Frankly America, We Don’t ……

America-BeerBy The Metric Maven

Mini Bulldog Edition

Recently my father sent me an image which caused me to ponder the question: “what would the US look like if the rest of the world decided it would no longer support Ye Olde English measures in any way.”

The image below is of a German manufactured sheet-fed offset printing press:


The software and supporting materials for this press are all in metric only. The operators found themselves resorting to their memory to convert from Archaic US Units to metric, which could allow for mistakes when using the press. They finally took the initiative to write up a US paper size to metric size conversion chart and attach it to the press.

Below is a close-up of the conversion chart with US paper size after paper size converted so the correct metric values may be input into the software which operates the printing press. You will also note a second list below the paper sizes. On the left, it appears cover stock is listed. The first example is 12 pt or twelve point thick c/s. This is probably cover stock as its thickness is generally measured in points. The sheet has a thickness of 0.30 mm, or when expressed more rationally with Naughtin’s Laws, would be 300 um (micrometers). The 100 # Cover is one hundred pound cover stock and appears to be 230 um thick. The thickness of the left hand column goes from 180 um to 310 um.


The thicknesses in the right hand column are for ordinary paper. The first example is 20 # (pound) bond or 50 # (pound) offset paper. Both have a thickness of 80 um (0.08 mm). The thickest paper stock is 80 # (pound) gloss text. Why is 80 # gloss text thicker than 100 # gloss text paper?—it could be they do not have a common basis size (you really don’t want an explanation of this).

There is a note for how the blanket for the offset cylinder should be packed, which is explained in my essay The Metric Printing Mystery.

I was a bit surprised to see the largest paper size allowed is 14″ x 20″, as I recall I often printed 17″ x 22″ paper. The equivalent metric size is a bit odd as it is between A3 and A2 sized paper. Metric paper sizes and weight is discussed in The Metric Paper Tiger.

Here is what the input screen for the metric-only printing press looks like:


click to enlarge

A nearby Japanese offset press has Ye Olde English unit settings for its software, but not the German designed press. It made me wonder if a day will arrive when the rest of the world simply “doesn’t give a damn” about catering to US Olde English Units or the US market. What would that world look like inside the US?—a world where all imported products and instructions are all metric only. The amount of US manufacturing has declined precipitously, and someday we could find ourselves staring into a world of metric only goods.

I’ve already purchased French butter that is exclusively labeled in grams, but thus far, Italian pasta, olive oil and such all have ounces and (fluid) ounces along with grams and milliliters. In the case of foodstuffs, it probably would not mean much. Would all our thermostats for our homes, ovens and water heaters suddenly be in Celsius?

If only metric speedometers were available in the US would people in the US simply put a conversion chart on the dash of their car? Imported scales would all be in grams, so would there also be a chart for converting grams to (mass) ounces. If gasoline pumps were sold that would only register liters, would we switch?, or would we instead find a hack to change the readout? What would happen if the rest of the world decided they no longer wanted to make Ye Olde English fasteners and drill bits? What about construction materials for houses?—sheet metal, plastic and other planar materials? Suppose Canada (which has a lot of paper mills) decided to only produce paper that was exclusively metric? Would there ever come a time when it would become obvious to the entire populace that the US should become metric?  When I see ubiquitous conversion charts, I have my doubts.


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.



7 thoughts on “Frankly America, We Don’t ……

  1. So long as there’s money to be made in providing goods and services to Americans there’ll be conversions and there’ll be things with the American units in them for their convenience. The same could be said for languages and providing translations.

    To the programmers that would be doing the vast majority of the brain work it’s simply another set of constants to plug into the code.

  2. You would think that of all the standards that paper sizes would be adopted first due to the consistent aspect ratio – but not.

    Ideally an aspect ratio of 1.61803 – what is known as the golden rectangle and a second one that can be folded in half to get the same ratio would have made a nicer standard.

    But is Germany really a metric country? I’ve been messing with camera mounting and German tripods use the same 1/4-20″ or 3/8 standard. Nothing metric about it.

    Positive feedback means it is really hard to move on. I do see a way in this case.

    A screw mount is not really ideal – and many tripods use overly large shoe mounts – secured with the same screw mount (yuck). There is a need for improvement that could lead to a metric design. A bayonet or cam design would be nice.

    And speaking of shoe mounts – there are also hot-shoe mounts (originally used for a rangefinder ) for flash units that give you a view to competing standards here:

    • Other than for aesthetic reasons, ( and I’m not convinced of the Golden Ratio’s virtues,) why do we need a paper size based on on the Golden Ratio?

      The international A-series paper described in the Maven’s essay “The Metric Paper Tiger” has the virtue that each size preserves the 1:1.414… ratio of its sides when folded in half. Thus the A3 folded in half becomes four A4 pages and the A4 similarly turns into an A5 booklet when folded in half. No other ratio of height to width does this.

      It’s not easy to use A-series paper in the US. Although you can get A4 paper with a little difficulty, it is a few millimetres too wide to comfortably sit in US file cabinets and folders, as one of the commenters mentions in “The Metric Paper Tiger.” Also, Metric-sized binders, envelopes and other stationery accessories are probably difficult to find, too.

      Perhaps it would be a good move for office equipment makers to increase their sizes unannounced, so that metric paper fits easily in US filing cabinets and suspension files. Then when metric paper sizes become more widely used there won’t be difficulties filing documents.

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