Kiloglugs of Liquid?

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

In a recent episode of Modern Marvels Essentials, on The History Channel, the subject was Freight Trains. Modern train braking systems, which use a combination of air brakes and dynamic brakes, are described. On long downhill grades, the electric motors, which are used to move the train, are used in reverse as electrical generators. This provides mechanical resistance, and slows down the train. This is called dynamic braking. The operator of the train then is shown on screen and states:

“I’m in full dynamic brakes. I’m demanding 35 kilopounds from my motors.”

(click on image to enlarge)

A modern flat panel computer screen is shown, mounted in the cab of the train engine. A small yellow rectangular indicator is then shown with this title: Effort klb, and the number -34 inside of the indicator box. Kilopounds!? WHAT ON EARTH! A metric prefix kilo with the non-metric unit of pound (force). The unit is described as effort?–not force! It seems as though the engineering designers of the train anthropomorphized their creation! Perhaps too many Thomas the Tank Engine reruns? Kilopound “Effort” is simply an American proxy, mongrel retread unit, with an attached human metaphor, created out of thin air. Its use should embarrass American engineers with its absurdity.

A Kilopound?—What will we create next?—the peter for pint-liter?

I was convinced that a unit this ridiculous had to be an aberration, and was created in a single instance of industrial foolishness.

When I next had breakfast with Sven, I related the strange unit and before I could finish my sentence Sven asked with slight surprise and levity:

“Haven’t you heard of a kip?”

My mind screeched to a halt, the walls began to close in on me, and time ceased for a microsecond.

“A what?” I blurted.

“A kip, a kilopound?”

No, in fact, I had not. Sven asserted the “unit” was not uncommon in the US.

I stated with incredulity: “Metric prefixes with non-SI units?—that’s just wrong. It’s twisted.”

Sven told me to look on Wikipedia for Kips, he suspected there would be an entry. There is, and reading it only distressed me further.

A kip is a non-SI unit of force. It equals 1,000 pounds-force, used primarily by American architects and engineers to measure engineering loads. Although uncommon, it is occasionally also considered a unit of mass, equal to 1,000 pounds, i.e. one half of a short ton. One use is as a unit of deadweight to compute shipping charges.

1 kip = 4448.2216 Newtons (N) = 4.4482216 kilonewtons (kN)

The name comes from combining the words “kilo” and “pound”; it is occasionally called a kilopound. Its symbol is kip, or less frequently, klb. When it is necessary to clearly distinguish it as a unit of force rather than mass, it is sometimes called the kip-force (symbol kipf or klbf). Note that the symbol kp usually stands for a different unit of force, the kilopond or kilogram-force.

The kip is also the name of obsolete units of measure in England and Malaysia.

When I checked the reference, I found out that the kip has alternative definitions, making it a retread unit:

In England, at least as early as the 16th – 17th centuries, a unit of count for skins, 30 for lamb and 50 for goat. Also spelled kippe, kyppe, and kipp.


In Malaysia, ? – 19th century, a unit of mass primarily used for tin, about 9.19 kilograms. link to a chart showing relationships between units of mass in Malacca  Said to be equal to 37½ Dutch troy pound, but that is difficult to understand, as it is much closer to 37½ marks trooisch.

Dutch troy pound?—marks trooisch? A kilogram-force?—called a kilopond? Who could confuse that with a kilopound?

Wikipedia made matters worse for my blood pressure by also telling me:

There are also reports of engineers using base-ten SI prefixes in combination with Imperial or US customary units, for example the kiloyard (914.4 m). The kip or kilopound is regularly used in structural engineering. Similarly, the kilofoot is quite common in US telecommunication engineering, as significant distances in cable route planning are usually given in thousands of feet. Instruments like optical time-domain reflectometers usually have an option to display results in kilofeet

Humans seem to relish creating new units, and apparently are most interested in doing so when they have no idea how to use commonly accepted ones—you know—SI.

When I operated an offset printing press years ago I went to a technical lecture on how to understand all the interrelated parameters of this printing method. One needs to mix fountain water of a printing press with a small amount of acidic chemical, generally just called fountain solution. It is then best practice to measure the PH pH of the solution and make certain it’s within an accepted range. If the PH pH varies, and the acidity becomes too large, it can damage the printing plate. As I recall, the amount of fountain solution was about 50 mL to a liter of tap water.

The technical lecturer then related that he was called into a printing company to investigate problems with plate wear and printing quality. He asked the pressman how much fountain solution he puts into a liter of tap water.

The man replied “two glugs.”

Yes, he was taking the bottle of fountain solution, turning the bottle over and counting two glug sounds. He had created a new proxy unit, where sound would be used to measure liquid volume.

I’m sure a lot of American engineers might laugh at this story, but apparently they don’t seem to realize that creating kilopounds, kiloyards, kilofeet is not far from determining the dynamic breaking in kilopounds needed for a set of railroad tanker cars with 500 kiloglugs of water in each.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many American engineers see nothing wrong with feral and mongrel units, and have tried to justify them, rather than “giving in to metric.”  One may not judge a book by  its cover, but I’ve often had a hard time not judging engineers from Engineers according to their preference for metric or not. It’s long past time that American Engineering, Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical, Civil, Nuclear and so on, demand and embrace metric in the US. Unfortunately US engineers may be desensitized to these scientific absurdities because they grew up in the perennial Barley Corn Hillbillies zeitgeist. When one is surrounded by a world measured with imperial and a science classroom where metric is taught in isolation, it’s tough not to be inculcated. However, this is no excuse. In Engineering the simplest way to solve a problem is often the best and most robust. Engineers are taught to express formulas produced from mathematical derivations in the simplest form possible. Why should measurements be any different? Everything you need to express engineering quantities, in the simplest manner possible, is provided by the metric system. One possible way to determine the difference between Engineers and engineers is that the former use kilonewtons (kN) and the later use kilopounds or kips. The feedback I’ve received from well known engineers (and scientists) which I have approached about endorsing metric, has been tepid or non-existent. It seems very much like a “foolish consistency” to me.

America’s Fractional Mind

By The Metric Maven

“This is dialectics, it’s very simple dialectics, one through nine, no maybes, no supposes, no fractions. You can’t travel in space, you can’t go out into space, you know, without like you know, with fractions. What are you going to land on?—one-quarter?, three-eights? What are you gonna do when you go to from here to Venus or something?”

Dennis Hopper — Apocalypse Now!

While Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now! might have been traveling into space without a spacecraft, those who went to the moon in the 1960s did follow his advise about fractions—thankfully! The navigation computer on Apollo 11 was programmed with decimal numbers—in metric. The data internal to the computer was entirely metric. Only when the desired navigational data had been computed was it converted to the “inch-pound” non-system. The computer had such minimal memory that the conversion was a burden. Those who recall the flights might remember that the distances were all given in nautical miles. In America, a sea going romantic metaphor triumphs over measurement clarity.

Every common US measuring tape or ruler with inches on it has fractional divisions. In the US we are all familiar with 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 and 1/32 of an inch.

The very first thing one is taught in school, is that in order to add fractions they must have a common denominator. If one measures 1 3/4″ and wants to subtract that from 2 7/32″ well we have to change 1 3/4″ to 1 24/32″ and then there is more work…..I won’t take you through it, I think I’ve made my point. In decimal inches it would be about 2.22″-1.75″ or 0.47″, but good luck finding an inch ruler with decimal divisions in the US. The other choice is to use an all metric, mm only tape measure, like the Australian construction industry does. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, finding millimeter only tape measures in the US is only marginally easier than locating Amelia Earhart. In this case we would have 56 mm – 45 mm = 11 mm. That was easier, now wasn’t it? Ok, for those who want sub millimeter accuracy in everyday life it’s  56.39 mm – 44.45 mm  = 11.94 mm, yes it’s off by almost a millimeter or 1/25 of an inch.

Tape measures in mm only — Good luck finding one in the US. Click on image to enlarge

The proverbial video which illustrates how arithmetic with fractions can cause confusion features the crew of American Choppers in an epic numerical struggle. American rulers have several sets of fractional divisions. Most of the time, two measurements on an American ruler do not have the same denominator. One can almost never directly add two fractions, but with millimeters and decimals, you always can. If you are willing to live with 1/25 of an inch or so of tolerance, then just use integers.

My friend Thern has asserted many times that even Americans who have worked in construction for many years seldom learn how to read fractional tape measures. Not because they are intellectually challenged, but it’s the user unfriendly nature of fractional divisions. This is why Australians have saved about 10-15% on construction costs compared with the United States since the 1970s. Less material gets wasted and time is more efficiently used. Apparently confusing the fractional divisions on a scale is so easy that some manufacturers have four different fractional scales separated out on the same scale:

A scale with separate scales on each of its edges. Click on image to enlarge

It has been asserted that not having the metric system costs each of us $16.00 per day. When one adds up all the small efficiencies encountered every day in the US, it’s not hard to believe. My friend Lapin showed me a situation that illustrates this point. Lapin is an amateur radio enthusiast, and like most of his cohort has an interest in antenna design. He directed me to a website which has a computer program which will compute the design values for basic types of antennas. The RFID frequency in the US is 915 MHz. I put that number into the program as an example; the output is below:

Click on image to enlarge

Notice all the 1/32 fractions it spits out. My mind recoiled at the output, but I quickly realized that in the US, tape measures are all fractional, so the programmer did what he needed to, to output fractions so one could use an American ruler. The computer program itself is available to view, and uses decimal arithmetic as you might expect, to compute the lengths of A, B, C, D and E. Similar to the computer navigation program on the Apollo 11 mission, it has to compute the fractional values for output at the end of the program, so they will correspond with our 17th century rulers. Don’t be afraid of what is shown next. I only put it in for illustration, you don’t need to understand it. The computer code below is used by the antenna design program to sort out what fractions correspond to what decimal values for display:

if (temp3 <= .03125) fract = “1/32”
else if ((temp3 > .03125) && (temp3 <=.0625)) fract= “1/16”
else if ((temp3 > .0625) && (temp3 <=.09375)) fract = “3/32”
else if ((temp3 > .09375) && (temp3 <=.125)) fract= “1/8”
else if ((temp3 > .125) && (temp3 <=.15625)) fract= “5/32”
else if ((temp3 > .15625) && (temp3 <=.1875)) fract= “3/16”
else if ((temp3 > .1875) && (temp3 <=.21875)) fract= “7/32″
else if ((temp3 > .21875) && (temp3 <=.25)) fract=”1/4″
else if ((temp3 > .25) && (temp3 <=.28125)) fract=”9/32″
else if ((temp3 > .28125) && (temp3 <=.3125)) fract=”5/16″
else if ((temp3 > .3125) && (temp3 <=.34375)) fract=”11/32″
else if ((temp3 > .34375) && (temp3 <=.375)) fract=”3/8″
else if ((temp3 > .375) && (temp3 <=.40625)) fract=”13/32″
else if ((temp3 > .40625) && (temp3 <=.4375)) fract=”7/16″
else if ((temp3 > .4375) && (temp3 <=.46875)) fract=”15/32″
else if ((temp3 > .46875) && (temp3 <=.5)) fract=”1/2″
else if ((temp3 > .5) && (temp3 <=.53125)) fract=”17/32″
else if ((temp3 > .53125) && (temp3 <=.5625)) fract=”9/16″
else if ((temp3 > .5625) && (temp3 <=.59375)) fract=”19/32″
else if ((temp3 > .59375) && (temp3 <=.625)) fract=”5/8″
else if ((temp3 > .625) && (temp3 <=.65625)) fract=”21/32″
else if ((temp3 > .65625) && (temp3 <=.6875)) fract=”11/16″
else if ((temp3 > .6875) && (temp3 <=.71875)) fract=”23/32″
else if ((temp3 > .71875) && (temp3 <=.75)) fract=”3/4″
else if ((temp3 > .75) && (temp3 <=.78125)) fract=”25/32″
else if ((temp3 > .78125) && (temp3 <=.8125)) fract=”13/16″
else if ((temp3 > .8125) && (temp3 <=.84375)) fract=”27/32″
else if ((temp3 > .84375) && (temp3 <=.875)) fract=”7/8″
else if ((temp3 > .875) && (temp3 <=.90625)) fract=”29/32″
else if ((temp3 > .90625) && (temp3 <=.9375)) fract=”15/16″
else if (temp3 > .9375) fract=”31/32”;

If we had the metric system in this country, writing code like this would be eliminated. Clearly creating and writing this sorting section of computer code took a long time to accomplish.  Had we become metric in the 1970s, like Australia did,  this computer code would never have been written, there would be no need.

The word fraction comes from the latin word fractio which means to break. I cannot think of a more appropriate rubric. It’s long past time to break with the past, and embrace the decimal metric system, so we can live in the future, rather than living in the past.

Related essays:

Stickin’ it to Yardsticks

The American “Metric Ruler”

The Design of Everyday Rulers


My friend Pierre was asked to fill out a form which provides information for a medical report. The form asked for his height, and defaulted to centimeters (tsk…tsk millimeters please!) Below is the first image:

We won’t go into the fact that it is in centimeters, but requests a person’s height to tenths of millimeters. Straight millimeters would have been just fine, which is a single unit, and may be expressed without a decimal point. Pierre is a proud user of Ye Olde English units and attempted to set the software to feet and inches. You can see in the screenshot below his what his choices are:

Indeed the software designer did not use USC, Ye Olde English, Imperial, WOMBAT, “royal measurements” or whatever, to describe the choice, but something perhaps even more appropriate: archaic. The final screen after the selection is shown below:

Now the programmer needs to also embrace the international date format. Thanks to Pierre for letting me share this.