Metrification for the masses

*  When they weren’t lopping off every other person’s head in France during the revolution which began in 1789, reformers in that country seized the opportunity to make all kinds of other acute changes.  In 1791 for instance, the French Academy of Sciences was instructed to create a new system of measurements and units.  For two centuries now the rest of the world has been brow beaten and cajoled into adopting this sublime system of weights and measures and this process is called metrification.  While most nations have capitulated to the apparent intellectual supremacy or empirical advantages of the metric system, there are still some holdouts in the world.  After two centuries these non-metricated miscreants still drive the more rabid reformatory zealots of metrification, nuts.  Perhaps there are logical reasons in a few instances, not attached to loyalty or laziness, that compel these non-metric holdouts to hang onto some traditional weights and measures.

*  Feeling particularly erudite the reformatory French academics chose to base this metric system on natural values that were unchanging and reproducible, and to use numerical units based on the powers of ten.  Unchanging natural values were hard to coral back in 1791 so the official definitions of all the basic metric units have undergone several changes since then.  The metre is the most fundamental metric unit and from it the other units were originally derived.  American dictionaries, spell checkers and text books won’t even spell the word right.  Technically a “meter” is just a measuring device.  If you’re going to adopt French units you might as well swallow their spelling.   Like the non-metric nautical mile, the metre was originally conceived as being a portion of the earth’s circumference.

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*  While the older nautical mile was defined as a minute (1/60th of a degree) of arc along a meridian of the Earth, the new metre was conceptualized as being 1/20,000,000th part of that same meridional distance.  Even before the oblatness of the earth was realized, French surveyors in the 1790’s determined a very fair approximation of what a metre should be.  Since that time the length of the metre has grown 0.2 mm longer.  Today most air and sea navigators still prefer to use non-metric nautical miles rather than kilometers because when using charts (nonlinear, 2-dimensional, mercator projections or maps) it makes life a lot easier.

*  It quickly became self evident that the intended international reproducibility of an accurate metre using the meridional definition was so impractical that a physical artifact had to be produced. In 1799 a platinum bar called the “mètre des Archives” was made and used as a copy reference.  In 1875 “Convention du Mètre” or Metre Convention was instituted to oversee the development of the metric system.  Conceived at the same time CGPM (“Conférence générale des poids et measures” or the General Conference on Weights and Measures) was established to democratically coordinate international participation by holding meetings every 4-6 years.  Broad acceptance of metrification did not really begin to take hold until after WWII and the creation of the European Union. SI or “Système International d’Unités” is today’s official name for the metric system as ordained by the CGPM in 1960.

Confusion and inconstancy

*  There are inconsistencies in the metric system.  The redefinitions of base units have been frequent.  The SI crowd has begrudgingly adopted non decimal units like seconds of time because they can produce no better alternative.  The SI intellectuals have regularly discouraged the use of seemingly compatible units and nomenclature simply because they themselves did not originally create or sanction them.  These same intellectuals have also adopted redundant and unnecessary units and nomenclature when simpler alternatives already existed.  Some unpopular and clumsy sounding SI units are floating around.

*  The currently approved MKS (metre, kilogramme, second) system of units supplanted the older CGS (centimeter, gram, second) system.  It was once simple to think of a gram in terms of the weight one cubic centimeter of water at the melting point of ice.  Although originally a base unit the litre (or liter) is no longer even an official SI unit!  The kilogram originally equaled the mass of a litre (1,000 cubic centimeters) of that same cold, pure water.  Obviously these definitions were not good enough because they no longer apply.  The kilogram is the only metric base unit that hasn’t been redefined in terms of unchanging natural phenomenon.  The authoritative kilogram is an object!  You can’t just produce an accurate kilogram in your laboratory located in Timbuktu.  In a dark vault somewhere in Paris sits a precious SI manufactured artifact.  Today’s official kilogram is a cylinder of 90% platinum and 10% iridium alloy.  Where once the metre was defined as one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator, it was eventually redefined as a multiple of a specific radiation wavelength.  Today’s official redefinition of the metre is as a fractional part of the distance traveled by light in a vacuum.

*  The concept of time and the replacement of legacy time units with suitable modernized counterparts have vexed zealous metric reformers for two centuries.  Years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds are not decimally related.  We are gifted with impressive sounding terms like nanoseconds, kiloseconds or milliseconds but the ‘second of time interval’ is adopted by the metric system; it was not an original metric unit.  It was belatedly defined by SI as being: 1/86,400th of a mean solar day.  The metric second was later redefined in terms of astronomical observations.  Even later the second was redefined by the oscillations of a tuning fork, and then again by oscillations of a quartz crystal.  Today the SI second is officially defined as- “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom”.  Who knows how they’ll redefine the second, next year?

*  Whereas a regular non-metric Imperial ton (or short ton) weighs 2,000 lbs, a ‘long ton’ or ‘gross ton’ typically used in shipping cargo weighs 2,240lbs.  A “metric ton” or “tonne” weighs 1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 lbs.  When appending the prefix “kilo” to ton, things start to get confusing.  In terms of explosive force a kiloton might mean the equivalent of 1,000 metric tons of TNT.  As a unit of weight or mass however a kiloton might mean either 2,000,000 lbs or the same as a kilotonne (2,204,622.6 lbs).  A gigagram would equal a kilotonne but that term is infrequently used.

* The seven current hallowed SI base units are the metre, kilogram, second, ampere, candela, mole and kelvin.  The Kelvin scale is an absolute thermometric scale but units are not referred to as degrees.   We normally call increments of temperature “degrees” because of a decision made way back in 1724 by a German physicist named D.G. Fahrenheit.   The Fahrenheit scale divides the range between the freezing and boiling points of water into 180 equal parts – like the degrees in geometry for half a circle.   D.G. Fahrenheit also invented the glass/mercury thermometer.   About two decades later but still well before the French reforms a Swedish astronomer named A. Celsius, borrowed Fahrenheit’s idea but divided the range by only 100 equal parts.  Originally Celsius’s scale ran backwards or counter intuitive to today’s usage but that situation was reversed after his death in 1744.   From 1744 to 1948 the units of what we now call the Celsius scale were better known as degrees of “centigrade“.   Eventually an Irish/British physicist named W.T. Kelvin comes along with further suggestions for improvement.   The Kelvin scale begins at absolute zero – there is nothing colder.   To make the Kelvin (K) scale fit in with the decimalized Celsius scale, the triple point of water (where gas, liquid, and solid phases of water coexist in thermodynamic equilibrium) had to be defined as exactly 273.16 K.   In other words the base ten loving SI / metric system uses for one of its base units, values derived from a very inconsistent fraction (1 / 273.16 – whose ungainly reciprocal is 0.003661).

Discouraged, clumsy, slang or unneeded

*  Created by a Swedish astrophysicist the tiny increment of length called an angstrom is exactly equivalent to 0.1 nanometre or 0.000,000,0001 metres.  Mention however of the non-Imperial and non-metric but internationally recognized angstrom is officially discouraged by the SI’s International Committee for Weights and Measures.  The small calorie itself was a pre-SI metric unit of energy defined in the 1820’s as the energy needed to raise 1 gram of water, by 1º C.  The dietary calorie (kilogram, large or food calorie) is 1,000 times larger.  The small calorie is obsolete or replaced in preference by the official SI “joule”.  Megbars, kilobars, bars, decibars, centibars and millibars of atmospheric pressure – are not SI units.  It takes 100,000 SI legitimate pascals to equal one bar.  One bar is roughly equivalent to one standard atmospheric pressure at sea level (14.69 psi or 101,325 pascals).  Meteorologists and weather reporters usually prefer to describe changes in air pressure in terms of millibars rather than in the exactly equivalent hectopascals; it just sounds better.  In oceanography during a decent from the surface, drop in metres and increased water pressure in decibars correspond nicely.

*  In an weak attempt to sound sophisticated a scientific journalist might employ the term “kiloannum” to impress his audience rather than use the simpler terms “millennia” or “a thousand years”.  Students might use the jargon “Fermi” rather than the more proper but awkward SI term femtometre to describe infinitesimal nuclear distances.  Attometres, zeptometres and yoctometres are smaller yet.  In astronomy where great distances are expressed one might seldom encounter the SI terms megametre, gigametre, terametre, petametre, exametre, zetametre or yottametre.  The most common vernacular one finds instead are the non-metric light year, parsec and astronomical units.  The “astronomical unit” (which is roughly the mean distance between earth and sun) was thought up in the 1970’s by the IAU (International Astronomical Union – also hosted by France) to patch up shortcomings in regular SI units caused when incorporating general relativity theory.  SI brings us gawky sounding terms like “gray” and “sievert”.  Theses terms were added to the dictionary not because they were necessary, but because they could be branded by SI authorities whereas “rad” and “rem” could not.  A gray is simply 1,000 times bigger than a rad and both units express energy radiated or absorbed.  A sievert is simply 100 times bigger that a rem and both units attempt to adjust radioactive dosages by accounting for type of tissue and type of radiation.

A Short Imperial unit background 

*  Maligned and criticized for still using Imperialistic old fashioned weights and measurements when the rest of the world does not, the American public has shown resistance to metrification.  Primarily a British colony in the beginning, America inherited British imperial units, which were in turn heavily influenced by historic French and even ancient Roman measurements and weights.  The avoirdupois system of weights that Americans favor was actually developed by the French.  The Troy weight system of units of mass still used in many locations around the world for quantifying precious commodities like gold, platinum, silver, gemstones and gunpowder – is also French (believed to be named for the French market town of Troyes in France).  Closely related to Troy weight, the apothecaries’ system of weights favored by physicians, apothecaries and early scientist has roots reaching all over central Europe and the Mediterranean.  The apothecaries’ system of weights was still being used by American physicians and pharmacist into the 1970’s.  After America separated from the British Empire the Americans kept the legacy units pretty much intact while the British did not.  Parliament by meddlesome act or decree and mostly for the purpose of increased taxation, continued to make small changes to certain units of mass and volume.  These changes caused much confusion between American and British (pre-metric) imperial units, which still exist today.

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*  Without digressing too far from the subject of metrification: it should be explained that without the discrepancy between wine and beer cask and the British adoption (1824) and eventual retraction of the “stone” unit, that the impetus behind a one world metric system would never have been so great.  The legislated stone unit demanded a redefinition of several standard weights.  Today’s Imperial gallons, bushels and barrels are so screwed up because yesteryear’s hogsheads (drytight cask filled with wine, beer, liquor, whale oil, tobacco, sugar or molasses) were of different sizes.  A hogshead of wine has traditionally held more volume than a hogshead of beer.  In its defense Parliament did try to standardize hogshead volume back in 1423 but this had little effect.  Coopers at different locations made cask as they saw fit and eventually there became an accepted and even official difference in hogshead volumes depending on contents.  A multiplicity of different gallon, bushel and barrel definitions followed suit.  The UK Imperial gallon springs from the ale gallon but the U.S. liquid gallon is based upon the 1707, Queen Anne wine gallon.  Even today this curious distinction between wine and beer continues as the American BATF and Treasury Department require different labeling on the two beverages.  Wine and stronger spirits are labeled only in liters or milliliters while beer containers are labeled only in gallons, quarts, pints or ounces.

* The bushel used to be a measure of volume for grain, agricultural produce or other dry commodities.  Bushels are now most often used as units of mass or weight rather than of volume.  It should be realized that a bushel of each commodity in the mercantile exchange market is completely unique and different.  A bushel of corn weighs 56 lbs. but a bushel of soybeans or wheat weighs 60 lbs.  A bushel of plain barley weighs 48 lbs. but a bushel of malted barley weighs only 34 lbs.  A bushel of oats in the U.S. weighs 32 lbs. but across the border in Canada, it weighs 34 lbs.  Okra weighs 26 lbs. per bushel and Kentucky Blue grass seed only 14 lbs.  Many other commodities exist, whose specific values fluctuate according to the jurisdiction (country to country; state to state).  Pork bellies (the valuable bacon only) are traded by weight (one unit equals 20 tons of frozen, trimmed bellies).  The rest of the hog’s carcass in a commodities market is expressed as Lean Hog futures.  Refined oil might be shipped in 55 gallon drums (first created in WWII to ship liquids) but crude oil is measured and traded on the standard 42 U.S. gallon, historic common wooden barrels of yesteryear.  Barrels of other commodities often contain a volume of 31.5 U.S. gallons.

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*  Where the Imperial system does not fail and probably needed no replacement is in its units of length, distance and area.  Imperial units of length were intuitively developed over the ages.  Metric units of length might be more easily abstracted numerically in calculations for pencil pushing types, but these are not nearly so instinctive for everyday usage.  Engineers and architects seldom have to build what they design; that labor falls to builders, millwrights, manufacturers, fabricators and others who work with real materials on a daily basis.

*  Consider the Imperial ruler or tape measure and its metric counterpart.  Working with fractions a fairly accurate Imperial ruler could be reconstructed by almost anyone given an empty room, a pencil, a pair of scissors and a strip or two of unmarked paper exactly one yard in length.  Feet, inches, half-inches, quarter-inches, eight-inches and perhaps sixteenth-inches could be adequately marked upon a blank yard long strip of paper.  In contrast it would quickly be realized that an adequate depiction of centimeters and millimeters could not be intuitively described upon a blank, metre long strip of paper.  There can be another eloquence in fractions.  Builders and fabricators familiar with feet and inches can often perform the type of mental arithmetic that would send their decimal loving metric counterparts scurrying for the nearest calculator or pencil.

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*  Americans find many customary units desirable and appropriate.  Non SI unit terms like liquid ounces, shots, gills, noggins, fifths, teaspoons, cups, pints, quarts, gallons, barrels, board feet, pecks, bushels, BTUs, milibars, carats, cycles per second, pounds, ounces, troy ounces, drams, tons, caliber, mils, standard gauge, rods, chains, inches, feet, yards, furlongs, miles, nautical miles, fathoms, knots, picas, angstroms, light years, parsecs, acres, townships and sections remain in the American vernacular.  The sluggish progress in thorough American metrification has been excused as the result of ignorance, laziness or complacency by the public.  That may be.  Remember though that American schools have versed students in the metric system for the last 50 years or more.  We can use SI whenever we want to.  We’ve experienced strong-arm attempts to have SI foisted upon us as in the Metric Conversion Act and the Fair Packaging & Label Act.

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*  Never the perpetrators of a bloody social revolution like the Russian one, or France’s where mobs decapitated anyone who thought differently or had money, Americans might simply resist metrification because they resist anything totalitarian by nature.  That’s what metrification is; a totalitarian ideal.  It request the wanton destruction, scourge, eradication and abandonment of any other competing form of weights and measurement.  So who’s the real bigot; the unassuming Japanese or American builder who finally learns how to use a conventional tape measure well and sees no reason to change it or some frustrated high school chemistry teacher who wants a dumb-ed down tape measure and for all other alternatives in the world to be immediately destroyed?

*  An otherwise thoroughly metricated country, Japan’s carpenters, builders and realtors still favor their shakkanho length measurements which were acquired from ancient China.  The shaku is the base unit and was originally the length from the thumb to the extended middle finger (about 18 cm or 7 in).  That length grew to approximately 30.3 cm, or 11.93 inches (Kanejaku or “carpenter’s square” shaku).  Floor space in a Japanese house is usually described in terms of a number of single traditional straw tatami mats or a square of two tatami mats (tsubo).  The koku, defined as 10 cubic shaku is still used in Japanese lumber trade.

*  In order to prevent fines and prosecution that other non-SI compliant merchants in Europe have been hit with, the British and Irish have seen fit to pass legislation which protects their traditional non-SI whiskey and beer rations (like gills, pints and Imperial gallons).  When it came to alcohol, it seems as if the rigors of metrification hit a little too close to home.   The UK decimalized its currency back in 1971 and it is the only EU member to have retained its own monetary system- which is also the oldest monetary system still in use.   Few things are as frustrating for a foreigner to comprehend as the meaning of old English tower pounds, sterling pounds, gold sovereigns, guineas, quid, fivers, coppers, crowns, shillings, sixpence, halfpennys, farthings and tuppence.  If there were space enough left in this post these could be explained.  Some of the old legacy Imperial units mentioned previously have very interesting backgrounds as well but explanations will have to wait.  The topic of this post has been the triumphant march of metrification and the liberating, joyful piece of mind and harmony it will bring to the world once its total acceptance is finally complete. —————————–

Captured from an e-mail years ago: somewhere an anonymous wit promotes these additional units – lest they become forgotten in the march of time also…

* 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope

* Ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

* 2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton

* Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond

* Weight an evangelist carries with God = 1 billigram

* Time it takes to sail 220 yards at 1 nautical mile per hour = Knotfurlong

* 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling

* Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon

* 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz * Basic unit of laryngitis = 1 hoarsepower

* Shortest distance between two jokes = 1 straight line

* 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake

* 1 million-million microphones = 1 megaphone * 2 million bicycles = 2 megacycles

* 365.25 days = 1 unicycle

* 2000 mockingbirds = 2 kilomockingbirds

* 52 cards = 1 decacards

* 1 kilogram of falling figs = 1 FigNewton

* 1,000 milliliters of wet socks = 1 literhosen

* 1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche

* 1 trillion pins = 1 terrapin

* 10 rations = 1 decoration

* 100 rations = 1 C-ration

* 2 monograms = 1 diagram

* 4 nickels = 1 paradigms

* 2.4 statute miles of intravenous surgical tubing at Yale University Hospital = 1 IV League and…

* 100 Senators = Not 1 good decision

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12 thoughts on “Metrification for the masses

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