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Metrication matters - Number 71 - 2009-04-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for you:

  • if you are actively involved in a metrication upgrade,
  • if you are planning a metrication upgrade, or
  • if you have a general interst in the metrication process.

If a friend passed on this newsletter to you, please check the details of the free subscription at the end. Help a friend if you know somebody else who can benefit from this newsletter, please forward this newsletter to them and suggest that they subscribe.

You can read all previous issues at /newsletter when you scroll to the bottom of the page. You will also find useful resources for your metrication upgrade from the Metrication matters web page at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm


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

Jason McGregor, from Point Lonsdale, wrote:

Hi Pat,
I thought this recording of Grandpa Simpson might be useful for you.
Jason included an audio clip from 'The Simpsons' that has Grandpa Simpson complaining about the metric system in his high raspy voice:
The metric system is the tool of the devil. My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that's the way I likes it!

William Dunning, from New Mexico, wrote:

Pat ...
Thanks for another Mm. (With respect to Julia Child) I do know that she spent a formative year or so in France at the Cordon Bleu school, where she probably learned to cook metrically, and cooking was, after all, a big part of her life, even if she did live most of the rest of it on American public television.
Best wishes from New Mexico, U. S. of A.,

Bill Hooper, from Florida, (who is 1810 mm tall) wrote to react to this statement of mine:

Don't do the hard yards; the metre is neater and sweeter.

Bill wrote:

This one of Pat's "proverbs" reminds me of a pair of limericks I used with my metric classes.

There once was a boy named Girard
Who said "Why do we measure by yard?
"The foot and the inch
"are really no cinch.
"The yard", said Girard "is too hard."


Another young lad name of Peter
Asked why we use metre and litre.
But when he found out,
He let out a shout,
Saying "Metre and litre are neater!"

( ... and sweeter.) :-)

Bill Hooper, Florida, USA

2 Editorial

We often forget that the origins of the metric system are often to be found in the leadership of religious people. Often the religeous motivation was to improve honesty in measurement and to reduce the cheating that, unfortunately, has been common throughout history. The Christian Bible treats cheating with measurement almost as a running theme.

The first person to actively promote a 'universal measure', in 1668, was a Bishop of the Church of England. You can find out a little about Bishop John Wilkins at /docs/CommentaryOnWilkinsOfMeasure.pdf and this was soon followed by the work of a French abbot, Gabriel Mouton, the vicar of St. Paul's Church in Lyons, who proposed a similar decimal standard for measurement in 1670 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriel_Mouton ). Some 120 years later, in 1790, the French National Assembly approved the first legal metric system in France by acting on a motion written by a Catholic bishop, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838). The French National Assembly decided to adopt the simple, stable, decimal metric system of measurement units that we all use today.

3 Oddities

In New Zealand they have been experimenting with rendering fat from sheep to use as a diesel fuel (there are a lot of sheep in New Zealand). The researchers found that an average sheep can produce 2 litres of diesel fuel and that a truck can achieve an economy of 6 kilometres per litre so the fuel consumption worked out to be 12 kilometres per sheep.

4 Tips pointers and methods to make your measurements easier.

In these days when words such as billions and trillions are bandied about in financial circles, it might be useful to consider how they compare with each other. One way to do this is to consider something like seconds:

  • A million seconds (1 megasecond) is 12 days.
  • A billion seconds (1 gigasecond) is 31 years.
  • A trillion seconds (1 terasecond) is 31 688 years.

You will find more interesting details on this at http://www.tysknews.com/Depts/Taxes/million.htm where I was intrigued by the line:

A trillion dollars is so large a number that only politicians can use the term in conversation ... probably because they seldom think about what they are really saying.

5 Signs of the times

Remek Kocz wrote to the United States Metric Association (http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger ):

... we have a story about the pint of premium ice-cream not being a pint anymore:


Haagen-Dazs will shrink their pint to 14 fl oz due to increasing costs.

... It's obvious that the imperial measurements make this kind of meddling easier, since it's difficult to compare between ounces and pints.

John M. Steele added:

The obscure compound units, quarts, pints, fluid ounces help hide the reduction. The metric label makes it much clearer to those who read it (1.89 L to 1.42 L).

6 Quotation

You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees.
Mahatma Gandhi

7 Q&A


What is the origin of the word, penny, when it is used to define nail sizes in the USA?


There are lots of reasons to 'Go metric', and this is definitely one of them.

The nail penny derives from the old English coin, penny, but note that this is the 'old penny' and not the 'new penny'. The abbreviation for penny, d, dates back to a Roman coin called the denarius.

Old records show that at one time 100 6d nails had once cost 6 pennies, and that 100 8d nails had simultaneously cost eight pennies. This temporary coincidence was then developed into a jargon and became incorporated into the everyday speech of hardware stores and building trade workers firstly in the UK and later in the USA. Soon after the jargon became established the price went up or the number of nails went down (and we still notice the direction of this pricing trend)! At no time did a 6d nail cost sixpence or an 8d nail cost eightpence.

The jargon then changed to refer not to the price of the nails but to a more or less arbitrary guide to their length at which point the jargon was transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the USA. In the USA several people try to explain the penny jargon for others (see http://www.inthewoodshop.org/general/wwa20.shtml for an example) but the penny jargon does not actually make any sense. For example, 2d nails are supposed to be 1 inch long (25.4 mm exactly) then each increase of 1d is supposed to add a quarter of an inch (exactly 6.35 mm). This works for a while but it breaks down completely after 3 inches (12d) because the next size of 4 inches is 20d.

These days you choose your nails from lists where all dimensions are in millimetres; 2.9 x 50 is a nail 2.9 mm thick and 50 mm long, 3.3 x 90 is a nail 3.3 mm thick and 90 mm long. As I said, there are lots of reasons to 'Go metric'; this has been one of them.

8 Rule of thumb

A snail typically travels at about one metre per minute.

A human walking briskly can walk at 100 metres per minute.

9 History

Sometimes many calculations are needed to try to understand why people currently do some quite inexplicable things. Here is an example to explain why wine comes in 750 millilitre bottles:

  • An old imperial gallon (231 cubic inches by the 1824 definition) was 4546 millilitres.
  • One sixth of this is 758 millilitres. This was listed on old beer and wine bottles as 26 2/3 (imperial) fluid ounces.
  • Bottles of beer or wine are traditionally packed in dozens, so one dozen bottles of wine was exactly two gallons (imperial) to make it convenient to work out production and sales in imperial gallons.
  • A bottle in the UK was a 'sixth' of an imperial gallon or 758 millilitres.
  • This imperial 'sixth', at 758 mL in the UK is approximately the same as a 'fifth' of a gallon in the USA, which is 757 millilitres because the USA used a different gallon to everyone else.
  • It was this coincidence, of 758 mL and 757 mL that influenced the choice of the current (slightly down-sized), 'standard', bottle of 750 millilitres for modern bottles of wine.

10 Hidden metric

You might have noticed that the tyres (tires in the USA) on your car are designated in inches. But this is the only time that inches appear in a tyre's life.

A tyre is designed as (say) a 380 millimetre tyre, manufactured as a 380 millimetre tyre, stored as a 380 millimetre tyre, then sold to the public as a 15 inch tyre (380 mm = 14.960 63 inches).

However, the approximate inches are only part of the way a tyre is described. When you see something like: 195/45 R15 on the side of a tyre, you know that the tyre is 195 millimetres wide; 45 % of this width (in this case 88 mm from the rim to the outside diameter of the tyre); R indicates that it is a radial tyre; and 15 suggests that it is about 15 inches (exactly 380 mm) in diameter from rim to rim.

Using this strange designation, tyre makers give you 2 of the 3 measurements in metric units openly while the third is also in metric units but it is hidden from you.

Cheers and best wishes for your inevitable metrication upgrade,

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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