By The Metric Maven
Isaac Asimov Edition
Those who have read my essays realize that I see Isaac Asimov as the greatest science writer that ever lived. I still purchase hardcover copies of his books to augment the paperbacks I own, and then re-read the essays. Isaac was an unwavering promoter of implementing the metric system in the United States throughout his life. Asimov claimed what allowed for his prolific writing was that he was a “speed learner.” I thought about this when I read his essay: “How Many Inches in a Mile?” 1
The good doctor points out that in most ordinary situations this question would never come up, but then shifts to an every day question:
Suppose you have a rectangular living room that is 12 feet 6 inches in one direction and 18 feet 4 inches in the other. You are going to carpet that from side to side and fore to aft, and would like to get some sort of an idea what it will cost. The carpeting is sold at a price which is so much per square yard. Therefore, you have to know the area of the of the room in square yards.
You are welcome to work this out for yourself right now. The necessary information you may need is that there are 12 inches to the foot and 3 feet to the yard. It may also be useful to know that there are 144 square inches to the square foot and 9 square feet to the square yard. Or perhaps you prefer to make use of the fact that there are 36 inches to the yard and 1,296 square inches to the square yard.
This essay was written in 1971, in an age where electronic calculators were an expensive novelty, and most computations were done by hand. Many times in my father’s print shop I would see boxes of paper with numbers and calculations scrawled on them. It is something which has completely vanished in modern times. Isaac points out that it took him about four times, using different conversion methods to determine the value consistently. He then interjects “(Actually, the area of the room is almost 25 1/2 square yards: 25.46 to be a little more exact.)”
He then goes on to observe:
But why is it so hard to do such a problem? After all, to work out the area of a rectangle we need only multiply the lengths of adjacent sides. A rectangle that is 12 feet by 18 feet is 12 x 18 or 216 square feet in area.
The trouble seems to be that what is easy where only feet are involved becomes difficult when inches and yards are dragged in as well, because one unit goes into another an inconvenient number of times. Why are there 3 feet to the yard? Why not 2, or 4? Why 12 inches to the foot? Why 5280 feet to the mile.
Asimov then examines the obscure origins of the farrago of units that some call US Customary, and I call Ye Olde English, or medieval units as they pre-date the British Imperial System of units, and originated in medieval times. When thinking of the confused list of US units, my mind goes back to a conversation in the movie Apocalypse Now! where Willard is sent up river to terminate Coronel Kurtz’s command, and states that part of the reason for this, was that his methods were deemed unsound. Kurtz asks if now that he was there, if his methods appeared unsound, Willard replies “I don’t see any method—at all.”
After an interlude with Roman miles, furrows, fluid ounces, gills, pints quarts, gallons, firkins, hogseheads, gallons, pecks, bushels, Imperial gallons (gas sold in Canada at the time), ounces, pounds (Troy and Avoirdupois)….and you get the idea, he finally settles down to discussing the metric system, and his original problem:
Suppose, for instance, you have a rectangular room which is 32 decimeters, 4 centimeters long and 49 decimeters 6 centimeters wide, and you want to carpet it completely at a price of so much a square meter. That sounds like the earlier problem in yards, feet, and inches, but—-
Anyone using the metric system sees at once that 32 decimeters 4 centimeters is equal to 32.4 decimeters or 3.24 meters; and that 49 decimeters 6 centimeters is equal to 49.6 decimeters or 4.96 meters. The area is 3.24 x 4.96, or just about 16.07 square meters. You have that one nasty multiplication to make and no divisions.
All the rest is taking care of the decimal point.
Oh, my, this is an example of forcing pre-metric thinking on the metric system. Decimeters are treated like tiny feet, and centimeters are virtual inches. There is no reason to use two units to describe a single distance! As I’ve pointed out ad nausum here, metric construction uses millimeters only! It is still true that to this day you will find feet and inches with fractions on a US tape measure; on a proper metric tape measure, you have only a single unit, millimeters. In the case of Isaac’s example, we would have measured 3240 mm and 4960 mm in each direction. Clearly the unit we want is square meters, so, using the idea that metric is better by 1000, we see this is 3.240 meters by 4.960 meters, and we multiply those together without involving any mixed units at all!
But remember, this essay was published in 1971. English speaking nations viewed metric conversion as something in their future, and still used Olde English Units or Imperial everyday. New Zealand and Australia had only begun metrication in 1969 and 1970. Canada began two years later in 1973, and is still not complete. There was very little experience with using metric at the time, or any examination of its best usage.
By the 1980s, enough experience had been achieved by nations such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and others to see the rational for using only millimeters in housing construction, milliliters for volume, and grams for mass. Isaac, the speed learner, wrote the book The Measure of The Universe in 1983, and by then had come around to realizing that centimeters were a hindrance, and millimeters produced smooth metric usage. He dropped the idea of multiple units, and entered more modern metric usage. The United States on the other hand is a no learner, and not even a slow learner when it comes to metric, despite the passing of more than three decades since Asimov’s updated work was published.
Dr Asimov saw a number of problems associated with lack of the metric system in the US:
For one thing, only American children will waste incredible numbers of hours trying to ram into their heads an unlearnable system, when they might be learning something useful instead. Only American children will have this additional reason for learning to hate school. All other school children, including Russians and Chinese, dismiss the measurement system in a day of explanation and a week of practice.
What else? All scientists everywhere, even in the United States, use the metric system exclusively in their scientific labors. Everywhere else, scientists use the metric system in daily life and learn it as children. In the United States, scientists learn the metric system only late in life and have to keep on using the common system also. It means that American scientists are never quite as much at home with their basic language of measurement as are all other scientists.
The lack of the metric system in everyday use, also isolates the US public from science, at a time when most serious problems we face require scientific understanding to address them.
What else? Only American industry makes use of the inches and pounds. The rest of the world is on the metric system. A double standard must therefore be used in international trade, with ourselves on the losing side.
The United States must accept the metric system sooner or later, then. It is not too late now. Would that it had been done long ago in the infancy of the republic, but better now than later.
The political powers that be in the US have chosen an indefinite later, to our disadvantage as a nation.
1 Asimov, Isaac, Today Tomorrow and …… Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York 1973 pg 147.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute.
Fisherman Jeremy Wade was in Sydney Australia looking for an extinct fish which might still exist. He began his research by visiting a fish market there. I could not help but note the clearance sign at the market, and the units it used:
Now if they would only use lower case mm, as others in Australia do.