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Metrication matters - Number 96 - 2011-05-10

Metrication matters Number 90 2010-11-10

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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 latest revised of the Metrication matters web page is at http://www.metrictionmatters.com


1 Editorial 2 Feedback - notes and comments from readers 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 Editorial

Words words words

The major successful delaying mechanisms to prevent the full adoption of the metric system has been the preservation of old measuring words. The conservative forces only wanted to keep the words, they had no concept of keeping the definitions of the old measuring words — it was only the words they wanted to keep.

This concept of preserving words — only — is a bit obscure because many, perhaps most, people think they are trying to preserve old measurements when all they are trying to do is keep some old measuring words. They don't care what the words mean or how the meanings might vary from time to time. I will try to explain this with some examples:

1 The French Napoleonic government introduced a completely new group of measuring definitions that they called "mesures usuelles". These measuring words were based on the metric system (as in 1 livre = 500 grams) then divided into halves, quarters, and eighths. The toise was defined as two metres and was divided into 6 pieds and 72 pouces. The pied and the pouce, at 333.3 mm and 27.88 mm were both larger than the previous Paris measures and their London counterparts. Strangely, the "mesures usuelles" introduced a completely new measuring method - based on words - with definitions that had never benn used previously anywhere eles in the world. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesures_usuelles#The_permitted_units for details.

2 Since 1795 the metre has had only one length. On the other hand, between 1795 and now. there have been roughly six different definitions of the inch in the UK and eight different definitions of the inch in the USA. The word, inch is currently a metric inch as it is defined for English-speaking countries as exactly 25.4 millimetres ; the word, inch, is thus protected by using the metric system.

3 In 1893, the Mendenhall Order in the USA used their recently obtained metre to redefine length definitions for the USA (the USA had a new metre standard supplied to them as a result of the USA signing the Treaty of the metre in 1875). This gave the USA a new metric inch, a new metric foot, a new metric yard, a new metric rod, a new metric chain, and a new metric land mile. As long as the words inch, foot, yard, rod, chain, and mile were still available nobody in the civilian population seemed to care that their length had changed (except the professionals who have had to deal with this mess on a daily basis from 1893 to now).

4 In 1972, horse-racing lengths in Australia were changed to metric system. The racing authorities erected distance markers at 200 metre intervals and the jockeys, owners, and trainers called these metric system distances, furlongs. A 1600 metre race was called a mile and to this day races are referred to as one-mile, two-mile, and mile-and-a-half as though nobody noticed that the lengths of the furlong and the mile had changed substantially.

5 Amateur sailors stick like glue to "nautical miles" and "knots", even though these words are defined by the metric system as 1852 metres and 1852 metres per hour. Professional sailors use the Global Positioning System GPS, which is calibrated in metres and kilometres (and has to be dumbed-down for sailors). For professional sailors a useful rule of thumb is that the distance from the equator to either of the poles is near enough to 10 000 kilometres.

6 In 1959, the USA again decided to use the metric system to redefine old measuring words. This then gave the USA another new, new metric inch, a new, new metric foot, a new, new metric yard, a new, new metric rod, a new, new metric chain, and a new, new metric land mile. However, some of the old 1893 metric system definitions were kept as legal entities so many of the new metric definitions also had new, new metric system definitions. Again as long as the words inch, foot, yard, rod, chain, and mile were available nobody seemed to care that their length had changed (and/or been duplicated) yet again (except the professionals who have had to deal with this mess on a daily basis from 1893 to now).

7 In 1989, Margaret Thatcher was experiencing rumblings in the Cabinet from politicians even more conservative than herself. To calm them down she proposed to "save the mile and the pint for Britain". Naturally, having trained in science, she chose to use the metric system mile and the metric system pint (as defined in 1959) for this purpose but decided not to feature which mile and which pint she intended. Perhaps, as a politician, she recognised that a proposal to "save the metric system mile and the metric system pint for the UK" would not carry the same political clout with her Cabinet colleagues. Her efforts proved to be pointless as the Cabinet voted her out of office soon after but the UK is still suffering from the cultural change that Maggie Thatcher induced simply by supporting two old measuring words.

In all of these examples, the participants are clutching at words. They are not trying to keep old measurements and their definitions. It is the words that are most important to most conservative and anti-metric activists. In fact, it is my experience that these good folk don't know much about measurement anyway; they just remember the old measuring words and they desperately want to keep them.

2 Feedback - notes and comments from readers

Some months ago I reported an item about standardisation of hose fittings in the USA where an article at http://www.dailynews.lk/2010/10/14/fea03.asp said:

Subsequently a commission of investigations discovered that there were 600 different sizes and varieties of fire hose couplings in the entire United States! For a quarter century before, the National Board of Fire Underwriters had been campaigning for standardised couplings but with very little support. The famous Baltimore fire was the eye opener and soon afterwards a standard was introduced.

Almost immediately following my report, Marion Moon from California, responded that a similar experience in Germany led to the setting up of their national standards organisation; Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN translates as the German Institute for Standardisation and its standards are now world famous and widely respected.

3 Oddities - measurements from around the world


The gry was to be the basis of a new English measuring method in 1813. The gry was defined to be as small as possible – a gry literally means a 'speck of hair under a fingernail' – so that all measurements could be in whole numbers. The gry was defined as 1/10 of a line, and a line was defined as 1/12 of an inch. This would have referred to the 1813 inch and not the Imperial inch of 1824 or the 1959 English-speaking (international) inch. In modern units the gry would be, as a whole number, about 217 micrometres (or about the thickness of three human hairs).

The defining of the gry was seen, at that time in England, as a move to design a new measuring system to compete with the 'decimal metric system', which at the time was erroneously believed to have been invented in France and not in England. See /who-invented-the-metric-system.html

However, the idea of having a small unit in whole numbers has been successful. The use of millimetres - only - in the building and engineering trades has been an almost immediate success wherever it has been consistently applied.

4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier

When you want to write a letter to gently critique someone's style error in writing metric system units (say writing number and unit without a space like 12m/s or 34km/h) you might like to employ the "sandwich method" that may go something like this:

  • Firstly offer a compliment or a thank-you for using the metric system.
  • Then politely make your criticism, and
  • Finally you offer another compliment, another thank you, or a positive suggestion for success with future metrication.

5 Signs of the times

On 2011-05-06, I entered some metric terms into Google. For a single word I did not use quotation marks but for two or more words I used double quotes. The results were:

  • "metric conversion" returned 1 240 000 hits
  • "metric system" returned 2 290 000 and
  • metrication returned 1 030 000 hits

Over 4 500 000 suggests that there is a lot of interest in finding out about the metric system and how to go about a metrication upgrade.

6 Quotations

"You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight." Jim Rohn

"People with goals succeed because they know where they are going. It's as simple as that." Earl Nightingale

7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers


How fast is a sneeze?


A sneeze leaves your nose at about 45 metres per second (160 kilometres per hour).

8 Rule of thumb

The mass of a single baby in Australia is about 3350 grams, but if it's one of triplets it is about half of this mass at 1700 grams. It is normal for a baby to lose about 10 % of its baby mass just after it is born and then to recover to its birth mass after about 2 weeks.

9 History

Quote from "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,

"Two farthings = One Ha'penny. Two ha'pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and one Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.
In the UK they resisted decimal currency for a long time because they thought that "100 pennies to 1 pound" was too complicated.

10 Hidden metric

It's probably been about 7000 years since people have been railing against cheating in measurement. Here is a quotation from the Bible:

Thou shalt not have in thy bag divers weights, a great and a small. Thou shalt not have in thine house divers measures, a great and a small. Deuteronomy 25:13/14
A common fraud, then as now, is to use one measure for buying and another for selling. These days, quoting a purchase price in barrels of oil to sell later in litres is an everyday example. This practice is doubly corrupt in that it is based on a barrel that never existed.

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.

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

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