Never Mind The Bollocks!—Here’s The New Civil Engineer

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By The Metric Maven

John Bull Edition

Much of my knowledge about Civil Engineering comes from reading popularizations. One icon who is no longer with us who wrote about Engineering is L. Sprague de Camp. He penned such classics as The Ancient Engineers, and The Heroic Age of American Invention. They are both very interesting, especially the latter. There are a few others who have written books  for a general audience on the subject of Engineering over the years, but the contemporary person who is the most prolific current author is Henry Petroski. I have read enough of his books to have lost count. The book which caused me the most reflection is his book The Essential Engineer.  It is for me a hidden history of Engineering in the US which is well beyond the scope of this blog, but a fascinating read. Professor Petroski exclusively writes using Ye Olde English units. Unfortunately when I read this very praiseworthy book, I hit a number of bone jarring metric speed bumps. On page 153 of The Essential Engineer he uses Gallons/100 miles. Sigh, this type of fuel efficiency is never used in the US generally, but is expressed as Liters/100 km in enlightened countries. Metric please!

When reading the The Essential Engineer I felt Petroski gave way, way, too much credit to Thomas Edison for making Engineering a profession in the US. The actual person he left out, who deserves exclusive credit is George Westinghouse. He pioneered the use of detailed engineering drawings. Westinghouse drew steam engine parts, modeled them in wood and then machined them from metal. Unfortunately, further elaboration on the contributions of Westinghouse to the engineering profession is beyond the scope of this blog. I wrote to Professor Petroski in 2011 and went into great detail about the importance of George Westinghouse, and it was my hope that he might correct this oversight in the future. This discussion re-kindled a metric mystery about which I’ve been curious for sometime. In the early metric hearings of the 20th Century it is stated that George Westinghouse was very much pro-metric, but when another representative from his company arrived, he contradicted this assertion. This metric reminder caused me to throw this statement in at the end of the email to him:

I don’t recall you ever discussing the lack of the metric system in the US as a problem. It is a real pet-peeve of mine. It is my understanding is that in Australia bricks are 90 mm (yes mm not cm, cm are a bad idea) and the mud is 10 mm. One then knows that each brick in a wall takes up 100 mm and ten of them are a meter. If you have written about the lack of the metric system in US construction or elsewhere, please direct me to your work. I would very much like to read it.

Henry Petroski replied:

As for the metric system, I certainly agree with you on the benefits and practicality of it. Much of my reading and writing has revolved around nineteenth and early twentieth century bridge building in America and Britain, where the English system of units was dominant. This has, no doubt, given me a predilection for using those units. I understand that the rest of the world uses the metric system, and for good reason. Perhaps I should look further into why the U.S. has failed to adopt it.

His reply gave me some hope he might write on the subject. Recently I read his book To Forgive Design, which was published in 2012. Each use of Olde English Units in the book was like the sound of screeching fingernails on a chalkboard for me. In between, the book was a very interesting read, at least for an Engineer. On the few occasions when he used metric, Professor Petroski seems dismissive and apologetic for introducing metric units into a popular book about Civil Engineering:

The lifting capacity of a tower crane is specified in terms of the moment its main boom can sustain. Thus a crane with a sixty meter main boom that can lift fifty metric tons at that distance would be designated as a 3,000 tonne-meter crane. The closer the load is to the mast, the heavier it can be. Because most large cranes are made outside the United States, the metric system of measurement predominates in their specification.” (Page 313)

I also learned this:

“The term civil engineer had begun to be used in the late eighteenth century to refer to all engineers who were not associated with the military. In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the development of such technologies as the railroads and the telegraph, engineers in many countries increasingly distinguished themselves with classifications like mechanical, electrical, and mining engineers and, where the numbers allowed, formed their own specialized professional societies.”
(page 182)

The whole body of construction by Civil Engineers in the US, by all the evidence I have, shows there is essentially zero metrication here. The writings by Professor Petroski in the publication American Scientist to this day, and his books, along with the evidence of my own eyes, produces a view that Civil Engineering is the absolute least metricated engineering discipline in the US.

In a couple discussion boards I interacted with people who claimed to be from the UK and argued about purchasing centimeter tape measures to change to metric for their construction work. Centimeters!—hah!—but to my surprise when I explained my position, the person at the other end of the cyber-exchange decided I had a point and would go with millimeters. But when I went online to look for metric only millimeter tape measures, or even dual ones in the UK—I found none. This absence caused me to make an assumption about the UK, which is that they are only marginally less belligerent about adopting metric than we are, and their building construction is done in Ye Olde English units just like ours.

This unstated assumption must have been readily observed in my writing about the US. Derek Pollard of the UKMA emailed me with a bit of bewilderment. He wondered why I always talked about Australian construction in metric, as if the UK did not. He tried to persuade me that construction in the UK was done in metric, and I was mistaken. This seemed hard to believe. After all, just like us in the US, they have miles on their road signs. Why the British are even responsible for the units that we are saddled with—three barleycorns to an inch. They must be even more stuck on them than we are?—right?—and we’re stuck on them like a postage stamp on a black hole. I had worked closely with a UK Engineer a few years back.  Using inch-pounds and other maddening units didn’t seem to bother him at all—even though it did me. He clearly must have grown up with Olde English units—although I admit, I never asked at the time. All this metric talk I heard about the UK,  well it must be as much BS as those  who claim America is a “metric country.” Indeed all of this was conjecture on my part as I’ve never been to the UK, or visited a construction site there.

Derek sent me a very short guide for metric conversion in construction from back when it happened in the UK. It looked like the sort of thing that was from the 1970s here in the US, and in the US that meant—the conversion that never happened. All we have are artifacts of the 1970s non-event to contemplate here, it seemed unconvincing. It was like a US relic from the decade that taste left behind, testifying to the lack of metrication in that period. But I had this nagging feeling of uncertainty. Was construction in the UK metric or not? The UKMA blog comments seemed to argue they were. Derek stated they were. One thing I knew was that I really didn’t know much of anything about the UK and metric use for certain. I did know that Australians sent me metric only mm tape measures, scales, and other tools. They were not relics, they were contemporary. I even purchased more online. I felt confused and ignorant of the situation in the UK, and intended to avoid writing anything concerning a situation about which I felt so ignorant and uncertain. I blissfully ignored the question.

Then, with no announcement, and with the impact of a color photocopier which had been suddenly transported into a medieval monastery, a publication appeared in my mailbox. It was from Derek. The publication is New Civil Engineer ( Derek had highlighted in yellow numerous metric units used in the publication. I thought “well, that’s nice, but lets count up the number of Ye Olde English units and compare them with the number of metric.” I began reading, and reading, and all I found were meters, and kilometers. I began to feel a little light headed as I read an article By Alexandra Wynne called Urban Conversion: The Shape of Things to Come? Here’s where the rubber would meet the road, it’s about New York’s Highline Park, and discusses similar works in the US, and overseas, of course It would have Olde English units:

“America’s other industrial powerhouse, Chicago, is following suit. As NCE went to press, final plans for The Bloomingdale — a 4.3km long elevated linear park and trail….”

No Miles? No Yards, No feet?  No inches? No Way!—this can’t be true.

Then I ran across prose which almost induced hyperventilation. It was an article about a dam which is under construction in a seaside town called Porthcawl in South Wales. Here is the article insert which threatened my ability to retain consciousness.

T..t..t..two thousand kilonewtons!? It says kilonewtons, not pounds (force)?  I would never see that in a US publication. They were going to dredge 11,000 cubic meters of of mud from the harbor according to New Civil Engineer. Ok, no need to panic, even great publications like American Scientist seem to be dependent on the author of the article as to which units are used within. I keep looking, and then found articles that also use only Celsius temperatures and the “square footage” (not used in the publication) of buildings is given in square meters. They do use t for metric ton, but, despite the fact I really don’t like metric ton, and would use Megagram Mg instead, it’s not fundamentally using non-metric units. Then, I found a straw to grasp upon. New Civil Engineer is a publication of an engineering society, and is like IEEE Spectrum in the US, which has all metric units, whereas the greater US engineering community does not. This publication is simply an anomaly!—yeah–that’s it.

I immediately went to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) website to investigate. I pulled up an article about Seattle’s sewer system. There they were, gallons, miles, square miles, and an 84 inch pipeline. This is the same group that issues the report card on US infrastructure, which is currently a D+, and no metric is to be seen. Perhaps they have a policy on metric? I called ASCE and spoke with a representative. “No, we have no policy on metric—sorry about that.” Well, I give them an F for metrication on their SI report card.

New York Herald 1910-01-20 (click to enlarge)

I know of at least one case where the ASCE didn’t feel that way. On Thursday January 20th 1910, The New York Herald had a story on page 4 with the title: Engineers Want Metric System. The sub headings read: American Society Invokes Aid of State and National Legislative Bodies | Point Out Its Merits | Declare Measurements Expressed By The English System Awkward and Inaccurate. The news story begins:

Adoption of the teaching of the metric system in public schools of the country was urged yesterday by a special committee which made its report to the annual meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers, in session at its metropolitan headquarters, at No. 220 West Fifty-seventh street.

Professor David A. Molitor, of the chair of civil engineering at Cornell University submitted the report of the committee of which Mr. Stacy B. Opdyke, of this city, is the chairman.

“I measured quantities of iron pipe of American make,” Professor Molitory said, “and found that most of it varied an eighth of an inch from the dimensions ascribed to it. For instance, a so called inch pipe is really seven-eighths of an inch in diameter. The measurements are expressed with far greater accuracy in the metric system, while much of the pipe which is listed in awkward English fractions can be much better designated by round numbers in millimetres, such as fifty or sixty or one hundred millimetres, which as a matter of fact, is the accurate measurement, while the designations, while the designations they bear now are often an eighth of an inch or more off the scale. The present standards in such work allow for a variation of two percent.”

The Baldwin Locomotive Works, of Philadelphia, in a letter to the committee told of building fifty French locomotives under the metric system without the slightest inconvenience either to its draughtsmen or the workmen.

That was in the enlightened period of 1910, and not the unenlightened US of 2013. It was now clear that the UK uses metric in construction, and there is no reason to believe that we in the US will in my lifetime.

I then have to ask myself the hard question as to why I was so ready to doubt that Civil Engineers in the UK use metric. Clearly all the evidence has becoming overwhelming, they must build everything in metric, their roads, bridges, dams—you name it. They must use millimeters. Then it hits me like a tonne of 90 mm bricks. I don’t want to believe they are metric because this makes me feel really, really isolated. It’s horrible, we’re the last country building irrationally in Ye Old English. We are just plain backward.

Then, the final blow. I noticed the unusual size of the publication. I quickly obtained my Australian mm only metric ruler. Yes, it’s 297 mm x 210 mm–A4 size paper! And the envelope in which it came—exactly fits A4. OMG, all metric. It’s all metric. It must be true, they’re metric.

We are clearly the last country which is still non-metric, with little hope for change. Misery, without any company. Sigh. Wait a minute, the Canadians!—yeah, those hosers appear to be building things with a set of Olde English units which are as messed up as are we. Whew, with their proximity to an economically powerful, screwed-up, non-metric influence like the US, it will insure we’re still not the last country building in irrational Olde English! Wait, that doesn’t make me feel better.


Two weekends ago my street had a block party. I met many of my neighbors and told a rather pleasant older woman that I write a blog about the metric system. For some reason she furled her brows and said “Well, the British use our system too.”  I told her that they did not. “They have miles on their roadsigns and pounds in their markets” she asserted. Like most Americans she thinks that because of the roadway signs, the British have our backs, and use old units everywhere in their society—but they don’t. Their industry is mostly metric from what I can tell. Need more proof?

A recent news story in The Star (a UK publication) entitled Imperial Past to Boost Steel Sales (2013-08-01) points out how we cost the UK money because of our belligerence. Tip o’ the hat to Peter for bringing this to my attention. This is from the story:

Tata Steel has invested £1.3 million in its Stocksbridge rolling mill to boost its North American Business

[Tata Steel] has installed seven new rolls and new laser size gauges on each of the mill’s two finishing lines, so that they can roll to imperial as well as metric sizes.

The US market remains wedded to the old imperial system, where sizes are measured in feet and inches, and has never adopted the metric system, which uses metres and millimetres.


In the past, all Stocksbridge’s high integrity steel bars, destined for the aerospace, energy, industrial bearing, bright bar and forging sectors, have been metric.

When it came to supplying the US, Stocksbridge would roll steel to the nearest metric size and then skim off a layer of steel on a lathe to produce the required imperial size.

All I can say is bollocks.

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8 thoughts on “Never Mind The Bollocks!—Here’s The New Civil Engineer

  1. In an emerging metric education curriculum in America, it would be my earnest hope that the SI would be taught **as the SI**!!

    That is to say, that the American student should be given such a broad exposure to the SI system of prefixes and powers of 10 that he or she will be able to SEE the units enough to mentally move the decimal point. In other words, we shall not have to talk about “using the centimeter” or “using the millimeter.” By conceptualizing the latter, we continue to make it appear that there are many units of measurement involved, when in fact, there are only seven base units in the SI, and the use of decimal prefixes is but a change in scale. In the SI, we should stop the practice of having multiples or submultiples of the base units masquerade as separate units. That is pre-metric thinking. They are merely multiples and submultiples, not units.

    Instead of saying “using millimeters, I would opt for saying “on the millimeter scale.”

    Now, if a choice of scale is the issue, I, too, prefer the millimeter scale of length. Australians diagram the dimensions of a room assuming the millimeter scale, and the numbers are fractionless, e.g., “4500,” “6000,” “22500.” The beauty of the metric system is that one can “see” 4.5 m, 6 m, and 22.5 m in these numbers.

    In my usual measurement of volumes in the practice of pharmacy, the milliliter scale is used exclusively.The centiliter scale is not only less precise and would lead to unsafe confusion.

    But, this kind of thinking has to be taught. The metric system is familiar to many Americans, but thinking flexibly about scale is not–not yet, anyway.

    • Paul T and Others:

      True, there is only one unit of length, one unit of mass,…

      In a nutshell, the prefixes are simply conveniences sort of supplementing SI.

      Wrt precision, let’s look at such in a different-but-misleading sense. Consider this from an important front-page article on global warming in today’s (Aug 20) NYTimes:

      “Regarding the question of how much the planet could warm if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere doubled, the previous report largely ruled out any number below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The new draft says the rise could be as low as 2.7 degrees, essentially restoring a scientific consensus that prevailed from 1979 to 2007.”

      Hmmm. Since (5/9)(3.6) = 2 and (5/9)(2.7) = 1.5, it looks like the 0.1 precision with Fahrenheit is spurious. Anyway, as I’m confident practically everyone in this forum will agree, it should have read “… below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)…”and “…as low as 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)…”

      Well, at least decimals were used with Fahrenheit, which, when one thinks about it, is kind of ironic…

  2. What kind of connectors are used for garden hoses and fire hydrants in the UK?

    What really makes this interesting is that the common garden hose connector is a terrible design – ripe for modernization and metrication – yet positive feedback keeps it in use.

  3. How do US engineering and construction companies manage to win overseas contracts if they have no expertise in building major projects to metric measurements?

    Do they import overseas engineers? Buy overseas companies to get their expertise?
    Insist on using US units?

    To answer two of my own questions:
    I have read of US companies acquiring overseas firms in order to have expertise available for projects in foreign countries; also, the US nuclear power industry, at least, insists on using US units for their projects overseas, including measurements in decimal feet.

    On a project writing technical manuals for a power station in the 1990s I was surprised to find that the American-made control system could measure pressure using units such as inches or mm of mercury, or water column in feet as well as psi. Psi looked almost like a rational choice at that point, but the Australian utility company insisted that SI units be used throughout.

  4. … And metrication in the UK:

    … where obviously road signs are the major obstacle still to be changed.

    BTW, I just watched an Australian detective story in TV: much more similar, IMHO, to similar European serials than American ones; in particular, to the German ones.

    Well, Australia could perhaps join the EU…? 😉 🙂

    Anyway, it looks like a really advanced country.

  5. ASCE does have a metric policy; however, I’m not entirely sure they “walk the talk.” At any rate, their policy is quoted in a response to a “letter to the editor” criticizing their use of metric (dual units) in “Civil Engineering.”

    (the application won’t allow me to copy text. If the lengthy link won’t work, Google ASCE metric policy.)

    [Hopefully I fixed the link – MM]

    They seem “supportive” but not ready to take a leadership stance. I don’t think this 19 year old policy has brought a great deal of metrication to the US practice of civil engineering. This is probably in response to the ANSI position that an organization must have an approved metric policy as one of the requirements for ANSI approval as an accredited standards organization.

  6. I remember going through school in the late 1960 in the UK.

    We finished one year using imperial units and started the next using metric.

    By the time I started work in 1972 (In civil engineering) metric units were pretty well entrenched. For the first few years though I had to be proficient in conversions both for looking at old plans, and talking with some of the older site workers.

    SInce I came to Australia it has been metric all the way with the exception of the occasions when companies have been stupid enough to buy american equipment and have to deal with the conversion problems.

    There is still however a legacy of imperial units for instance the standard brick size is 230 x 110 x 76 with 10mm joints Pretty close to 9″ x 4″ x 3″

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