey of a thousand kilometres begins with a single millimetre.

Twenty-eight grams of prevention is worth 453.6 grams of cure. * A gram of prevention is worth a tonne of cure.

Give a man 2.54 centimeters, and he'll take 1.609 kilometers. * Give a man a millimetre and he'll take a kilometre.

Peter Piper picked 8.8 liters of pickled peppers. * Typical topical trivial trite trash! What's the good of a tongue twister with 8.8 liters in it? And I wouldn't give an 8.8 litre container to Pete's father either: Pete's pa Pete poked to the pea patch to pick a peck of peas for the poor pink pig in the pine pole pig-pen.

But then I settled down and added:

Don't do the hard yards – the metre is neater.

By the way, did you pick up the country of origin from the spelling of meter, kilometer, and liter? (See history below.)

8 Rule of thumb

Barbecue temperature: – Place your hand where you intend to cook the food. If you can hold your hand there for more than five seconds the fire is too slow; one or two seconds is too hot; somewhere between three and four seconds is best. Use the back of your hand when testing the heat of a flame, not your palm - if (when) you burn yourself it won't be so inconvenient.

9 History

The basis of all the measuring laws in the world is a document called 'SI – Le Système International d'Unités' or, in English, 'SI – The International System of Units'. You can get your own free copy of this document from www.bipm.fr <http://www.bipm.fr/>;

Joseph B. Reid, of Toronto, one of the prime movers behind metrication in Canada, tells a story about the first translation of this document into English. Chester H. Page of the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Science and Technology, NIST) is listed as an editor of the (British) National Physical Laboratory English language translation of 'SI – Le Système International d'Unités', but he refused to allow his name to appear on the American version because the (US) Government Printing Office insisted that the American spelling of 'metre' is 'meter'. Joe believes that the USA is the world's only nation that uses this spelling.

10 Hidden metric

Following metric conversion, in Australia, there were two widths of commercial paper 210 mm and 8 1/2 inches (216 mm). It didn't take paper manufacturers long to realise the savings that could be made by making the 8 1/2 inch paper 6 millimetres narrower (6 ÷ 216 x 100 = 2.8 % saving). This gave rise to a paper size that is 11 inches long and 210 millimetres wide. Naturally this saving was quickly passed along to a 14 inch long paper that also became 210 millimetres wide. In Australia these paper sizes are still called 'U.S. Letter' and 'U.S. Legal'. Recently, I believe that these new paper sizes (and these savings) have been exported back to the USA. Fortunately, these 'bastard' paper sizes are now rarely used in Australia; A4 paper (297 mm x 210 mm) has now become the 'standard'.


Pat Naughtin Geelong, Australia

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and he has edited and published many others. For example, Pat was the lead writer of a chapter of a chemical engineering encyclopedia, and recently he edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers'. Pat has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.

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