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Metrication matters - Number 38 - 2006-07-10

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters. Previous issues can be viewed by going to Metrication matters newsletters and then scrolling to the bottom of that page.

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Dear Subscriber,

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

I posted some copies of an audio CD that I had made about metrication to Jim Elwell of QSI Corporation in Salt Lake City in Utah and Jim sent me this note:

Thanks for the audio CDs you sent! I'm going to put one in my car's CD player and listen to it while commuting. The rest I'll put into QSI's training library – we require employees to do one hour of training per week, and one way they can do this is by listening to training CDs while commuting.
Thank you!
Jim Elwell

2 Editorial

Recently, I was gently chided by a journalist in the USA for spelling metre the way I do. I wrote to her and said:

Let me explain why I spell metre this way.

When metre was first used in English it simply took the original spelling of metre. The English word, metre, comes from the Greek metron meaning 'a measure' via the French mètre. The metre was first recorded in English in about 1797. Since then, metre has been the internationally accepted spelling in English and this is recognised by the Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM) whose responsibility it is to maintain the International System of Units (SI). The spelling of meter is simply regarded as a variant used in the USA.

From 1797, the metre spelling became common in all English speaking countries, including the USA. For example, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all used this spelling of metre.

However, when Noah Webster was preparing 'A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language', that was published in 1806, he was convinced that a chief part of it was to be a distinctive American language with its own idiom, pronunciation, spelling, and style. When, in 1828, Webster followed this work with his truly outstanding, 70 000 entry, 'An American Dictionary of the English Language', he continued the idea of promoting distinctive American spelling and style.

Part of this distinctive spelling was his idea to rid the USA of words ending in 're' such as calibre, centre, litre, meagre, metre, theatre, and tyre that were replaced by caliber, center, liter, meager, meter, theater, and tyer. But the last of these looked funny so the y became an i to give tire.

As the meter spelling became more popular in the USA it was codified as 'correct' by being accepted in other dictionaries. Although Noah Webster was an active promoter of the 'er' spellings for some reason he made an exception for some words, such as 'acre'.

By 1866, when the USA decided to make the metric system legal for internal and international trade, spelling metre as meter had become so common that the government had to provide for the two different spellings in the laws and regulations.

The present situation is that the spellings of metre and meter are both regarded as correct in the USA (as are litre and liter) but the spellings of liter and meter (as the unit of length) are rarely used in any other English speaking nations. However, all nations agree that meter can be used for an instrument for measuring. This is often used as a suffix in words such as speedometers, odometers, micrometers, and chronometers.

3 Oddities

Robert Bushnell, from Colorado, asks 'What do we say instead of 'footage?' and Bill Potts from California added, 'When a movie comes out on DVD, should we still be referring to footage?

We all know that film and video width measurements have been in millimetres since 1910 when the Kodak Company began their metrication program, and metres have been used for length.

I have no answer for Robert – perhaps you can help – but as I thought about the issue some other thoughts began to worry me.

  • I push a button in my car to 'wind up' the windows.

  • I 'butter' my toast with margarine.

  • I might sing, 'I love you – a bushel and a peck'.

  • The price of 'a barrel' of oil today rose to $73.99 when there never was any such thing as an oil barrel!

It seems to take a long time for our use of words to catch up with our ways of measuring.

4 Tips

Norman Werling from Georgia sent this puzzle that might be useful to other metrication leaders.

I like to present this little problem to friends to demonstrate the ease of adding millimeters as compared to fractions of an inch.

Add 1/64 + 1/32 + 1/16 + 1/8 + 1/4 + 1/2 = _ _ _

Now add 1 + 2+ 4 + 5 + 6 + 7= _ _ _

Please add them before checking the answer lower on this email.

After adding them and before checking for the result, please answer these two questions:

  1. How long did it take to add the fractions of an inch?
  2. How long did it take to add the millimeters?

Now scroll down to the answer.

The fractions add to 63/64ths on an inch, which is virtually identical to 25 millimeters, the sum of the whole numbers.

By the way, there is a comprehensive discussion called centimetres or millimetres – which will you choose that you can download as a pdf document.

5 Signs of the times

Rugby, a kind of football played in England and Commonwealth countries, was metricated quite simply in the 1970's by making the 5 yard a 5 metre line, and the 10 yard a 10 metre line. The only challenge was changing the 25 yard to the 22 metre line.

6 Quotation

'Lionizing a Founding Father on the Fourth of July is a simple task, to be sure, but Benjamin Franklin turns this process on its ear. He represents all we can be and all we should be, and likewise represents all we no longer seem to be or care to be today. He is worthy of admiration, which is easy, and worthy of emulation, which is not.' William Rivers Pitt

I hope readers of 'Metrication matters' in the USA had a happy Fourth of July last week.

7 Q&A


Just before Independence Day on July 4, Carleton MacDonald, from Maryland, asked:

Wasn't Benjamin Franklin an early proponent of the metric system in the USA?


It is true that Benjamin Franklin was a supporter of the metric system in the USA. However his influence probably goes much further than that.

Benjamin Franklin travelled extensively in England and Europe between 1776 and 1785, during which time he was enthusiastically received by all of the leading technologists of the time. As this was a period of great advance in all sorts of technologies, his contributions were eagerly sought and put into immediate technological service.

I am aware that during Franklin's time in England he met with most of 'The Lunar Men', a scientific and technological cooperative group based in the midlands of England.

The principle Lunar Men were: Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Thomas Day (1748-1789), Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), Samuel Galton (1753-1832), James Keir (1735-1820), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), William Small (1734-1775), James Watt (1736-1819), Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), John Whitehurst (1713-1788), and William Withering (1741-1799). (Benjamin Franklin’s travels in England are described in 'The Lunar Men – the friends who made the future' by Jenny Uglow).

Benjamin Franklin also travelled extensively in France where the people who became the designers and first proponents of the metric system welcomed him warmly. As he travelled extensively in Europe during the period when the metric system was being widely discussed (from 1776 to 1785), he could not have avoided being involved in the metric discussions. I have no doubt that Benjamin Franklin would have made major contributions to the development of the first metric system that was proposed in 1791.

At about the same time, Thomas Jefferson considered 'the new metric system an admirable advance over old English feet, pints, and pounds' and John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many other leading American thinkers and statesmen enthusiastically agreed with him.

8 Rule of thumb

It appears that most people like to shower at 40 °C, so standing under a shower is the equivalent of experiencing a very hot day.

I know this because Quinton Wilson from Anchorage in Alaska sent me this information about some more 'Hidden metric'.

Dear Pat,
I was watching an infomercial the other day about digitising the home with all kinds of neat gadgets. One thing that seems noteworthy to me was that the temperature gauge in the bathroom for the shower temperature water was pre-set to 104 °F. This is a direct conversion from 40 °C.

9 History

As it's close to Independence Day in the USA, readers might be interested in reading what Thomas Jefferson had to say about measurement in 1790 on July 4. Go to:

10 Hidden metric

When I visited the Kennecott copper mine in Utah last year, they had a tyre from one of their Caterpillar dump trucks in the visitor's centre. It was 4 metres in diameter and I checked this with its imprinted dimension of 4.00 that was moulded into the rubber on the tyre.

However, on the ground in front of this metric tyre was a sign that read, 'This tire is 13 ft 1-1/2 in'.

It started me to think about how this dual dimension thing works. To trace the copper ore from the mine to a customer, the steps go something like this:

  1. The ore is torn from the mine face using explosives that are calculated in metric units.
  2. The ore is loaded into dump trucks with loaders that were designed and built in metric units.
  3. The dump trucks are designed and built by Caterpillar in metric units using metric fasteners such as bolts and screws.
  4. The ore is crushed to specific sizes specified in fractions of millimetres or more likely micrometres.
  5. The separation of the ore from the minerals is done in flotation tanks under the supervision of trained chemical engineers who calculate the processes and the yields in metric units.
  6. The mineral, in this case mostly pure copper, is then formed into bundles of cathodes of 5000 lb. so that the customers of the Kennecott Mine will not know that they are buying from a fully metric company.

I think of this process as 'Dumbing down at the door', where companies operate as metric companies internally, and then do whatever they can to hide what they are doing. Think of Ford and GM operating in metric internally, then telling their customers about mph, mpg, and psi.

You can find details of the dumbing down in the copper mining business at http://www.kennecott.com/copper_how_produce.html but notice that every measurement has been dumbed down on their web page to give the illusion that they are not the modern progressive all-metric company that they really are.

Feedback opportunity

The 'Metrication matters' newsletter continues to improve by responding to feedback from our readers. To help and especially to help make 'Metrication matters' more suitable for your own particular purposes, go to:

Metrication matters survey


Pat Naughtin
Geelong Australia

Metrication matters web page changes

/docs/MetricationQuiz.pdf has been rewritten.

/articles has several new articles.

Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and has edited and published many others. For example, Pat has written a chapter of a chemical engineering encyclopedia, and 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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