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Metrication matters - Number 46 - 2007-03-10

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

Helen Bushnell, from Daejeon in South Korea wrote to say:

Thank you for writing Metrication matters. I enjoy reading them, and find them very educational.

Another of our Metrication matters readers wrote to say that they had never heard of the super king size bed mentioned in the last edition, and then added:

I don't recommend the extra wide beds as mainly they are just two stuck together with uncomfortable edges in the middle ... can be a bit lonely too. Don't quote me by name!

2 Editorial

As the media discovers global warming, I am appalled at the ignorance of so many reporters. They seem not to know the major differences between the physical concepts of power and energy and, when referring to the global warming debate, they also seem not to have any understanding of how these two essential concepts are measured.

One problem arising from this is that many of our politicians, who have little or no background in science and technology, learn about global warming from the media and from lobbyists. I worry that the ignorance of many (perhaps most) journalists, and the use of obfuscation to support the self-interest of lobbyists and their financiers, does not make a good recipe for sane and rational political decisions on global warming. See the two page article:
/docs/AWordAboutGlobalWarming.pdf for more information about this important issue.

3 Oddities

The International Herald Tribune (2007 February 24) reported that:

The typical New York rat weighs about 1 pound (45 kilograms).

If ever I saw a 45 kilogram rat, I would run away as fast as I could. Either New York rats need to be treated with great respect or the reporter and sub-editors at the International Herald Tribune are having troubles with their metric conversions.
See: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/02/25/america/NA-GEN-US-NYC-Rodent-Wars.php for the full story.

4 Tips

Those who teach the International System of Units (SI) will find some very useful resources written by Theodore Wildi, a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and a member of the IEEE Standards Coordinating Committee (SCC14) on Quantities, Units and Letter Symbols, at http://www.wildi-theo.com

5 Signs of the times

Mike Millet wrote to the U.S. Metric Association to describe his recent experience at a hardware store in the USA.

While in Home Depot the other day I amused myself by reading the labels. The first thing I noticed was that nearly everything was done in English French and Spanish. The second thing I noticed was that all metric dimensions only showed up in the Spanish and French portions of whatever was being described (shelves, tiles, cabinets etc).

But the thing that was most disturbing to me was the fact that every dimension I saw on every piece of hardware from nails to large shelving systems was in centimeters. Not only that, but was often in decimal form of centimeters using a comma ( i.e. 37,5 cm instead of 37.5 cm). As a plus everything was at least marked in SI but that odd little comma showed up everywhere. On normal goods like paper towel rolls or Rubbermaid containers it's always been with a decimal point but everything in Home Depot that was used for construction was in centimeters measured out to the tenth of a centimeter and separated by a comma.

So the question I have is this. How did the centimeter become so dominant in American metrication? I now see Pat's point about using millimeters as it gets rid of a decimal place and somehow looks better as well. The comma and I don't get along when talking numbers because a comma to me says "pause here because a new word or idea starts" whereas a period to me just means "Stop here" and the decimal point is a sort of mental hard stop to me.

As far as the centimeters dominance I have noticed that it's integrated into the American lexicon thoroughly. You often hear someone saying they came within a centimeter of doing something or having something usually bad done to them :).

I seem to recall that the NIST and other government agencies have followed the rule of 1000 when metricating meaning they probably use millimeters. Still, if the metric only label law gets passed I'll bet you money that the building industry in this country ends up standardizing on the centimeter simply because of the domance I saw in the store


I have observed that any metric upgrade is faster, smother and cheaper if you choose to use millimetres rather than centimetres as your small length unit. For a detailed discussion on the differences between centimetres and millimetres, see the pdf article, 'centimetres or millimetres which will you choose?' at:

6 Quotations

This quotation is from the web site of the USA government Bureau of Engraving and Printing at: http://www.moneyfactory.gov/document.cfm/18/106

The approximate weight of a currency note, regardless of denomination is (1) one gram. There are 454 grams in one (1) U.S. pound, therefore, there should be 454 notes in (1) one pound (Avoirdupois system). If the troy system were used, there are (12) twelve ounces in (1) one pound; therefore, if one note weighs approximately (1) one gram, then (1) troy pound contains approximately 375 notes.

A simpler statement would be:

The approximate weight of a currency note, regardless of denomination is (1) one gram. As there are 1000 grams in (1) one kilogram, there should be 1000 notes in one kilogram and 1 000 000 notes in a tonne.

Why count the notes when all you have to do is to put them on a set of scales.

7 Q&A

Beth Genther, from Pennsylvania, wrote to ask:

What is a Firkin?

I based my reply to Beth on the Firkin article from Wikipedia that says:

A Firkin is an old English unit of volume. The name is derived from the Middle Dutch word vierdekijn, which means fourth, i.e. a fourth of a full-size barrel.
For beer and ale a firkin is equal to 9 Imperial gallons (about 40.915 l) or a quarter of a barrel. Casks in this size (themselves called firkins) are the most common container for cask ale.
The word "firkin" (as in "Fox & Firkin") is frequently considered a suitably atmospheric word by those naming an English-style pub by implication, the establishment will thus be either a new pub in the UK or a foreign imitation of a British pub.
For wine the firkin had a larger size, namely a third of a tun, a tun being 210 gallons in the UK and 252 fluid gallons in the USA. Thus a wine firkin is about 318 l (318.226 or 317.975). It is also called tertian or, preferably, puncheon (in the USA this may be shortened to pon).
Butter and soap used to be sold by the firkin, too. In these cases it was rather a measure of weight, 56 lb (25.4 kg) and 64 lb (29.0 kg) respectively.

I suspect that the word 'firkin' still has currency because it has certain similarities to another ancient English word. Further research on this subject revealed this delightful gem from: http://www.takeourword.com/Issue085.html

The casks used to hold beer have fascinating names. A firkin is a quarter of a barrel and firkin is an English form of Middle Dutch vierdekijn (diminutive of vierde, "fourth"). Two firkins make one kilderkin and the word kilderkin is, apparently, related to kintal (or quintal) which is another name for the traditional English measure called a hundredweight (112 pounds - don't ask!) and kintal, believe it or not, comes from the Arabic word qintar. While we're on the subject of -kins, a bumpkin (country or otherwise) is a short, fat fellow (from Dutch boomekijn "small barrel"). A flagon is a large bottle, often used for beer. The word comes from Medieval Latin flascon (via Old French flacon), the same source as the Italian fiasco which, literally, means "bottle".

It's no wonder that some folk want to keep all of these old pre-metric words they're so rich in color and in confusion.

8 Rule of thumb

  • If you are travelling at 60 kilometres per hour and you need to stop suddenly, it will take you about 40 metres to come to a halt.

  • If you are travelling at 80 kilometres per hour and you need to stop suddenly, it will take you about 60 metres to come to a halt.

This leads to a Rule of Thumb that says:

  • Take 20 from your speed (in km/h) and this will be your approximate stopping distance (in metres).

When you apply this to a speed of 100 kilometres per hour it means that you will stop in about 80 metres (just under the length of a football field in the USA, which is exactly 91.440 metres).

Please note that these are average stopping distances that apply when an alert driver is driving a modern car with good brakes, the car is in good condition, and the road is dry and sealed. If any of these conditions change, the braking distances could more than double. See:

9 History

Han Maenen, from the Netherlands, wrote to the US. Metric Association to place on record the major historical date of February 12. He wrote:

"But 1812's dark season came

And metric hearts were sore ..."

Today 195 years ago, 1812 February 12, was a day of infamy in the history of metrology.

On that day Napoleon came up with his Imperial Decree on Weights and Measures. The decree stated that the system established under the metric laws would not be changed, but instruments of weight and measurement were to be adopted, geared to the needs of the people. These 'instruments' were more than that: it was the return to the weights and measures of Paris for use in the retail shops. The existence of the metric system itself was at stake. Then followed a struggle that would last for 25 years, until in 1837 France passed the law that made her metric for good from January 1840.

Given that both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had been quite active in promoting the metric system not long before 1812, and that John Quincy Adams, who became secretary of state in 1817, praised the metric system as being:

... the greatest invention of human ingenuity since that of printing ...

I think that I agree with Han when he concludes:

Suppose that this (the Napoleonic decree) had not happened, I think that the USA would be a fully metric nation today.

10 Hidden metric

Remek Kocz wrote to say:

The 399 mL bottle of pomegranate juice that prefers to be known by its 13.5 fl oz size, or the 399 mL bottle of generic shampoo that mimics Procter & Gamble's 400 mL Head and Shoulders. In both cases you've got someone taking those fluid ounces too seriously :)



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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