The Intellectual Metric Embargo

By The Metric Maven

Thanks to the Patrons who are supporting me on Patreon! We will be alternating between a new Metric Maven essay, and a new Chapter of Death by a Thousand Cuts: A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States each month. Next month Chapter 2 will be published. Now for this month’s essay:

In recent months, I had lunch with my friend and colleague Dr. Don. I presented him with a copy of the Dimensions of the Cosmos, and related that Australians and others use nothing but millimeters when constructing a house. Despite his considerable education, incisive mind, and knowledge, the answer was predictable for an American. He said “the numbers are too big.” I assured him this was a ubiquitous notion that is entirely wrong. After I explained why millimeters work so well, he indicated he understood, but like most Americans, it will probably not alter how he measures in the future.

The use of centimeters as a pseudo-inch is so natural to Americans that any deviation from relating inches to centimeter “metric inches” is thought to be ramblings of a fool in the face of “obvious” knowledge. The destructive anti-meme of centimeters was (is?) on display for all the English speaking world to view on Wikipedia (2017-11-21). The current page on tape measures is quite a mess, and the page is flagged as needing scholarly sources. The text in the entire article has inches, and centimeters without a prose mention of millimeters in the body of the article.

They discuss tape measures in the United States, but it’s centimeters all the way down with a shout out to an imaginary three scale problem of adding metric divisions:

Some tapes sold in the United States have additional marks in the shape of small black diamonds, which appear every 19.2 inches (48.77 cm). These are used to mark out equal spacing for joists (five joists or trusses per standard 8-foot (243.8 cm) length of building material).

Many tapes also have special markings every 16 inches (40.6 cm), which is a standard interval for studs in construction. Three spaces of 16 inches make exactly 4 feet (121.9 cm) which is the commercial width of a sheet of plywood, gyprock or particle board.

It should also be mentioned that the sale of dual metric/customary scale tapes is slowly becoming common in the United States. For example, in some Walmarts there are Hyper Tough brand tapes[10] available in US customary units and Metric units. Unlike US rulers, of which an overwhelming majority contain both cm and inch scales, tape measures are longer and thus traditionally have had scales in both inches and feet + inches. So, inclusion of a metric scale requires the measuring device to either contain 3 scales of measure or the elimination of one of the customary scales.

When the UK is mentioned, it’s centimeters all the way down:

Tape measures sold in the UK often have dual scales for metric and imperial units.
Like the American tape measures described above, they also have markings every 16 in (40.6 cm) and 19.2 in (48.8 cm).

The strangest aspect of this Wikipedia page is the illustrations. A US tape measure is shown that is capable of measuring to the nearest 1/32 of an inch with (0.79375 mm) for reference? Why not just put 794 um? That sounds even more accurate.

The next illustration shows a millimeter only metric tape measure, but never mentions this fact. Here is how it appears on the Wikipedia page:

Below that is a dual scale (they don’t designate US and metric) tape measure with inches and centimeters on it:

The use of inches and centimeter pseudo-inches is so automatic, that the difference is never acknowledged even when it is staring them right in the tape measure. The assertion that numbers in millimeters would be too large is a unexamined fictitious restriction, or as those people who write vacuous pop business tomes might say, they’re not thinking outside of the box.

I have written for and edited Wikipedia articles in the past. I logged-in and made these changes to the article on 2017-11-21:

click to enlarge

I also changed the absurd number of decimal places on the 1/32″ illustration:

The Wikipedia page was almost certainly authored by an American, and reflects the intellectual blindness of the difference between millimeters and centimeters. Before my edits, there was no notice of the difference in the illustrations. Time will tell if my edits are erased or reversed. I only changed the US section to millimeters as I do not feel knowledgeable enough about other countries to edit their entries.

I often find myself feeling like a reverse-time fossil hunter. I have all these metric millimeter only tape measures that I can only hope could become ubiquitous in the US at some future time. Below is a number of future non-fossils, plus one that I hope will
become extinct and morph into a curiosity:

click to enlarge 1) Starret Classic Tru-Lock Tape 5m (US no longer manufactured) 2) Lufkin 5m FL35SI 12B (Australia) 3) Super Craft Tape Measure 5m SCM2010 (Australia) 4) Stanley Millimetre scale 8m 30-459 (Australia) 5) Lufkin 8m Autolock AL 825M 6) Starret Tru-Lock 4m C12-4M8 65781 (US no longer manufactured) 7) Fastcap Tru 32 US 5m (currently manufactured in US) 8) Stanley 8m (US centimeters)

One can clearly see that in Australia, millimeter only metric tape measures are plentiful and utilized. In the US, the very notion of a millimeter only metric tape measure is intellectually dismissed instantaneously because of an ingrained cultural urban legend that large numbers are a problem. Strangely, this is never applied to using feet for altitudes of aircraft or the elevation of mountains. Teachers in our schools, the scientists in our universities, the engineers in our corporations, and Jane and Joe American have all absorbed this intellectual anti-meme to the point it is proverbially believed, and ubiquitously employed, to dismiss millimeters as the best metric unit of length for everyday work. This is the “intellectual” argument offered. The path of least thought is to equate the use of inches with centimeters, and claim to have “gone metric.”  As I’ve stated in the past, this is simply using the metric system with the same poor usage of Ye Old English “customary” and improving the situation not-at-all.

In the figure above, there are eight things, and one does not belong. It is the US centimeter/millimeter, or if you prefer, centimeters with tenths of centimeters tape measure at the bottom. What a person sees upon casual inspection is all integer values, but in the case of centimeters, their size must generally be broken into smaller divisions for any practical everyday use, that could more easily be expressed in millimeters.

There is not just a physical invisible metric embargo in the United States, there is also an unconscious intellectual metric embargo woven into the fabric of our educational system and society. Until we find a way to deal with the immediate dismissals that act as Pavlovian reactions that inoculate Americans from thinking about the metric system, we will never see it in the US.

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10 thoughts on “The Intellectual Metric Embargo

  1. It does appear that the U.S. will be all alone in using an antiquated system of measurement. I have read recently that Liberia announced on May 24th that the country will begin to convert to SI. Myanmar announced several years ago to also convert to SI. As most metric advocates probably know, the U.S., Liberia and Myanmar were the last holdouts to SI. I have traveled to Canada, New Zealand, England and Scotland in the last few years and these countries are not totally converted but are more advanced in conversion than the U.S. I also get very negative feedback whenever I speak favorably for SI. Our only hope for conversion may be in that our trading partners will refuse to deal with the U.S. until we convert.

  2. I sometimes see a desire (via news stories) to stop using metric in the UK. I wonder whether these stories are inflated, to plump up pro-Brexit sentiment. Because one from last year-ish showed a photo of a feisty butcher as an example, but the fine print was that the photo was maybe…10 years old?

  3. With the Liberia story in, I am beginning to feel something that my fellow U.S. metricationists have always wanted me to feel—rebelliousness!

    Hi, Woodie! Great to hear from you. Stay the course! The United States is ALL ALONE now in our pre-metric status, and that is not “exceptional.” It is retardation!

    Maven: in Germany, some soft drinks and wines are sold in centiliter units. But at least our consumer product makers on this side of the pond picked the milliliter to measure liquids, like the 355 mL soda can. No problem with “large” numbers there. But I thought we liked things bigger in America!

    Woodie, as you may have read recently, there are now no more household units (teaspoonfuls and teaspoonfuls) in American medication directions of ANY kind. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices and the FDA have thrown them out. Try looking for any reference to household units any currently sold package “Drug Facts” medication directions. Generally, you won’t find any.

    • Paul, there is a HUGE misconception concerning Liberia, Myanmar and the US. Up until recently, Myanmar in 2013 and Liberia in 2018, these two countries never committed themselves to metrication. The US did with the laws in 1975 and again in 1991. Now, ALL of the countries of the world are committed.

      However, despite commitment, no country I believe is 100 % metric, all are somewhere along a line from 0 to 100. The majority are most likely 95 % + metric, whereas countries like the Liberia, Belize, many Caribbean Islands have barely metricated and use only metric where foreign influence is high, such as with imported products. They may be in the 20…30 % range.

      Myanmar and the US have made progress, such that speed limits, petrol sales, weather reporting, etc in Myanmar are in metric units. Everything imported is metric. They may already be half way there or more.

      Countries like Canada and the UK are in a muddle. Canada is pretty much metric for consumer items, distances and speeds, weather reporting, industries dealing with the US aren’t. The UK is pretty much 80 % + metric, except for road signs and some deliberate mention of imperial in speech by old Luddites.

      The US was a virtually 100 % USC country prior to 1975, but despite the propaganda that metrication in the ’70s failed, a number of industries have metricated. You have autos, heavy machinery, electronics, some beverages, all prescription and some over the counter medicines, new technology, imported items, etc. But, because the US is a mixed-bag, you have a number of hybrid products produced in the US with metric and USC components. Fasteners is a mess with some companies using metric only and others using USC and if both are mixed, you have again a hybrid situation. Americans are the only people I can think of where a dual set of wrenches is an absolute must. The cost of this muddle must be enormous.

      The USMA really needs get its facts straight on the world situation and not be part of the problem of passing on fake news. The USMA would best serve its cause in researching and publishing a report detailing what it would cost to metricate the US as fully as possible and what it has cost and will continue to cost the US economy by not being fully metric.

      If you want to be rebellious, then support the advancements of China and Germany and their use of metric units in all applications and support tariffs and sanctions against all non-metric products.

  4. Two of my most prized gifts are from my late Australian friend, Mike Joy, and both are millimeter-only measures. One is an 8 m metal roll tape measure, the other an elegant stainless steel meter stick. Both of these fine instruments are reminders to me of why the SI is so elegant a measurement system, and why we citizens of the sole land of measurement disunits must fight like the NIST GUARDIANS OF THE SI to win what we deserve!

  5. Regarding millimeters: Yes, there is no reason to “abhor large numbers”. The whole point of the positional numerical system is that each numeric place forms, itself, a larger unit, so if you see “300 mm”, say, you should think “three units of one hundred millimeters”, and then think about a suitable proxy for that, like the width of your hand, which is about 100 mm for many people, at least, it’s no worse than a foot being your “foot”, and may often even be better. Heck, even the “300 mm” can be interpreted as a kind of single unit which you’d get used to with, say, metric woodworking.

    Millimeters, grams, and seconds are best used as practical-scale “atoms” of measurement: you measure off whole numbers of them, and you don’t divide them smaller unless really necessary. Thus complaints about “oh well feet can divide up by 2, 3, 4, 6 because 12 does!” etc. show themselves to be not a problem: if you think of mm as an atom, you DON’T divide it. If you want to make something divisible, you use a divisible number of mm. Just as when, in actuality, when you “use” that a foot is “divisible” you’re *really* using *inches* as your atom, and suitably dividing a number of inches that is some multiple of 12 – if it’s not a multiple of 12, the “divisibility” of feet is useless. 300 mm works the same way, and is funnily enough very close to what Americans call a foot anyways … but you can even now divide by *5* : to pieces of 60 mm! Likewise for weights – if it’s supposed to be a product you should easily divide, make it something like 120 g, or 480 g, that is similarly highly divisible. Note that you get even more freedom to choose sizes with this than arbitrarily labeling some divisible multiple as a “pound”. And even the much controversial times: need to make a segmented short presentation? Make it 600 s, divide into four 150 s pieces.

  6. I purchased a Sears Craftsman dual millimeter/inch tape measure about 40 years ago, which I still own. The tape is marked “Made in USA” and the millimeter scale is on top. It’s great!

    On my Craftsman, the scale is labeled in black from 10 to 990 mm, with each 100 mm in red – similar to the examples shown. But at each meter, the scale starts over. So 1000 mm is labeled as 1 m, and each 100 mm thereafter is labeled as 1m100, etc. A length of 1050 mm is labeled just 50, so you have to look at the red 100 mm markings to know where you’re at. I understand it, though I’m curious if that’s the best method for lengths greater than 1 m.

  7. We love the metric system. The precision, yet ease of calculating one-hundredth of a metre is a beauty .

  8. What’s the fascination with milli? If centimeters or deciliters are a better match to the thing you’re measuring, I don’t see the problem. I think I can safely say that ALL tape measures and rulers I’ve seen (in Europe) are marked in cm with mm subdivisions. It doesn’t matter, you still have the same markings as on a mm measure but the numbers are smaller.
    Oh and why write mL instead of the ml that they taught me in school? mL looks weird and ugly.

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