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Metrication matters - Number 54 - 2007-11-10

Dear Subscriber,

I hope this email arrives when you are well, in good spirits, and that you feel that you are moving inexorably toward your complete upgrade to the metric system, in all aspects of your life.

Do you have friends who are interested in a fast and smooth upgrade to the metric system? Think how much they would appreciate you if you forward this newsletter to them today.


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

Mark Sugrue passed on an item from the 'Irish Times' (2007-10-31) where Judge Denis McLoughlin in the Donegal District Court announced that:

speeding at 180 km/h is not 'as bad' in miles - 112mph

The judge then reduced the charge of dangerous driving to one of careless driving and imposed a 1,000 fine.

Han Maenen, from The Netherlands, commented on this:

If a motorist goes beyond 50 km/h over the limit in The Netherlands, apart from the hefty fine to come, the offender has to hand in the licence at the spot, it goes to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) who decides what to do. In many cases the licence is returned after 14 days, but if the culprit has committed serious traffic offences or crimes in the past, he may lose it for a longer period, or may have to take the drivers exam again, or loses it permanently. Excuses that the licence is necessary for work are not accepted anymore and the traffic conditions don't count either.

Taking the ridiculous line of the (Irish) judge further, killing another road user at 112 mph would not be as bad as killing him or her at 180 km/h. At least the offender got a hefty fine.

Ron Stone, of the Alliance for the Advancement of Technology (http://www.aatideas.org/ ), in California wrote to criticise my sloppy use of the date format 10-10-10. Ron quite rightly pointed out that the correct form should include the year expressed in four figures. Ron wrote:

Dear Pat,

Happy metrication week! It's nice to read these newsletters, yet I would like to comment on the 10-10-10 date in Metrication matters 53.

The confluence of tens can be a great occasion to raise awareness of metric units, and to some extent of practical methods of writing data.

Though let's not forget about how much clearer that many other dates can be when a year figure is expressed to 4 places.


In the international date format the confluence of tens will be: 2010-10-10.

I stand corrected. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that if a suitable opportunity arises then I will use the 10-10-10 format again if I need it to emphasise a point.

Harry Wyeth wrote to say:


The info re the proximity of atoms in space was fascinating! Thanks.

2 Editorial

Metrication is the process of upgrading to the modern metric system.

When the modern metric system is given its full tile, it is called the International System of Units (SI) and most regular users simply use its official abbreviation SI or call it the 'SI metric system' to distinguish it from earlier systems.

The SI metric system is now the international standard for all physical measurements. This is true in all nations even those that have not legally adopted the metric system because when they trade internationally metric measures are invariably used.

Even the few nations who use measuring words such as pounds, pints, inches, and ounces base their definitions of these old pre-metric units on SI metric units. For example:

  • the pint in the UK is defined as 568.261 25 millilitres and
  • the two different pints in the USA are defined as
  • 1 pint (dry) = 550.610 5 millilitres and
  • 1 pint (liquid) = 473.176 5 millilitres.

The metrication upgrade has been a single direction process. No one who has ever used the metric system for some time ever goes back to using the old pre-metric measures they used previously. I consider that the ultimate success of metrication in all nations is inevitable.

Gradually the metric system is replacing all of the old pre-metric methods of measurement. This is due to the simplicity of the metric system when it is compared with any of the various separate old local measuring methods. I use this mnemonic to help me remember the points that I will make in many presentations that I make on the metric system; I call it the SHOW the COST mnemonic.

The metric system (SI) is:





Old pre-metric measuring words are:





Most nations readily accepted the inevitability of the metric system because of its simplicity, honesty, openness, and worldwide operation. People soon recognise the advantages of using the metric system as opposed to all of the old pre-metric measuring words.

Only the United Kingdom and the United States of America still have active opponents to metrication. Wikipedia says that the main objections of these people are generally based on local traditions, cultural aesthetics, economic impacts, or generally a dislike for measures viewed as 'foreign' (Although this last item is an argument no longer available in the UK since it was re-revealed that an Englishman, John Wilkins, proposed an international system for measurements in 1668 more than 120 years before the French legally adopted the metric system see 9 History

All the world's citizens now use the metric system routinely in all of their activities, although this fact is hidden (with a thin veneer of old pre-metric measuring words) from about 4 % of them in the UK and the USA.

3 Oddities

Getting down to brass tacks

You might know this well used expression usually meaning to get down to the business at hand in an exact and calculated manner. But you may not know that its origin is from a measuring reference. I quote from Michael Quinion's Newsletter, World Wide Words:

Yet another idea is that it refers to the brass nails or tacks set into the counter of a hardware store or draper's shop a yard apart to measure lengths of material. The idea here is that measurements were often casually made by the almost immemorial method of using the distance between the nose and the tip of the outstretched hand as a yard. As this was imprecise, to request an exact measurement using the brass tacks on the counter would be to focus on the true facts of the matter. We can't be sure about this, but the homely analogy is seductive. The use of brass markers in this way long predates the earliest appearance of the idiom, though it was more common in the earlier nineteenth century to describe them as brass nails rather than brass tacks, the latter term only becoming common later in the century. But "brass tacks" was certainly used in this sense. For example, this appeared in Scribners Monthly in August 1880: "I hurried over to Seabright's. There was a little square counter, heaped with calicoes and other gear, except a small space clear for measuring the yards tacked off with brass tacks."

As you will gather, I prefer this explanation.

You can find Michael Quinion's complete answer at: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-bra6.htm

4 Tips

Martin Vlietstra from London in the UK points out that:

The Hudson River has a width of about one kilometre when it passes Manhattan.

5 Signs of the times

Quaker Oatmeal, in the USA, advertises their 'Weight Control' product as having '6 g protein' and '7 g fiber'.

6 Quotation

Recently this quotation appeared in 'The Age' a Melbourne newspaper:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I immediately thought how appropriate this idea was to the progress of the metric system all around the world.

The quotation was attributed by 'The Age' to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788/1860) However, when I investigated, I found that there is debate about whether Schopenhauer ever wrote this at all. See: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Misquotations.cfm

Ah well, I still think that it is a good thought to describe the progress of metrication. Perhaps we could rewrite it as a poster:


passes through three stages.

First, the metric system is ridiculed.

Second, the metric system is violently opposed.

Third, the metric system is accepted as being self-evident.

* Metrication is the process you choose to upgrade to the metric system.

7 Q&A

Jose Luis Barajas, from Mexico wrote:

Hello Pat!

I have a question. I have seen subwoofer specifications as 12" (300 mm). But 12" are 304.8 mm. Are subwoofer sizes in reality measured in inches or millimetres? Is this a case of hidden metric? Like the 90 mm floppy?

Thanks! Jose.

Dear Jose,

I have just spoken to an engineer who designs and builds speaker enclosures. He says that the speakers he uses are in exact millimetre sizes but they are often labelled in inches presumably for the USA market. Other examples he quoted were 100 millimetre speakers called 4 inch and 250 millimetre speakers called 10 inch.

You are probably right that this is 'hidden metric' and I suspect that it could be costly for people who believe that 300 millimetres is really 12 inches. It doesn't sound like much cost for this small confusion but when it is applied to a whole national economy it adds up to real money. See:


8 Rule of thumb

Air and water

One cubic metre of air has a mass of about one kilogram. You might like to think about this next time you see a report that people are experiencing extreme wind speeds such as in tornadoes, hurricanes, or cyclones.

One cubic metre of water has a mass of one tonne. Consider this when you next watch a television report about the impact of water in events such as floods, storm surges, tornadoes, hurricanes, and cyclones or even as you think about your watery environment in dams, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs.

9 History

Scientists had been discussing a decimal system of measurement in England since Simon Stevin's book on decimal arithmetic, 'Disme, The Art of Tenths or Decimal Arithmeticke' was translated into English in 1608. However, it was not until 60 years later, in 1668, that a complete description of an international system of measurement was devised and published in 'AN ESSAY Towards a REAL CHARACTER, And a PHILOSOPHICAL LANGUAGE.' by the English bishop John Wilkins.

In his 600 page essay Wilkins' included a four and a half page section that described most of the elements that we use in the metric system today. Wilkins suggested a decimal system, with a universal standard of length, preferably based on time, and that this standard length could be used to define area, volume, and 'weight' (using distilled rain water).

Following the publication of John Wilkins book by the Royal Society in London the progress towards The International System of Units (SI) has proved to be inevitable.

I have now incorporated Wilkins work into the web site at: and you can find relevant articles about Wilkins at /articles

In addition you might like to see how Wilkins works fits into the overall historical context by viewing the 'Metrication timeline' that you will also find at: /articles.html about three quarters of the way down.

10 Hidden metric

Michael Payne of Virginia wrote to the USMA mail list (http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/listserv.htm ) to say:

Found out today in a conversation with Mercedes that you can change the 'unchangeable' Fahrenheit temperature on a Mercedes (probably applies to most vehicles) by attaching the diagnostic box to the vehicle. After some searching you come across the outside air temperature settings. You can change it to Celsius. To change it back requires the same procedure, so once it's changed to Celsius it will be there until someone does the same procedure.

Remek Kocz responded:

Hmmm, Mercedes really makes us metric fans work hard. I wish all the cars had the 'E/M' (English/Metric) switch that my '91 Cutlass Supreme had. I had an all-digital dash, and pressing the switch converted everything to metric. I lived in Detroit back then, so my visits to Canada were frequent, and the 'E/M' switch got its workout.

And finally:

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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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