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.

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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.


Doubling Down

Double-MeasureBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I lived in Mexico as a boy, it was pointed out by my peers, that rather than drink the more expensive Coke or Pepsi, one should buy a less expensive Cola they called Doblay Cola. I became used to  the pronunciation as Dob-lay and expected it was a Mexican product. Years later I was in the US and saw a bottle of Dob-lay Cola, but suddenly I realized it was actually called Double Cola, and is from the US. When I was surrounded with Spanish, I saw words as all being pronounced as they would be within that environment. The modern bottle of Double Cola shown on the upper left has the marketing copy: “Double Measure Double Pleasure.” In light of the information that follows, it struck me as rather prescient. Recently Amy Young brought an interesting web page to my attention, and again I was faced with an English-French version of what I had experienced with Double Cola.

The university web page has an English translation of the original 1795 metric decree in France. There are a number of declarations about measures, and they are mostly what I would expect, but it offered extra context. It is interesting that the millimeter does not appear to be mentioned, but not exactly shocking.  What did surprise me was item number eight:

8. In weights and measures of volume, each of the decimal measures of these two types shall have its double and  its half, in order to give every desirable facility to the sale of divers items; therefore,  there shall be double liter and demiliter, double hectogram and demihectogram, and so on with the others.

Suddenly, the origin of the incredible name proliferation found in a chart made by the American Metric Association in the 19th Century revealed itself. In my essay Familiarity Versus Simplicity I diagnosed the inclusion of the double gram, demi dekagram, dekagram, double dekagram, demi hectogram, hectogram, double hectogram, demi kilogram and kilogram as a vestigial inclusion of pre-metric thinking. I suspected it had been ad-hoc and was very suspicious that it was introduced by Americans. It had not occurred to me that double in English and double’ in French would both mean well—double or twice an amount. I then realized that double and demi were introduced as concatenation prefixes of sorts. This is not unlike the Ye Olde English prefixes used with metric, like one billion Kilometers or one million Kilometers. The prefix demi (in the linguistic sense) is from Latin dimidium or “divided in half,” via Old French and Middle English, it became demi.

Why on Earth was it so important to include a prefix that is a factor of two rather than ten at the time? We have 3 barleycorns to an inch, but often the inch is divided into halves, quarters, eighths and sixteenths. When moving upward using linear measure it’s 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard and so on. The interest in doubling and halving is not presented for linear measure in the early metric system. There is no double meter or demimeter offered in the 19th century chart. The value of masses and volumes are given double and half values in this metric chart. Why? Probably because it is fairly easy to use a beam scale to halve flour or sugar or beer or whatever. This binary approach would match our Ye Olde English measures right? Well—not exactly.

Isaac Asimov in his work Realm of Measure has this to say:


Binary relationships quickly breakdown in Ye Olde English linear measure, volume and weight. The Troy pound has 12 ounces and the Avoirdupois pound has 16 ounces. Those who claim our Ye Olde English measures are consistent and binary are simply wrong. What is interesting is that the first draft of the metric system had provisions for doubling and halving values. I can only speculate at this point that this inclusion was an attempt to encompass a binary set of measures as a kind of reform of earlier measures that might have been more useful if they had strictly stayed with doubling and halving. This reform was developed at a time before modern scales with analog or digital readouts. When continuous reading scales were introduced, the idea of using a balance scale for everyday measures was moot. There was little reason to use the double or demi designations. I discuss the importance of the creation of a measurement continuum in my essay The Count Only Counts—He Does Not Measure. Modern measurement instruments are more than likely the reason that binary measures began to vanish. When one was no longer chained to binary quantities, it opened up a world where any measure for a product could be realized. Just look at any set of supermarket shelves.

Section 6 of the document calls for the prefix cluster around unity and the myriameter:

6. One-tenth of a meter shall be called a decimeter; and one one-hundredth thereof, a centimeter.

A measure equal to ten meters shall be called a decameter, which furnishes a very convenient measure for surveying.

Hectometer shall signify the length of 100 meters.

Finally, kilometer and myriameter shall be the lengths of 1,000 and 10,000 meters, and shall designate principally the distances of roads.

The incredibly useful millimeter is not listed in the document. The liter is defined and is asserted to be for both dry and liquid measure, as it is to this day.

The original formulation of the metric system as presented in this document illustrates how far we have come in simplifying and thereby  increasing the utility of this ubiquitous system of measures—well ubiquitous outside of the United States.

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Related essay:

Familiarity versus Simplicity


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.