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Metrication matters - Number 40 - 2006-09-10

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters.

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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

Deb Shea wrote from the USA
Hi Pat
Thank you for all the great information on Metrication. This is the first time I tried your quiz but I really liked it. I did well on knowledge, OK on skill, and have more work to do on my personal use of metric, but thanks to you I'm on my way.
Keep up the great work!
You can find the 'Metrication quiz' at /articles/

Han Maenen in the Netherlands noticed that as summer approached
When the temperature rises into the high twenties and then into the mid thirties a 'seasonal unit' rears its ugly head again. The (British Thermal Unit per hour) BTU/h, 'marketed' world wide by the air conditioning industry. I saw an ad for an air conditioner, with 8 000 BTU/h of cooling power.
One very valid reason for implementing the EU units directive in 2010. Then such antics will come to an end.

Stan Jakuba wrote to question my use of the expression 'international foot' when I referred to the 1959 agreed definition of the foot in metric terms. Stan wrote:
'There is only "foot" and "U.S. survey foot" in the U.S. now.
'The term international is particularly dangerous adjective as, with standards, it often implies uniformity between U.S. and Canada. Only. That's it. But most people understand international as akin to global which could be misleading in the U.S. Example: Our local airport is listed as International; it has one flight to Canada.
'This wrong interpretation of international foot is probably one reason why Anglo-Saxon writers spread the myth about Napoleon the short. Not so. He was of average height; the French foot is longer (notice - winners write the history!).'

2 Editorial

As a test, ask a politician (or your manager or school principal) this question:

How tall are you?

  • If the answer includes any reference to halves or quarters then you know that their measurement mindset is pre-1790.
  • If they use either of the words 'feet' or 'inches' then you know that their mindset is pre-metric conversion in the mid 1960s.
  • If they use the word 'centimetre' you know that their mindset is neatly placed in the two decades from 1870 to 1889 when centimetres were temporarily in the ascendancy. You also know that they have decided (possibly unconsciously) on the slowest possible path to metrication, which I have observed usually takes more than 100 years. (See the pdf article centimetres or millimetres at /articles)
  • If they say something like 1.83 metres then you know that they have publicly 'gone metric' but they are not yet comfortable enough with using it to make reasonable rounding decisions. Guess that this person really thinks of themself as a 'six-footer' but hides this with an over-precise metric conversion.
  • If they say something like 1.7 metres or 1.85 metres, then you should immediately engage in dialog with them about the metric system, or measurement policies in general, for such politicians (managers or school principals) are rare.

3 Oddities

My wife Wendy and I are still puzzling over Jane Grigson’s recipe for Blueberry and Apple Pie, in her eponymous fruit book, that called for a 3/4 level teaspoon of salt — just how do you measure that? Here is the recipe with Wendy's comments and, by the way, it was truly delicious.
300-325 g blueberries
250 g sliced, peeled apples
juice and grated rind of one lemon
175 g soft brown sugar.
Mix all together and spread in buttered gratin dish of 1 1/2 litre capacity. TOPPING
150 g flour
125 g sugar
1 level teaspoon baking powder
3/4 level teaspoon salt (do your best!)
50 g butter
1 large egg (about 60 g), beaten
8 walnuts (or pecans) shelled and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste – we preferred more – nearer to 1 teaspoon)

Mix first four ingredients, rub in butter, add egg and nuts. Spread over fruit, and sprinkle cinnamon over surface. 200 °C oven 1/2 hour or until top nicely browned (Wendy’s took about 35 mins). Serve with cream or icecream.
Wendy says that she often allows half as much again of topping mixture, and that you have to put it on in bits and dab it together. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t beautifully cover in the way rolled-out pastry does.

4 Tips

And while we’re on the subject of cookery, we have recently acquired four young crossbred hens that have bantams in their ancestry. They lay small eggs of about 45 grams, where our old hens laid (on average) 60 gram eggs.
Wendy applied her considerable cooking expertise to this situation and then announced that the perfect soft boiled egg is prepared by pricking a tiny hole in the fat end of a room temperature egg with a needle (or equivalent) to allow steam to escape. Then lower the egg(s) gently into enough boiling water to cover them (use a spoon for this) for as many seconds as the egg's mass in grams (that is 45 seconds for a 45 gram egg; 60 seconds for a 60 gram egg and so on). Finally, take the pan off the heat and leave the egg in the hot water for 4 times its mass in grams (for a 45 gram egg: 45 x 4 = 180 seconds or 3 minutes). Serve immediately.

5 Signs of the times

When is a 5k not a 5k? Howard Ressel from New York wrote to the organiser of a five kilometre race asking why he marked the route in miles. The organiser replied:

All 5Ks in the country (USA) are marked in miles only because that's what most Americans relate to. If a runner passes a 1K mark in a certain time, he is not going to understand what his pace is as well as when he passes the 1 mile mark. 5K, as you know, is 3.1 miles. That has just become a standard race distance.

Howard then posed this hypothetical question and answer:
Why not round off at just 3 than? Probably because 5K has become universal and it allow runners to gauge their performance against everyone else.

Howard also responded to the race organiser by telling him that the 5 km or 10 km were the standard distances in kilometres and that this is the standard used throughout the world.

6 Quotation

My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that's the way I like it
Grandpa Simpson in the USA cartoon series, The Simpsons.

7 Q&A

Hi Pat, What a fine newsletter you produce (See: /newsletter/ ).
Was not the oil barrel the standard 44 gallon steel drum?
Brian Schaller, South Africa

Dear Brian,
Many thanks for your kind remarks about the Metrication matters newsletter.
When oil was first found to be useful, it was collected and carted away in whatever size containers were to hand. Buckets, baths, beer, wine, and cranberry barrels are examples, but there never was, and there is not now, a standard oil barrel.
Later a standard container was needed for motor fuel and this was, I think, developed in Germany. This was the 200 litre container that became the standard for the whole world. This 200 litre container was designed to container 200 litres and to have a small airspace above the liquid surface to allow for expansion of the liquid on hot days.
When the 200 litre drum was taken to England, the English people converted 200 litres to 43.993 831 5 Imperial gallons, which they rounded up to 44 Imperial gallons.
The same 200 litre drum was then taken to the USA where 200 litres could be converted to 52.834 410 2 USA gallons but if you included some rounding and used up most of the air space, you could call it a 55 USA gallon drum.
If you Google around for a while you will find various conversion factors for the oil barrel. Here are two that I found fairly quickly, but there are many others and they mostly vary from each other.

  • 1 Barrel of Petroleum = 42 US gallons = 158.987 3 litres
  • 1 Barrel of Petroleum = 35 Imperial gallons = 159.113 5 litres

As you can see, the hypothetical oil barrel is quite a bit smaller than a 200 litre drum.

Of course none of these have any meaning since oil is traded internationally in kilograms anyway. Trading in litres is far too unreliable as petroleum products are quite sensitive to expansion and contraction due to temperature. Besides it's quite easy to measure how much oil is in an oil tanker just by looking at the International Load Marks (Plimsoll lines) as the ship is loaded to its known capacity, which is usually calibrated in tonnes.

8 Rules of thumb

Keeping in mind that the size of most adults varies in a range of about 25 % from the average, the following are easy-to-remember estimates for typical values. You can measure to get your own accurate measurements for the following:

  • Width of an adult hand or foot: 100 millimetre
  • Width of the nail of the small finger: 10 millimetre
  • Distance between your elbows when your fingertips are touching: 1 metre
  • Height of your hip above ground: 1 metre
  • Length of a moderately large step: 1 metre
  • Foot length: 250 mm
  • Daily energy needed: 10 000 kilojoules (men) 8 000 kilojoules (women)
  • Energy content of a healthy meal: 2000 kilojoules
  • Daily water needed: 2 litres
  • Blood volume: 5 litres
  • Lung capacity: 5 litres

9 History

An interesting article appeared in 'The Scotsman' (Fri 2006 September 1) describing and decrying the history of metric progress in Scotland and England since 1965. You can find the article at http://living.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=1288792006/ I responded as follows:

I have been observing the processes that people choose for metrication since the mid-1960s and, it seems to me, that three crucial decisions are made quite early in any metric upgrade. They are:
1 Metric conversion vs direct metrication
2 Hidden metrication vs open and honest metrication
3 centimetres vs millimetres

Choosing the first of any of these three choices slows down the inevitable metrication process alarmingly. For example the Kodak company chose millimetres in their film division to change to metric in 1910 – result, metrication completed in 1911; the Kodak paper division chose centimetres, also in 1910 – result, still struggling with mixed inches and centimetres in 2006. See the pdf file 'centimetres or millimetres - which will you choose' at /articles/

The UK has consistently, since Sir John Riggs Miller made the first metric recommendation to the British Parliament in 1790, chosen to use the slowest possible path to metrication with many people in both government and industry choosing:

Metric conversion

  • to constantly convert back and forth between old and 'new' (1790s) measures,

Hidden metric

  • to hide their metric progress, and

centimetres rather than millimetres

  • to choose centimetres whenever and wherever they can,

Given these three poor choices I expect that the progress of metrication in the UK will remain painfully and expensively slow. I base this opinion on my personal observations of metrication in many places and in many industries over the past 40 years and my research into the history of decimalisation and metrication since 1585.

However, having said that, the UK metrication process is also inevitable; the UK will succeed with their metrication process simply because no-one who has ever used metric units for a while ever goes back to old pre-metric measures.

10 Hidden metric

Paul Trusten, from Texas, bought a digital wristwatch and expected it to be marked, 'water resistant to 100 m' or 'water resistant to 50 m' However he was surprised to learn that his new watch was marked 'water resistant to 330 ft'. As he said, 'Of course, that's simply hidden metric for 100 metres'.


Pat Naughtin

Geelong Australia

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 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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