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Metrication matters - Number 76 - 2009-09-10

Dear Subscriber,

Metrication matters is an on-line metrication newsletter for those actively involved, and for those with an interest in metrication matters.

You can read all previous issues at /newsletter if you scroll own to the bottom of the page. The Metrication matters web page is also of the same vintage — you can check its current look at http://www.metrictionmatters.com.htm

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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

Thanks to everyone who bought the e-book, Metrication Leaders Guide. I was delighted with the immediate response and especially thrilled by the positive remarks people passed on to me after reading it. I wish them all every success with their metrication plans as they apply the principles in the Metrication Leaders Guide to their metrication activities and metrication projects. You can find out about this e-book at /MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html

Mike Joy, who lives in Perth in Western Australia, heard me talking about metrication on an Australian national radio program. Mike wrote:

Hi Pat,

Was so surprised to hear your talkback show on 'Overnights' program yesterday morning.

Very well presented and please let me know when you're on again.



Jim Palfreyman downloaded the article The metric system in the USA from /docs/USAMetricSystemHistory.pdf and then he wrote:

Hi Pat,

Just downloaded and read your article on the USA contribution to the metric system.

First, let me say, I think this is the *only* way the US will go metric ... So this article's importance is paramount.

However, I think you need to revise some of the opening paragraphs. There are multiple references to the title of Simon Stevin's book and Jefferson's interest. The paragraphs seem to repeat what you've just read and make it all a bit confusing.

Otherwise, this document is great and needs to be pushed to all and sundry!


Jim Palfreyman

I replied:

Dear Jim,

Thanks for your suggestions. I have revised the 'USA metric system history' article. As usual, I appreciate your thoughts. You can now download a replacement copy of the article from /docs/USAMetricSystemHistory.pdf

In the light of Jim Palfreyman's remarks, I have now placed the 'USA metric system history' article on the metrication matters articles web page at /articles.html and it's near the top of the page. If you know any teachers or students, you might like to consider passing the reference to this page on to them – especially if they are preparing now for National Metric Week in October (see below).

Michael V Worstall, a Chartered Electrical Engineer from England wrote:

Pat ... Your latest (Metrication matters newsletter) received with joy as usual. However there seems to be a new tendency to print whole chunks in italics. This is perfectly understandable for stylistic reasons but do remember that numerals and unit symbols should always be in upright type (ISO 1000 refers) — even if the text is italic.

Your cricket team is currently doing quite well but there is still one test to go. We live in hope.

Best regards ... Michael

Michael's hope for the cricket proved stronger than my aspirations and England beat Australia in the final test match to win the whole series. With respect to the italics, I plead guilty as charged. It happens when I place quotations in italics. I will try to set units in upright type in future as Michael correctly points out citing ISO 1000.

2 Editorial

Recently I have again thought about the best names for all of the old pre-metric measuring words that people used before the metric system became available. But before I begin, let me make one point absolutely clear:

The only measurement 'system' ever developed, in the world, at any time, was the metric system, now known as 'The International System of Units (SI)'.

Before the metric system, there never was any other complete measuring 'system'.

Previously, there were only more or less loose collections of randomly generated measuring words that, in time, proved to have only temporary definitions .

It took almost 300 years for the first metric system to evolve from the first statement for a universal measure by Bishop John Wilkins (on 1668 April 13) into the International System of Units – the modern metric system (at the CGPM meeting 1960 October 11-20). The metric system has, since then, gradually – and inevitably – continued to replace all previous measuring words and methods.

What follows is a list of my collection of 'Ye Olde Colonial Measures' that was initially a response to the question:

'What is the best name for all of the old measures still used in the USA?'

American units

The term, American units, is wrong because it is not synonymous with the old units. That assumption is patently false, since the USA has based the definitions of all their old measures on metric units since 1893. This was when the USA Congress adopted the metre as a standard and defined the inch, foot, yard, and pound in relation to the metre and kilogram. 'American units' really means metric units or, more specifically, units of the International System or SI units that are hidden behind old measuring word names. I also have trouble calling a measuring word, a 'unit' when it has many different definitions.

American Versions of Imperial and Older Units

Although this is accurate, 'American Versions of Imperial (1824) and Older (Queen Anne) Units' is probably too long for popular use.

British colonial units

British Colonial has several advantages. It makes a useful distinction between British Colonial (pre 1824) from British Imperial units (post 1824). It is reasonably technically correct and it makes it clear where these units originated.

However, having said all of this, British colonial units is neither accurate nor inclusive; the British colonies used Imperial units – not colonial units, and many USA Customary units that shared the same names are neither British colonial units nor British Imperial units.

Colonial units

Colonial units immediately identifies old units and sets them in a political context as being left-over remnants from the time of colonialism without too much of a political axe to grind against England or the USA.

Customary units

Customary units is wrong because most of them are no longer customary anywhere in the world, and they will become less customary in the future. USA customary units (USCU) are really SI units in disguise. USCU cannot survive without SI and needs it absolutely in order to be applicable for high technology work. This is a misuse of SI standards to prop up a competing set of units. If barley corns, human hands and feet, and the length of our arms were good enough for high precision measurements then USA Customary units would not have to be propped up by international metric standards. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and most laws in the USA refer to old units as 'customary units in use in the U.S.' or as 'U.S. Customary'. They need to use these terms to distinguish between old Imperial units and old U.S. Units.

Colloquial units

Colloquial units is another way of saying 'Customary units' and it has the same problems. The term 'Colloquial units' should not be used in formal writing, but it might be useful when referring to the way people speak as the meaning of colloquial refers to the way we speak. 'Colloquial units' has an air of being slightly derogatory.

Decimal units

Clearly, the modern metric system, the International System of Units (SI), is a decimal system with the idea of decimal numbers as its heart. However, it is not so well known that since the legal and practical success of the metric system, from the 1790s, many attempts were made to decimalise bits and pieces of many old measuring methods. One of the earliest examples was Gunter's chain where Gunter divided the English chain (80 to the mile) into 100 links. Although this divided the chain into 100 links of (the uncomfortable number) 7.92 inches, the advantages of decimal numbers for surveying calculations were so apparent that Gunter's chain was a major hit with the surveying community, especially in the USA, including notable surveyors such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Other examples of retrofitting decimal ideas to old units are mils (milli-inches), thous (thousandths of inches), and kiloyards (one thousand yards).

Deprecated units

Deprecated units is correct for a small group of units that have been deprecated by the world authority that controls the International System of Units – Conférence Générale de Poids et Mesures (CGPM). However, most people do not know what deprecated means, they’ve never heard of the CGPM, and some non-SI units have not yet been officially deprecated by CGPM.


Emu meaning English mixture of units has the same problems as English units and Ye Olde English Mixture of units. Emu should not be confused with emu, which stands for electromagnetic units (see below). And of course, as an Australian, I might point out that Emu or emu refers to a large flightless bird.

English units

The units that are called 'English units' in the USA did not originate with the English; in fact many units in the USA, while they have the same name, are not the same as the units used in England. It would be better to call them USA measures . Old English units are never referred to as English units in England. 'English units' is a term that is neither accurate nor inclusive, and it is ambiguous as most non-SI units, used in the USA, are not of English origin. The majority of so-called English units were originally developed by the Romans, Babylonians, medieval Europeans, various industries, businesses, and sometimes, individual scientists and engineers. English units also confuses true English units (whatever they are) with Imperial units and USA units with the same name; for example an English ounce or ton is not the same as an ounce or ton in the USA, and they are not equal to either a British colonial ounce or ton or a British Imperial ounce or ton.


FFU is an abbreviation of the words 'Fred Flintstone Units' and it was clearly designed as a derogatory term to mock old units when they are compared to the International System of Units. FFU was not meant as an alternative name for USA Customary units or for British Imperial units; it was meant as a catchall phrase for all non-SI units, even old Chinese units. Generally however, FFU is taken to mean the combined hodge-podge of USA Customary units and British Imperial units because they are the only remaining measuring units still left that are seeking international acceptance. I don't use FFU much because not many people know what I mean by FFU, unless I offer a lengthy explanation.

Imperial units

Leaving aside the question of the demise of the Roman empire, Imperial units is neither accurate nor inclusive. It is a long time since there's been any empire that was able to set standards of measurement for the whole world or even for portions of it. Imperial units is even less appropriate for use in connection with units with old style names in the USA; Imperial units were never used in the USA as the Imperial units of the British Empire were developed, in England, after the USA became an independent nation.

IP, fp, or ifp

These are popular with technical people. IP for inch-pound units, fp for foot-pound, or ifp for inch-foot-pound are neither accurate nor inclusive. These names are sometimes appropriate in an engineering context but they are of less use in other fields. They are also unsatisfactory on other grounds, since many old units, such as the gallon or acre, have little to do with inches, feet, or pounds. Also, although many non-SI units are related to the pound they are not necessarily related to the inch. In legal terms the old measures were more likely to be based on the foot or the yard rather than the inch. These terms also have the drawback that they do not include any of the obsolete metric units.

Mongrel units

Mongrel units are those that are neither fish nor fowl. These are composite units made up from parts of various methods without definable parentage. Examples are grams per mile, pounds per tonne, watts per square inch, ounces per square metre, and micrograms per square foot. Some mongrel units can be quite hard to detect. An old practice, based on the misunderstanding of the difference between a pound of mass and a pound of weight, is sometimes reintroduced into metric systems and a kilogram is used in place of the correct unit, a newton. One of the most common mongrel units is the kilowatt-hour that consists of an SI unit, kilowatt, coupled with an old Babylonian unit, hour, and it is used to measure electrical energy. In my opinion, mongrel units are the worst kind of units and should be avoided at all times.


Non-SI is accurate and inclusive but many people don't yet know what SI means. Besides non-SI is clumsy to say and it is too similar to SI.


NSIU for non-SI units is technically correct but seems vague; it sounds more like the abbreviation of the name of a university.

Pre-metric measuring words

I tend to use this as a holdall description to refer to all of the old hodge-podge of randomly generated measuring words. You will note that I avoid the word units as I find it difficult to recognise almost all of the old measuring words as any kind of unit. For example, if someone uses the word inch in my hearing, my immediate reaction is to ask, 'Which inch?' as I know that there are many of these and they are all different. The same applies to barrels, feet, miles, pounds, tons, yards, and so on ...

Olde English Mixture of units

Olde English Mixture of units has the same problems as English units. It is also confusing because many non-SI units are recent inventions; they're not old. For example, the inch, the foot, and the yard did not have standard lengths until 1959; and even then they were only standardised for English speaking nations. The pouce, or French inch, still has no definition.

Standard units

Standard units, sometimes written as Std. and sometimes as USS for US Standard, is not appropriate, as it is not accurate. There is only one truly international system of standard units, and that is the International System of Units (SI). SI is the world standard in all countries in the world, and this has been true since the late nineteenth century. Even in the USA – the last country in the world to change to SI – the metre and the kilogram have been their legal standards since 1893.

Systems (of various kinds)

System as in 'English system', 'Imperial system' or ‘USA system’ is totally wrong because there never was a complete system, just part systems or random mixtures of units. These terms should be avoided since most of the old units are unrelated and certainly do not constitute any sort of coherent 'system.'


WOMBAT standing for 'Ways of Measuring Badly in America Today' has some merit as a derogatory description of old measuring words in the USA. As an Australian, I also need to point out point out that a wombat is a robust tunnelling mammal famed for its slowness of movement.

I am indebted to many contributors to the U. S. Metric Association for many of the names in this list that try to describe old measuring words and methods.

So to return to the question:

'What is the best name for the old measures used in the USA?'

I have noticed over the last year that I:

  • avoid the word unit when discussing old measuring words – it is hard to think of an inch as a 'unit' when I know so many different definitions of the word, 'inch'. This discomfort also applies to other old measuring words with multiple different definitions; barrel, foot, mile, ounce, pound, ton, and yard are only some of the many other examples.

  • use the phrase, 'old pre-metric measuring words' as this seems to cover the situation for almost all of the words in the list.

3 Oddities

Femtochemistry (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femtochemistry ) is developing rapidly. Advanced laser techniques are used to investigate the action of chemical transformation as individual molecules collide, chemical bonds are broken, and new ones form. Measurements are made using femtoseconds. A leader of this work is Ahmed H. Zewail who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his chemical developments using femtoseconds. His students know Ahmed H. Zewail's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology as 'femtoland'.

4 Tips – pointers and methods to make your measurements easier.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in the USA celebrates National Metric Week in the week that contains the date 10/10. During National Metric Week, teachers in the USA focus on the importance and convenience of the metric system.

Even though, in 1988, Congress declared the metric system to be:

... our preferred system of measurement for trade and commerce ...

the USA is still the only developed country that does not openly use the metric system as its everyday measuring method. To the NCTM, metrication is regarded as an essential long-term component of a strong economy, a vigorous science community, and a well-educated population. Although NCTM probably never intended that National Metric Week should apply internationally many other people around the world also hold Metric Week activities.

One thing you can do to promote the metric system at your work place is to pin pro-metric items on to notice boards around your school or work place. Here are some that you might like to download and print ready for 'National Metric Week' in the USA.

For a general-purpose notice board think about:

/docs/degreesCelsiusPoster.pdf ,

/docs/NationalMetricDay.pdf and


Or if you work in a scientific or engineering environment you might like:


The 'National Metric Week' is strongly supported by the U.S. Metric Association; see http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/metric-week.html for details.

As a gift for your friends and to remind them of 'National Metric Week' you might like to pass along this one minute YouTube reference to 'Let's Get Metric' by Scott Wheatley: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeyGEwjLPGw

Or if you want to illustrate the cost of not going metric refer them to the YouTube video, American Chopper vs The Metric System, where the mechanics are trying to figure out the answer to the question: 'What is the difference between 180 millimetres and 140 millimetres'? except they seem unaware of the initial metric design and build specifications for this model bike, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Omh8Ito-05M

And finally a YouTube reference for schools apparently made with the support of NASA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQPQ_q59xyw&feature=rec-HM-rev-rn

5 Signs of the times

Bill Hooper, from Florida, wrote:

I was browsing in the auto shop while my car was being serviced the other day and came across something I always 'knew' in the abstract but, about which, I did not know the specific details. Maybe you all knew this (or similar examples) but here it is in case you didn't.

They were selling two almost identical sets of socket wrenches, one in Ye Olde English units, the other in metric:

The sizes of the sockets in the Y.O.E. set were: 5/16, 3/8, 7/16, 1/2, 9/16, 5/8 and 3/4 inches.

The sizes of the metric sockets were: 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 17 millimetres.

The Olde English units were marked on the sockets with quotation marks to indicate inches (e.g. 5/16" for five-sixteenths of an inch) while the metric units were indicated by "MM" for millimetres (e.g. 9 MM for nine millimetres). The examples show so well how metric is simpler to understand and easier to use, that one can almost excuse the use of the wrong symbol for millimetres.

Bill (72 kg body mass) Hooper

6 Quotation

If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito. Old African proverb

7 Q&A


When the Earth was surveyed to establish the length of the metre, did they choose the line of longitude that 'passed through Paris'?


Not quite. The line they chose lies slightly to the west of Paris. To get the longest possible line for their researches they chose to go from Dunkerque in France (Latitude 51°02'N, Longitude 02°20'E) to Barcelona in Spain (Lat. 41°18'N, Long. 2°06'E) and this took them off the direct line that passed through Paris (Lat. 48°51'N, Long. 2°20'E). As a matter of interest, the line they measured from Dunkerque to Barcelona was 1081.481 481 kilometres long and, in 1999, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of placing the standard metre in the French Archives on 1799 June 22, many people celebrated with a long lunch by placing tables all along the meridian line for a picnic lunch!

And in the year 2000 my wife an I held a party for the 200th anniversary of the metric system on the winter solstice in June in Geelong with 25 close friends. One surprise was a potato, sent to us in response to our party invitation, with an equator around its middle and Paris marked on it. We served our last ‘pounds and ounces’ plum pudding of the twentieth century, using Wendy’s grandmother's recipe, with threepences, sixpences and one lucky shilling lurking in its depths. My plan was to dub this the 'pound pudding' and to pour something combustible (say brandy) all over it and set fire to it. In the end Wendy convinced me that brandy flames would be invisible in the middle of the day, so I contented myself with the thought that the 'pound pudding' would be consumed, digested, and ultimately would pass into history, in the same way that plum puddings usually pass into history!

8 Rule of thumb

The capacity of your lungs varies according to how you use them:

  • The air taken in with a single breath during quiet breathing (technically called tidal air) is about 300 mL in women and 500 mL in men.

  • The air taken in with the deepest possible breath (complemental air) is between 1200 mL and 1500 mL.

  • The air that that you can force out of your lungs (supplemental air) is also between 1200 mL and 1500 mL.

  • The air that remains in your lungs and that cannot be blown out (residual air) is about 1500 mL.

9 History

During a recent discussion on the U. S. Metric Association mail list a reference was made to 'fitting a quart into a pint pot' – see http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/listserv.htm to which I responded:

Dear Bill and Stan,

Your reference to the old – now out-dated – pints and quarts reminded me of a reference to the birth of Isaac Newton. It is said that when he was born prematurely he wasn’t expected to live because he was too small. The expression at the time was that he would fit inside a quart pot. See: http://space.about.com/cs/astronomyhistory/a/isaacnewtonbio.htm and http://www.lycos.com/info/isaac-newton--woolsthorpe-manor.html for details of Isaac Newton's early life.

As a quart was roughly the same size as a litre we can guess that his birth mass must have been close to 1000 grams – or perhaps even less than this – to fit into a litre container.

I suppose that you could compare Isaac Newton with the world record surviving small baby. At 260 grams, this baby would go close to fitting into a 250 millilitre kitchen cup. See http://news.dcealumni.com/214/1002-worlds-smallest-baby-sent-home

By the way, my rule of thumb for babies is:

Small baby 2500 grams

Normal baby 3500 grams

Big baby 4500 grams

10 Hidden metric

Simon Meng wrote to report on a storm in China. Simon referred to an article that appeared on Yahoo news at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090810/ap_on_re_as/as_asia_storm Simon wrote:

Morakot, meaning emerald in Thai, slammed into China's Fujian province Sunday afternoon carrying heavy rain and winds of 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

If you play the video, you are linked to an ABC news video. When the ABC video ends, a CBC video begins to play. The Canadian reporter when giving any measurements uses metric only and gives the wind speed as 120 km/h.

So how did 120 km/h become 119 km/h in the article? It seems Anne Huang, author of the article must have converted the 120 km to 74.56 miles, rounded it to 74 miles and then reconverted it back and rounded it to 119 km.

How often does metric data get corrupted this way and what can be done to stop it?

Notice this sentence:

Typhoon Morakot dumped up to 80 inches (two meters) of rain on some communities ...

It sounds like the Canadian reporter says the rainfall was 2900 mm then says that is over 2 m. Anne Huang, author of the article somehow missed the extra 900 mm, which would make the rainfall closer to 3 m.

Are these types of errors common with AP reporters? I can see why they don't leave an email address to contact them, as they would get flooded with messages pointing out their constant errors.

Simon Meng

Note ISO 1000 compatibility using upright type for metric system units – thanks Michael!


You can get a copy of the USA metric system history article from /docs/USAMetricSystemHistory.pdf – this is free and you don't have to sign in.

You can buy your own copy of the Metrication Leaders Guide. This is not free and you can find out whether it is suitable for your circumstances from the web page at /MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html


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 U.S. Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.

Pat is the author of the e-book, Metrication Leaders Guide, that you can obtain from /MetricationLeadersGuideInfo.html

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