Missing The Point?

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My days working as an offset pressman while attending college provided an education in confusion, and a certainty in my conviction that one should change the US over the metric system immediately. Most of the time we would use standard 50 lb offset paper (I’m not going to go into the meaning of this, that’s for another blog). Now and then we would print booklet covers on cover stock. It has been enough years that I don’t recall the details, but we had some card stock that was not the common thickness we normally used, and my father wanted to know its thickness for a printing job. I have explained the importance of thickness in offset printing in an earlier blog. Card stock thickness is described in points. I made an assumption that the thickness in points was linear with respect to inches, set up a proportion, and calculated the new thickness. My father apparently phoned the paper company. To my satisfaction, my computation was essentially the same as the value obtained. The odd part is that even though my father had worked for decades in the printing industry, and took great interest in its technical aspects, he (nor I) had any idea how thick is say 10 point card stock.

It turns out that a point is one-thousandth of an inch for card stock. Therefore 10 point card stock is 0.010″ thick. Of course there is already a feral unit for the point, called the mil, so one of them is unit proliferation and the other is nested unit proliferation.

Well, now the idea of 10 point type would make sense, it would be 0.010″ tall, right?  Well, clearly this can’t be right, the very letters at which you are looking are much taller than 250 µm. Well, it turns out that for type size, point means something else. In the United States when the point is used as a measurement of type size, it is equal to 1/72 of an inch. Therefore 12 point type is 1/6 of an inch high, and 6 point type is 1/12 inch high. So a point is either 0.001″ or 0.013888″ depending on the context?

Well, there is more measurement context to be found when using a point. Diamonds are measured by the point, which is equal to 2 milligrams, or one hundredth of a carat. That is of course the metric carat. If one follows the etymology of the word carat to its original meaning, it is a metric carob seed mass which is being described. Placing metric as a modifier in front of a non-metric, plant seed weight based unit, doesn’t make it metric. Just use metric units! Use grams! Don’t count out imaginary metric carob seeds! A metric ton is a Megagram not a metric version of a ton. We see that out in the everyday world of feral units a point can be both a length and a mass? When the meaning of a measurement unit depends on context, it’s not a measurement unit. It’s a metaphor.

Of course as computers were introduced in the 1980s it certainly would have produced an opportunity to re-think this entire point-based font measurement and switch it all to metric. As you are sure to already realize, this, of course, did not happen. According to Wikipedia:

In the late 1980s to the 1990s, the traditional point was supplanted by the desktop publishing point (also called the PostScript point), which was defined as 72 points to the inch (1 point = 172 inches = 25.472 mm = 0.3527 mm). In either system, there are 12 points to the pica. In metal type, the point size of the font described the size (height) of the metal body on which the typeface‘s characters were cast. In digital type, the body is now an imaginary design space, but is used as the basis from which the type is scaled (see em).


The desktop publishing point (DTP point) is defined as 1/72 of the Anglo-Saxon compromise inch of 1959 (25.4 mm) which makes it 0.0138 inch or 0.3527 mm. Twelve points make up a pica, and six picas make an inch.

This system was notably chosen by John Warnock and Charles Geschke when they created Adobe PostScript, by Apple as the screen resolution for the original Macintosh, and for the LaserWriter that launched the desktop publishing industry.[1][2] Therefore, the DTP point is sometimes called the PostScript point.

The use of hot metal type and letter press was anachronistic by the late 1960s and vanishing. Offset printing was supplanting it, and by the 1980s metal type was mostly found at garage sales, and used for decoration. The era of computer typesetting had dawned, and hot metal type was replaced with paper output. Did we keep picas and points because the vast majority of the population of the US was familiar with them? Of course not. Once again insider tradition trumped measurement innovation and reform in the US, and Adobe created it’s own pica. Again from Wikipedia:

  • The contemporary computer pica is 1/72 of the Anglo-Saxon compromise foot of 1959, i.e. 4.233mm or 0.166in. Notably, Adobe PostScript promoted the pica unit of measure that is the standard in contemporary printing, as in home computers and printers.

So no traditional barleycorns, or inches, but yet another measurement unit was foisted upon us without metric reform under the rubric that it’s “Traditional American.”

The Germans have a draft standard DIN 16507-2 for metric typography.  Here is a table:

It is my understanding this may not be the current draft version, but it is very useful in illustrating metric typographic sizes. One can see they are very orderly and in millimeters, a unit with which 95% of the world’s population is familiar. I’m very aware that quality typesetting and typeface development involves art, perception and numerous factors that are difficult to quantify. But why would one start with a completely unfamiliar measurement non-system of points?—rather than have a solid basis with metric dimensions?

Douglas Hofstadter spends a considerable amount of time discussing the notion that typographic fonts cannot be “meta-described” mathematically. (see Metamagical Themas, Chapter 13). Indeed I enjoyed calligraphy greatly when I was in High School and intuitively realize this. I generally used Olde English Script, I just don’t like Olde English measurement units. I recently read Just My Type by Simon Garfield which has convinced me that typography is a subjective art. But why would one start with a grid in picas and points rather than a familiar and accepted one like millimeters?  Whenever there is a chance for reform in US weights and measures it doesn’t happen and appears to not even be contemplated.

The point is not uniquely defined as a measurement unit, it can be mass, or multiple lengths. It could be a score in football or basketball, as well as other sports. Baseball at least uses runs. In mathematics a point is a zero dimension location with respect to a coordinate system. A point is a euphemism for dollars in stock market transactions. It can describe antlers of a deer or elk. It could also be points against your driving record.

I use TeX to create my engineering reports and documentation. The current situation with computer fonts and typography on computers is ghastly. With Tex I’m able to opt-into aesthetically satisfying  typesetting on my computer—which is compatible across platforms. I’m not remotely a TeXpert, but clearly the creation of ligatures, and kerning which reduces reading distraction, along with other important aesthetic features used in quality typesetting, would be best served if done with metric values, and not unfamiliar points and picas. These “modern” points and picas, were foisted upon us by the commissars at Adobe, to whom faux compatibility with anachronistic non-existent metal type demonstrated their ability for high tech “innovation.” I don’t see any point to what they did. You shouldn’t either.

Postscript:   Much like the weather, people talk about metrication, but Tony Planas, a mathematics instructor in Florida is doing something about it, by providing metric road signs.

They’re Dead Jim

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I think about the group of non-metric units used in this country, it reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, The Hitchhiker. A young woman keeps encountering a hitchhiker over and over and finally becomes convinced he is trying to kill her. She attempts to run him over,  but fails. She drives without rest and tries to stop only when absolutely necessary, but each time she stops, there is the man, hitchhiking. After a phone call, the woman realizes that the man is not trying to kill her, but she is already dead. He is the personification of death, patiently waiting for her to realize that she had been dead all along.

In my metaphor, the woman is the set of Olde English Units to which we cling. The terrifying hitchhiker is the metric system, patiently waiting for the set of units to realize it is dead. One way to see that the set of Olde English Units we use is dead, is to realize that they have not changed in the last 150 years (actually for centuries in some cases). The metric system has evolved and changed. There have been a few incarnations of metric. The British, who in my view were trying to hang on to a metric system which is as similar to Imperial as possible, created the cgs or centimeter-gram-second system. Long time readers know what I think about using a centimeter, period, let alone using it as the basis for a measurement system. It’s a pseudo-inch system. There was The Metric Technical System (mts) which was based on force rather than mass. Herbert Klein in The Science of Measurement relates:

Systems that are based on force or gravitational units rather than mass units must be supplemented by a separate unit of mass designed to go with the basic unit of weight. In the Metric Technical System, this added mass unit is the metric slug, or hyl (9.80665 kgm)  (page 205)

To confuse matters further there was also another mts, the meter-tonne-second system, which thankfully is now but a historical curiosity. These systems seem to have invoked a strange version of The Implied Precision Fallacy. The idea was that mts is for industry and cgs is for laboratory work, but thankfully SI became the system for all to use—well except in one country.

The mks or meter-kilogram-second system became popular and shows that nature can sometimes produce miracles, a reasonably elegant system from a committee. Even as all the discussion was raging about the metric system and its constituent units, what to add, and what to remove, there was no parallel discussion for the Olde English Units used by the US. Apparently the Anglo-Saxons of the Middle Ages had given us the one and true system of units for all time, perfect and sublime, and no others were ever to be needed. The world it reflects is static. There is one problem with this notion however, the world has changed in ways the 8th and 14th centuries could never have contemplated. First there was the discovery of electricity. This precipitated Mary Shelley into writing the first Science Fiction novel, Frankenstein, which was based on Galvani’s experiments. The discovery of the relationship between electricity and magnetism was a startling and unexpected connection.  This fusion, electromagnetism, was theoretically described by James Clerk Maxwell and was commercialized by George Westinghouse. In 1893, the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago placed on display  the wonders of Westinghouse electric lighting for all to see. Nearby, however, another gathering of much greater importance occurred, which is generally forgotten. It is described by Hallock and Wade (The Evolution of Weights and Measures 1906 pg 208):

In 1893 in connection with the World’s Colombian Exposition at Chicago, an International Congress of Electricians was held, and a Chamber of Delegates, composed of officials appointed by various governments, proceeded to define and name the various electrical units.

The US Congress passed an Act on July 12, 1894 which defined and established the units of electrical measure for the United States. These consisted of those agreed upon at the Chicago congress of Electrical Engineers in 1893, which displaced the definition of the ohm which was in use by Great Britain. According to Hallock and Wade in The Evolution of Weights and Measures 1906 pg 207:

At a meeting held in 1884 an international commission decided the length of the column of mercury for the standard ohm, and the legal ohm was defined as the resistance of a column of mercury  of one square millimeter section of 106 centimeters in length at a temperature of melting ice.

This did not win out however when:

…Professor Henry A. Rowland in America and Lord Rayleigh in England, carried on further investigations to evaluate the true ohm, with the result that the length of the mercury column was found to be nearly 106.3 centimeters, which accordingly was adopted by the British Association Committee in 1892, together with the definition of the column in length and mass, rather than length and cross-section.

Well, as I’ve stated in many blogs, they should have used millimeters. The length would have been 1060 mm and changed to 1063 mm with nice round numbers, just like the Australian construction industry.

The ohm, ampere, volt, coulomb, farad, joule, watt, and the unit of inductance, named the henry, after Joseph Henry, were all defined in Chicago. In case you are uncertain of its location, Chicago, is in the United States, near Berwyn. Yes–Berwyn. There were no US representatives trying to define alternative “US Customary” equivalents of the electrical units. No argument for the inclusion of barleycorns, inches or yards in the electrical definitions were contemplated, they were all metric. Electricity,  perhaps the most important discovery since fire, is not described in any way by US Olde English Units. The US Olde English (USOE) units are stagnant and have been since the 14th century. “They’re dead Jim.”  The ohm is no longer defined as it was in the 19th century, using columns of mercury. It was redefined in 1990 using the Quantum Hall Effect. It continues to be improved and changes with the times. Metric units are living units. Olde English Units are Night of the Living Dead units.

Those who misguidedly try to resist the use of metric units in the US, have created a weights and measurements apartheid. There is one set of medieval pre-scientific units for the masses, which separate them from the creations of modern Engineering and Science, and one set of measurements for those educated beyond High School in a technical discipline.

Strangely Americans don’t see this as insulting, but in my view they should. They are locked into a set of units which creates a barrier between the public and the important scientific information needed to make critical public policy decisions. If one is forced to use US Olde English units, one never develops the “feel”  or comfort with metric units, which 95% of the world’s population has when evaluating scientific results. US Olde English Units are so anachronistic, and arrested they cannot, and do not, offer a description of electricity. How can they but act as a barrier between Americans and all the Engineering and Scientific discoveries since 1893? They are all in metric units. Some see this as “freedom,” I see it as state sponsored ignorance, imposed on US citizens, and apologized for by quislings. Herbert Klein, author of The Science of Measurement (page 24) makes this statement, which should have an asterisk, but does not. I have taken the liberty to add one:

Moreover, the tools and techniques of measurement provide the most useful bridge between the everyday world of the layman and of the specialists in science.*

* Except in the United States of America.