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Metrication matters - Number 41 - 2006-10-10

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

Han Maenen from the Netherlands is a regular visitor to Ireland. This year he noted that the newspapers did not automatically revert to using degrees Fahrenheit when the summer temperature rose into the high thirties. Han wrote:

Temperatures have soared to 30 degrees and more in Ireland. In the past it happened often that with hot weather in Ireland, the Fahrenheit scale was suddenly back in the newspapers for the time the hot weather lasted. Only the Irish Times used Celsius then. This year, however, I see the use of the Celsius scale in all newspaper coverings of the heat. In the mean time it has cooled down to the low twenties.

When I wrote in Metrication matters 40:

'... the recipe ... called for a 3/4 level teaspoon of salt — just how do you measure that?' it triggered several responses.

Barbara Hall, from Melbourne in Australia, commented on accurately measuring three quarters of a level teaspoon. She wrote:

'Re 3/4 level teaspoon:
'We have metric "teaspoons" so it's easy. Fill your half teaspoon, then your quarter teaspoon'.

Bill Hooper from Florida wrote:

What's confusing about that? Just use a one-quarter teaspoon measuring spoon and fill it, level, three times. (One could also use one half-teaspoon and one quarter teaspoon, leveled.) Of course, it would seem to be more useful if the recipe simply said "three level quarter teaspoons of salt".

2 Editorial

International Metric Day, chosen because it is the 10th day of the 10th month and therefore the most decimal day of the year, is here again. What a great time to reflect on the metrication progress that you have made this year and that you plan for the next year.

I'd be delighted to hear of your major metrication successes in the past year and of your metrication plans for the coming year.

Many schools around the world organise special metric activities and metric games especially for International Metric Day. International Metric Week, the week around International Metric Day on October 10, is recognised by the United States Metric Association (USMA) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). You will find useful ideas to promote metrication, especially in schools, at http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/ideas.htm and at http://www.nctm.org/meetings/metric-week.htm/

By the way, don't forget that 2010 October 10 is a great target date for many metrication ventures because you can write it as:


This might be a more suitable date to promote the idea on 'the rule of thousands' where you choose and actively promote metric prefixes that are multiples of 1000. This, when used well, can have the effect of ridding your industry of fractions (both vulgar and decimal) altogether. See the pdf article, 'centimetres or millimetres — which will you choose at /articles/ for details.

3 Oddities

A while ago, I quoted the line, 'Give them an inch and they'll take an ell', and several people politely wrote to ask, 'What's an ell?' (One even wrote impolitely, 'What the 'ell is an ell?')

The word, 'ell' derives from the proto-Indo-European 'el-' that means forearm. We commonly use it in the modern English word, 'elbow'. It usually refers to the length from your elbow to the tip of your longest finger, so for most of us it is about 450 millimetres to 500 millimetres and sometimes 'ell' is used as an alias for the word, 'cubit'. However, like most old pre-metric measures there were a wide variety of definitions and measures of an 'ell'.

In the tailoring business an ell referred to the length of an arm from the shoulder to the wrist (also about 450 mm to 500 mm), although the exact length was never defined in law and it is now obsolete.

Several different national forms existed, with different lengths, including the Scottish ell of approximately 950 mm and the Flemish ell of approximately 700 mm.

4 Tips

When you are buying beads for various hobby or decorative uses, be aware that most beads are measured using the metric system — they are measured in millimetres. Most bead stores lay out their bead inventory in small individual compartments that are labelled with the size of the beads in millimetres and the type of beads. An example might be something like: 4 mm blue agate. Small round beads are sized generally from 2 mm to 10 mm in 1 mm intervals — 2, 3, 4 mm, etc. Larger beads above (say) 10 mm increase by 2 mm — 10 mm, 12 mm, 14 mm and so on.

5 Signs of the times

John Ward from California wrote in July to say:

'It hit 45 °C yesterday in Pasadena'

This reminded me about the recent rise in discussions about global warming that are based on these sorts of observations. To view global warming from a metric units perspective download the article, 'A word about global warming' from /articles/

6 Quotation

Mike Millet, from the USA, found this at http://bash.org/?653227/ while he was browsing on the web. This is a website where people cut and paste funny conversations they've had online.

Kristopolous: I don't think we should have thermometers, speedometers, or odometers. This is America damn it! Thermofeet, speedofeet, and odofeet for me, thank you very much!

On a more serious note, when you are planning for your metrication activities for the coming year, you might like to reflect on one of Jonathan Kozol's thoughts on education reform when he suggests that you don't pick the biggest, most daunting task in the world. Start with something small - but significant.

Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.

7 Q&A

When was the calorie introduced into English?

The earliest popular reference to calorie that I have found was by Dr Lulu Hunt Peters in her book, Diet and Health, with the Key to the Calories (1918). In her book, Dr Hunt Peters defined a calorie as:

CALORIE; symbol C.; a heat unit and food value unit; is that amount of heat necessary to raise one pound of water 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

8 Rule of thumb

Some memorable masses

  • 100 g - medium sized apple (think of Isaac Newton)
  • 125 g - Medium size banana
  • 250 g - 400 page paperback book
  • 3.5 kg - Average newborn baby
  • 50 kg - Great Dane
  • 100 kg - Large man
  • 263 kg - World record for weight lifting
  • 500 kg - Large cow
  • 800 kg - Giraffe
  • 1 000 kg (1 tonne or 1 t) - Average mid-size car
  • 5 t - Elephant
  • 200 t - Blue whale
  • 7 000 t - Eiffel Tower

9 History

Mike Millett from the USA responded to my article about the Kennebrook mine, in Metrication matters 40, by saying,

'I have the exact same problem whenever I watch Discovery channel or history channel, because they convert all SI to USC (United States Customary) when doing documentaries. Just the other day I was watching a documentary about the Iraq war and the troops interviewed (US marines mind you) mentioned that their watch stations were 100 m apart. The History channel folks didn't edit that out but subsequently referred to the distances as 100 yards. Likewise when the troops referred to a convoy of Iraqi vehicles as being about 6000 m away. History channel converted that to "several miles". I've written to them asking them to use SI whenever possible and they've written back saying that it's an issue they're considering but until they see concrete movement in the US towards SI they won't change. Ditto for Discovery channel when they do stuff.

The only problem with this is I'm left always guessing about distances height and other things.

And Phil Chernack from New Jersey added:

Yet if they don’t take the steps to present information in SI, how can we make any concrete progress towards SI? It’s got to start somewhere.

10 Hidden metric

This one is subtle. In the UK, signs that show mass limits have used the letter T to mean ton. Now these same signs can be altered to read t for tonne.

Martin Vliestra, from London in the UK, alerted me to this recently when he wrote:

'... here is an extract from UK legislation on road signs: Where an upright sign indicates a weight in tonnes using the symbol "T", that symbol may be varied to "t".

(The legislation itself can be viewed at: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2002/20023113.htm/)

Martin then added:

The only vehicle of which I am aware to which limitations of "T" might apply is Dr Who's Tardis - but I don't know what sized magnetic field it generates when it is whisking its owner back and forth through time.


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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