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Metrication matters - Number 55 - 2007-12-10

Dear Subscriber,

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


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

Ivan Urwin wrote:
I just read your article, 'A word about global warming'. I nearly stopped at your criticism of this:

... modern agribusiness puts hundreds of calories of fossil-fuel energy into the fields for each calorie of food energy produced.
as the units used in the sense are immaterial, both being the same and thus allowing a direct comparison. However I read on, and agree with your criticisms.

Ivan downloaded the article, 'A word about global warming' from http://www.metricationmatters/articles )

Mark Sugrue wrote to comment on variable acres.
Guy Le Couteur's point about variable Irish land measurement is just the tip of the iceberg. All pre-industrial measures were variable depending on quality. It was common to have fixed prices for certain named values of goods, but then to change the size of the measurement depending on scarcity and quality. A yard of cloth might always be 1 shilling (perhaps by law), but if cloth was scarce the local traders might decide to reduce the size of the yard. This was very common and well understood until the standardization movements of the 1600's onwards. It is one explanation of why there were so many local variations of particular measurements.

2 Editorial

I am becoming more interested in how much it costs for individuals, companies, industries, and nations to try and preserve the thin veneer of old pre-metric measures that they use to hide their use of the metric system. See: http://www.metricationmatters.articles to find the recently re-written article 'Cost of non-metrication in the USA'.

As a recent example, rumours are gradually emerging that the delays in production of the Boeing Dreamliner may be due to the Boeing aircraft company choosing to use old pre-metric measures at the same time as they source parts for the new aircraft from all around the world. They seem to hold the view that any worker anywhere in the world understands (say) the word 'inch'. But if you haven’t got a clue what an inch is, and you've never actually seen one, you are not going to be able to build a part for the Boeing Dreamliner in inches that are accurate and precise.

It really is time for the Boeing company to reconsider their 18th century practices with a view of bring them into the 19th century. I can't even begin to calculate the cost of this practice and the danger of producing flawed and unsafe aircraft because you can't find a way to adopt the metric system is silly.

See: http://www.metricviews.org.uk/2007/11/07/boeing787-grounded/#more-121 for more details.

3 Oddities

In the USA the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) produces coordinates for the mapping of land called State Plane Coordinates (SPCs). These are calculated in metres by the NGS but they need to be converted to one or other of the old pre-metric feet (the survey foot and the international foot are both recognised legally in different parts of the USA) according to the whimsy of the map makers in each state. I quote from the NGS document at http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/faq.shtml#Feet

Currently, NGS publishes SPCs for 7 states using the U.S. Survey Foot conversion factor, 1 state using the International Foot conversion factor, and 42 states using only meters, not feet, for SPCs. Based on STATE legislation we have or know about, 24 states have legislated the U.S. Survey Foot, 8 states have legislated the International Foot, and 18 states have no legislation on which conversion factor must be used.

NGS itself does NOT have an "official" conversion factor because NGS works in metres ONLY.

After reading this I'm thinking about revising upwards my estimate of how much it costs the USA not to be metric. See /docs/CostOfNonMetrication.pdf for my current estimate that it costs the USA a little over a trillion dollars each year not to be metric. As I said there:

'To paraphrase the USA Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896/1969):

"a trillion this year, and a trillion next year,

pretty soon adds up to real money"

4 Tips

Martin Vlietstra, from the UK, passed on this reference to the Metric Views web page where he describes the areas of the sports fields for the common world sports. See: http://www.metricviews.org.uk/ Here is a sample from that page:

Another easy-to-visualise measurement for Americans is the hectare. I understand that the distance from the home plate to the fence on a baseball field is between 90 m and 125 m (according to Wikipedia). If the fence is a perfect quarter circle and the foul line is 112.83 metres, then the area enclosed by the two foul lines and the fence is exactly one hectare. Unfortunately for us Brits, cricket fields are a little larger than baseball fields, but a full-size rugby union field, including the dead-ball area is 0.98 hectare.

5 Signs of the times

Ezra Steinberg reported to the USMA (http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/listserv.htm ) as follows:
I just saw a little miracle tonight. Discovery Channel Productions has produced a series called "Mars Rising" about how humans will travel to Mars. The series (of 6 shows, I believe) is narrated by Captain Kirk (William Shatner).
The miracle is that all of the narration is done using SI. No Imperial/USC whatsoever. Amazing for American television.
The oddity was that, while most of the American scientists also used SI, in a couple of instances a scientist used Imperial/USC. It was immediately followed by narration using SI (not to translate what was just said, but just to continue the story of the program).
We're seeing little signs of visible change (on top of the invisible changes that manufacturers have made here). Next big step for us is the complete adoption of voluntary metric-only labelling. Then we'll see even more impetus for change.

6 Quotation

Samuel Johnson, in Boswell's Life of Johnson (1770) was quoted as saying:
It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done, compared to what he might have done.

Doug Larson (1902/1981), perhaps also known as 'Senator Soaper' says:
Some of the world's greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.

7 Q&A


The speed of light is extremely fast so how is it that I see a delay when international sports are shown on my television?


You are right that the speed of light is truly fast but along the way it experiences some difficulties that can be important to international communications. These include:

  • delays occur whenever the signal passes through any electronic switch or circuit.
  • global communication rarely happens in straight lines, and
  • the speed of light is slower by about 30% in optical fibres.

For example, if a game of basketball is held in New York or London and I want to watch it live on television, the television technicians will have to allow for the time it takes for the signal to travel the distance between the game and my home in Geelong in Australia. It is about 17 000 kilometres from Geelong to New York or London so, at the speed of light, the TV images will take about 0.056 seconds or 56 milliseconds to travel that distance.

This might not sound like much but when you add the delays mentioned above, the typical time for a USA to Australia signal is about 180 milliseconds. Sometimes you see television signals where the pictures came by one electronic pathway and the sound came by another; you can see people's lips moving but the sounds don't quite match the lip movement. Generally, humans guess that an experience is instantaneous if the response time delay is below 100 milliseconds.

8 Rule of thumb

The speed of light is 299 792 458 metres per second. As a rule of thumb, you might think of the speed of light as approximately 300 million metres per second, 300 thousand kilometres per second, or 300 megametres per second.

Another way to think of the speed of light is to convert 299 792 458 metres per second into 1 079 252 849 kilometres per hour and then to round this to 1 000 000 000 km/h or 1 terametre per hour. To picture this you could think of the distance from the Sun to Jupiter, which, at 780 gigametres, is a bit less than 1 terametre or a bit less than the distance to Saturn, which is 1.4 terametres.

9 History

From the first description of an international system of measurement (by the English bishop John Wilkins in 1668) the progress of the metric system has proved to be inevitable. I have now incorporated the contributions made by John Wilkins, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson to the International System of Units into a 'Metrication timeline' that you can find at: /articles.html about three quarters of the way down. Be warned that this Metrication timeline has now grown rather long!

10 Hidden metric

The nations that are supposed to be non-metric are usually selected from these: Brunei, Burma, Liberia, Libya, Muscat, Myanmar, South Yemen, United States of America, and Yemen. Some citizens of the USA deny that these nations use the metric system as the basis for the measures they use everyday. When these people list non-metric nations they always choose the USA and almost always choose two others more or less at random.

Thank you to the many readers who responded to this request for suggestions for improvement:

Your opinion counts.

As part of the continuous improvement program, I would appreciate your opinion on your experience in reading the Metrication matters newsletter and in using the web site. Your feedback helps to continually improve the experience that we deliver to you. Please take 5 minutes to let us know about your experience and send it to

I have incorporated most of your suggestions, I am working on several others, and I could use some more. Thanks again for your help.


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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