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.

12 thoughts on “They’re Dead Jim

  1. Again, Randy, thanks for a mind-bending and amusing column. Sadly, from where I have stood, the Way Of Measuring Badly in America Today (WOMBAT) units are alive with circulating blood and tenacious piranha teeth in America. Granted, our Australian friend Pat Naughtin discovered and “tattled” on the hidden metric in U.S. manufacturing, but I hang my head to recognize that, in the bizarre public discourse of American measurement, the old units retain a wide berth. It is frustrating, but also fascinating. I enjoy standing out and calling this optical illusion for what it is, especially where science impinges upon the practical.

    When asked for his height and weight at a recent doctor visit, a pharmacist colleague of mine gave his height in meters and his weight in kilograms, data that are mainstream in metric countries and, actually, required in health science. The response of his physician was, “What? Did you grow up in Europe?” The prejudice against metric runs really, really deep.

    Two weeks ago, however, I stumbled upon a quiet revolution in the public use of the metric system in American daily life. Reckitt-Benckiser, a huge concern which also makes over-the-counter medications, has eliminated all reference to the teaspoonful and tablespoonful in its FDA-required “Drug Facts” labeling. The consumer is directed to measure the liquid dose ONLY IN MILLILITERS, and the dosing cup that accompanies the product has only a milliliter scale on it. Even more significant is the statement “mL = milliliter” on the label, directing the public to think metric when it comes to oral liquid medication dosage volume. I have been looking for such a labeling change for many years, and at last, it has happened. I am still researching the particular reason for this advance, but I see it on labels from Pfizer OTC products as well, so I think it is part of a trend towards metrication of oral liquid dosing in America.

    • “What? Did you grow up in Europe?” seems like a reasonable question to ask, unless his tone of voice was sarcastic. In that case, I would agree with: “The prejudice against metric runs really, really deep”.

  2. All i learned was metric in school. US Customary was touched on in middle school, and earlier a few times. They didn’t test us ( that i can remember ), they had no reason too. They don’t teach us anything using customary units in school. End result i have to look up units when i know metric and rather use that.

    Taking physics, chemistry, college physics, and all science classes from the beginning. Metric. The only thing i know about using our system is its hard and i should never use it in science or so I have been told.

    I was born in 1992 so there is hope. I have better working knowledge in SI. Plus with dual labeling mandated when i was only 2 years old i have always seen metric labeling and only read off the metric side personally. I’m not sure if other people do.

    My peers seem to understand me when i talk mm, grams, meters, liters, mL. Know one ever told me to use us customary units instead in my experience.

    The only thing is Temperature, Height, and weight. I’ve been getting the temperature in Celsius for about a year now and I am getting a hang of it no conversion. Height i have no clue seeing as i have no metric measuring tools.

    • Tanner:
      If it will be some time before seeing a doctor, where one can measure height, the scale is in inches and centimeters. If your height is around 60 inches then the height from the floor to your waist is approximately a meter. Remember there is 1000 mm or 100 cm in a meter.

      For ones own weight most bathroom scales if digital, have a switch on the back, that can change the display from pounds to kilograms.
      Hope this is some help to you.

      • Height?

        Nothing to it, Tanner.
        You probably have a ruler with inches on one side and centimeters on the other. Do as I have done and measure from the floor, marking each 5 cm (forgive me, Maven) on the wall, or on a long strip of paper attached to the wall. Number every second mark. You now have a scale of decimeters. To keep the Maven happy, you can go back and put in decimal points (and, for heights under 1 meter, leading zeros), and your scale will then be in meters with decimals.

        Here is a Web site with printable rulers:
        To verify that they have printed correctly, use any of:
        5 inches = 127 mm (exactly)
        10 inches = 254 mm (exactly)
        1 meter = 39 3/8 inches (reasonably close for a paper ruler)

        As for metric-only measuring instruments, I recommend you try to find some online. I have bought quite a few things online because I could not buy them locally, for example, A4 paper.

  3. About Celsius… also this temperature scale is in some way similar to the centimeter: i.e., somewhat a little incoherent with the rest of the SI, which basically uses thousands (10^+-3, etc. etc.), instead of hundreds.

    And, forgive me, again, but I really don’t like units named after persons: one should rather use something based on ancient Greek/Latin names – or even Klingon, perhaps: see the Kellicams! only joking, of course… 🙂 , – as it was in the deprecated CGS system (which, of course ***only for the names of most of the units***, was IMHO rather superior to the SI); so. something that conveys the sense of that unit, which a person’s surname can’t do (except for scientists who know the history of those people).

    Only a personal opinion, of course…

    • … For example, this summer I repeatedly had plumbers at my vacation home, and everyone of them (and even the architect) used atmospheres or bars as units of pressure: nobody use kilopascals (there was a problem with the water pressure of the renovated house being too high, so they had to install a pressure regulator).

      So, also in a completely and fully metric country like Italy, some maybe too “scientifically-originated” units aren’t then really used in everyday life.

      BTW, when people think about Pascal, perhaps they think more about a philosopher, and probably don’t intuitively associate his name with the pressure of anything.

      While the “old” units, with their very names (atmosphere, bar, dyne, gal, erg, and so on) IMHO convey a more intuitive meaning, being rather directly tied to what they describe.

      That, of course, was probably the only good thing about the CGS system, while MKS and SI is clearly an advancement – except, IMHO, as explained, for the names of the units.

      OK – of course, just some theoretical considerations and personal opinions…

  4. Anyway, ideally (and practically!), IMHO we should look forward to a “SI 2.0” – that would be cool, and maybe also able to (gently) force the US to finally go metric…

  5. I have been reading over your blog and have one small correction — in a few of your posts you state that in the UK “mil” is used as a colloquialism for mm. Actually it’s short for mL, so you’d speak about a “175 mil” wine glass, for example.

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