Realm of Measure

Realm_of_MeasureBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It can be interesting to read books from a bygone era about measurement. The current attometer per Zettasecond pace of metric change in the US requires one to look back historically to notice any change at all. I recently read the 1960 book Realm of Measure by Isaac Asimov. It is an interesting time capsule with which to compare the world of 1960 to current times. Early in the book (pg 4) Asimov asserts:

Even in modern times we are still refining our measurements. And although the world’s nations quarrel so desperately that it would seem they could never agree on anything, all have been honestly co-operating in the establishment of international systems of measurement.

Asimov’s statement indicates that more than one international system of measurement exists in 1960. This makes sense because it was in 1959 when a number of English speaking countries (including the US) finally decided to agree what the length of an inch is—well actually a yard—in terms of the metric system.

After Asimov presents pages of complicated units such as chains and the Russian verst he states (in 1960s vernacular):

Well, surely, you might think, the ingenuity of man can work out a better system. If you think so, you are right. The ingenuity of man has indeed worked out a better system, and this was done a hundred and fifty years ago. Unfortunately, we, in the English-speaking countries, have chosen not to benefit from it.

This better system is of course the Metric System.

Asimov spends time on centimeters and Kilometers in Chapter 3. Twenty-Three years later, when he writes his book The Measure of The Universe, Asimov realizes the non-utility of centimeters, centigrams, centiliters, and so on and makes this clear to his audience. But in 1960 he still introduces a table to convert from hectometers to dekameters, to decimeters, to centimeters. I have argued in the past, that from a twenty first century perspective this usage appears unnecessarily complicated, but when viewed in comparison with the plethora of US Anarchy Units of the era, even this bloated version of the metric system looks like a significant simplification (page 44-47).

The good doctor goes on to introduce the micron (pg 47):

For instance, people who work with cells, bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic objects find it useful to deal with the micrometer, which is one thousandth of a millimeter. (The prefix “micro-” comes from a Greek word meaning “small.”) This unit is very commonly abbreviated to micron, but I think this is sloppy because it hides the relationship to the meter.

Indeed, the micron is still a blemish on the metric system.

The notion of concatenated prefixes is still embraced at this time, which also balloons the metric system with unnecessary complication:

A thousandth of a micrometer is naturally called a millimicrometer, a unit which is invariably abbreviated to millimicron. The millimicrometer is a billionth of a meter and in 1960, the National Bureau of Standards has adopted the prefix “nano-” for a billionth. The millimicrometer may therefore be called the nanometer.

There is also a fatalism and acceptance of eponymous units:

..This unit [nanometer] is small enough to be used conveniently in measuring the lengths of light waves. The Swedish astronomer Anders Jonas Ångstrom suggested, in the 1860s that a tenth of a millimicrometer be used for this purpose. That length could be called a “decimillimicrometer,” I suppose, but no one ever uses that term. It is called simply an Ångstrom unit, in honor of the astronomer. Again, no one can tell from the name what the relationship is to the meter, but the thing is done, and cannot be changed.

The concatenated prefix fun of 1960 does not end there, we can even embrace the bicron if we want (page 48):


The accepted unacceptable ideas of 1960 continue when Asimov explains a contemporary desire to introduce a new unit called the X-unit! A division of this unit would be in honor of Enrico Fermi! Yet another eponymous unit. Here is a table from the text:


Asimov mentions the barleycorn and the mil, which is a feral unit that should have been vanquished from usage decades ago in the US, but is still used ubiquitously in the US Aerospace industry.

The gentle doctor argues for an idea that history and experience will squarely weigh-in against, metric gradualism. If the metric system is slowly introduced in schools he argues, the later adults would not find it so foreign:

Then, little by little, metric measurements should be introduced into common use, without necessarily replacing the common measurements. For instance, distances between cities might be given in both kilometers and miles on road maps. (pg 34)

Dual units only encourage the use of old units. This is clearly the situation in the US. Metric gradualism may eventually work, if one waits 1000 years or so.

The metric system of 1960 often accepts a pre-metric style of usage:


The Megagram is then dissed by Dr Asimov:


Asimov does not indicate that the term Megagram should be commonly used, and just accepts the current farrago of homonyms, where a metric unit is interpreted using a pre-metric Ye Olde English term for context, but I must remember, this is the world of 1960. Unfortunately, it is also the world of 2016. No one seems to notice that metric ton has nine letters and Megagram has eight. So why is the term metric ton so much more acceptable? Too many syllables?

The book lurches back and forth between cgs and mks expression which produces an intellectual vertigo. This dichotomy has always appeared to me as a proxy war between a Ye Olde English usage of the metric system (cgs), with the centimeter as a pseudo-inch, and mks, which would become SI. This struggle continues in the US, but is invisible to its participants. I see cubic centimeters and centipoise used regularly in the US.

One can be thankful that the use of millimicrons, quintals, myriagrams and such have apparently receded into history, even if the micron has not. The idea of X-units, fermis and bicrons have also exited from view. Unfortunately in the US, it is only omission of these bad practices that produce any noticeable change, as metric usage in the the US is of little consequence in the life the average person. It is easy not to use X-units, fermis and myriameters when the entire metric system is invisible in the US, but this omission is not exactly progress.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.


Frankly America, We Don’t ……

America-BeerBy The Metric Maven

Mini Bulldog Edition

Recently my father sent me an image which caused me to ponder the question: “what would the US look like if the rest of the world decided it would no longer support Ye Olde English measures in any way.”

The image below is of a German manufactured sheet-fed offset printing press:


The software and supporting materials for this press are all in metric only. The operators found themselves resorting to their memory to convert from Archaic US Units to metric, which could allow for mistakes when using the press. They finally took the initiative to write up a US paper size to metric size conversion chart and attach it to the press.

Below is a close-up of the conversion chart with US paper size after paper size converted so the correct metric values may be input into the software which operates the printing press. You will also note a second list below the paper sizes. On the left, it appears cover stock is listed. The first example is 12 pt or twelve point thick c/s. This is probably cover stock as its thickness is generally measured in points. The sheet has a thickness of 0.30 mm, or when expressed more rationally with Naughtin’s Laws, would be 300 um (micrometers). The 100 # Cover is one hundred pound cover stock and appears to be 230 um thick. The thickness of the left hand column goes from 180 um to 310 um.


The thicknesses in the right hand column are for ordinary paper. The first example is 20 # (pound) bond or 50 # (pound) offset paper. Both have a thickness of 80 um (0.08 mm). The thickest paper stock is 80 # (pound) gloss text. Why is 80 # gloss text thicker than 100 # gloss text paper?—it could be they do not have a common basis size (you really don’t want an explanation of this).

There is a note for how the blanket for the offset cylinder should be packed, which is explained in my essay The Metric Printing Mystery.

I was a bit surprised to see the largest paper size allowed is 14″ x 20″, as I recall I often printed 17″ x 22″ paper. The equivalent metric size is a bit odd as it is between A3 and A2 sized paper. Metric paper sizes and weight is discussed in The Metric Paper Tiger.

Here is what the input screen for the metric-only printing press looks like:


click to enlarge

A nearby Japanese offset press has Ye Olde English unit settings for its software, but not the German designed press. It made me wonder if a day will arrive when the rest of the world simply “doesn’t give a damn” about catering to US Olde English Units or the US market. What would that world look like inside the US?—a world where all imported products and instructions are all metric only. The amount of US manufacturing has declined precipitously, and someday we could find ourselves staring into a world of metric only goods.

I’ve already purchased French butter that is exclusively labeled in grams, but thus far, Italian pasta, olive oil and such all have ounces and (fluid) ounces along with grams and milliliters. In the case of foodstuffs, it probably would not mean much. Would all our thermostats for our homes, ovens and water heaters suddenly be in Celsius?

If only metric speedometers were available in the US would people in the US simply put a conversion chart on the dash of their car? Imported scales would all be in grams, so would there also be a chart for converting grams to (mass) ounces. If gasoline pumps were sold that would only register liters, would we switch?, or would we instead find a hack to change the readout? What would happen if the rest of the world decided they no longer wanted to make Ye Olde English fasteners and drill bits? What about construction materials for houses?—sheet metal, plastic and other planar materials? Suppose Canada (which has a lot of paper mills) decided to only produce paper that was exclusively metric? Would there ever come a time when it would become obvious to the entire populace that the US should become metric?  When I see ubiquitous conversion charts, I have my doubts.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.