By The Metric Maven
Sometimes the advantage of simplicity is obvious. I recall a time when a person at a grocery store check-out counter entered the price of each item using mechanical buttons on a cash register, then used their palm to press a large flat beige metal key which would enter the transaction into it. Later, laser scanners that could read universal product codes (UPC) were introduced. The items just glided across a glass window, and with a beep, each item price was registered. The person at the register went from using some arithmetic skills to none. In other cases, where one has to rethink an intellectual method, no matter how much simpler it might be, people often cling to the familiar with great tenacity. If they run into a new method, they often will try to impose the old manner upon it, which only makes the new method much more complicated.
I thought of this when I was reading an old folio on the metric system. It is called The Metric System of Weights and Measures and was written by J. Pickering Putnam in 1877. The book was published by the American Metric Bureau. They describe themselves thus:
There is an amazing color chart included in the book which completely illustrates my point about simplicity versus familiarity. The entire chart is reproduced below so that you can enlarge it, but I will address parts of it using cropped sections.
Here is the illustration of metric volumes from the chart:
When the modern metric system is used, generally volumes are described using milliliters and liters. One can introduce the archaic prefix cluster around unity and have centiliters, deciliters and so on, but they are impractical and generally understood to be nothing but a complicating factor. First let’s look at the volumes offered in the chart. It shows 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/20, 1/50 and 1/100 fractions of a liter as suggested volumes. These are 500 mL, 200 mL, 100 mL, 50 mL and 10 mL volumes. When written in a modern manner, they are all nice whole numbers which can be immediately compared; but that’s not what was suggested by the pro-metric American Metric Bureau chart. It expresses liters in the common vernacular of the day—fractions, which do not provide an instant recognition of relative magnitude. The nineteenth century was still a place with an almost uncountable number of measurement units–so this would probably seem like a simplification.
The chart has also suggested names for each quantity below one-half liter. They are the Double Deciliter (200 mL), Deciliter (100 mL), Demi-Deciliter (50 mL), Double Centiliter (20 mL) and Centiliter (10 mL). Amazingly, my nemesis, the cubic centimeter, is also expressed as 1000 cubic millimeters and correctly asserted to be equal to 1 milliliter. It is shown that one milliliter of water weights one gram, but we note that milliliters are not used at all in the “parade of illustrated volumes.” What this demonstrates, is that the ubiquitous way pre-metric weights and measures were used, was unconsciously foisted on the much simpler metric system. They were imposed without a technical justification, but instead relied on an unspoken common usage justification. It reminds me of a section of the TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy where a hair dresser is given a pair of sticks to make fire, and constructs a faux-scissors from them. They were feckless for producing fire, but they seemed like a rational path to him, based upon his experience and education as a hair dresser. He is only able to think in terms of what he knows, what is familiar.
The fact that 10 cubic centimeters is 10 milliliters, which is also 1 centiliter, and when filled with water is a dekagram is never seen in modern metric usage, but is given in the chart. Generally we don’t use a k in deca either. The multiple equivalences is related to the idea that somehow we need lots of weights and measures, because we have always had lots of weights and measures, such as: a firkin, a hogshead, a kilderkin, a chaldron, a pottle, a gill etc. It is a nineteenth century reflexive belief that we need many measurement monickers. It is familiarity over simplicity.
When looking at the “parade of grams” they appear to use a capital G with a typeface that looks like a C, which may be an archaic Latin usage. In this case they actually use integer values of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 grams; but at the last moment they resort to 1/2K for 500 grams, and 1K for 1000 grams. Yes, they use a capital K with which I agree, but modern usage “style” forbids it. Each quantity again gets its own name: 1 gram, double gram, demi dekagram, 1 dekagram, double dekagram, demi hektogram, double hektogram, and demi kilogram. This time I did not put the integer values next to the names. How did you do at identifying the values from their names? I’m sure the names were completely opaque. The modern nomenclature is much simpler. Remember, this chart was published by a group that was promoting metric, they were trying to help. They were trying to illustrate the simplicity of “The New System.” This fact serves to imply how complicated are the old weights and measures, by comparison.
For length they offer a four decimeter rule, which I guess is supposed to be a sort of metric foot size of rule. It is marked in decimeters with black and light brown patches which show centimeters, but no millimeters. It does identify that a Half-meter = 5 decimeters = 50 centimeters = 500 millimeters. They also offer a “Double Decimeter” length rule which is divided into centimeters and millimeters.
In my view, these are all artifacts from the era when the metric system was created, but it was not understood how it might best be used. Clearly the chart did not need fractions for the volume, milliliters would have been fine with a reminder that 1000 mL is a liter. None of the names for each volume division are needed, and are not currently used. This probably seemed to make sense in an era where every commercial quantity might have its own measurement unit. The grams could all have been shown as integers, and again there is no need to name each multiplication of a gram as shown. When illustrating volume, they started with the liter, and subdivided it with fractions. In the case of the gram, they started with it and used integer multiples. In modern use mL and grams make the most sense. We know that 500 mL of water is 500 grams, and the integer values match. The American Metric Bureau’s suggested use of the metric system in the 19th century offered familiarity, but not simplicity. The use of Naughtin’s Laws allows one to make metric the simplest and most intuitive measurement system so far devised. There is however one particularly egregious archaic metric holdout which still haunts our world.
Recently my long-time friend Ollie came upon myself conversing about metric with a few other persons at a table. Ollie has a background in Geology and Paleontology. She related that I should be very happy because at her Paleontology meetings all measurements are metric. I sighed and said “yeah, but I bet they do them all in centimeters.” She began to protest that using millimeters produced numbers that are “too big.” I reached into my pocket and obtained a mm only metric tape measure, extended it, and asked her to find the centimeters on it. She studied it carefully, and was clearly surprised and a bit confused that it existed.
Ollie was getting over a cold and was concerned that I might get it because she handled the tape measure. She ran to a rest room to clean it off. When she returned others asked her what she was doing:
Ollie: “I was washing it off so he would not catch my cold”
Maven: “No she wasn’t.”
Ollie: “Yes I was!”
Maven: “No, she was hiding in the bathroom measuring items with the tape measure and enamored at the simplicity of millimeters compared with centimeters. She just doesn’t want to confess it.”
Fortunately I came to no bodily harm. Ollie changed the subject before I could complete the explanation I had for her. I will now offer it here. Ollie had stated that 31.7 centimeters is easier to state than 317 millimeters. I want you to note how many symbols are used to write each number. There are four symbols in the centimeter expression, that is three numbers and a decimal point. In the case of using millimeters you have three symbols, and no decimal point. This clearly requires less typing or writing when using mm rather than cm. Your mind stops to note the decimal point, but sees the integer as a “packet.”
How do they compare linguistically? Thirty-one-point-seven centimeters is eight syllables. Three-seventeen millimeters is six syllables. Wait! I might hear you protest, you cheated and did not use hundreds! Ok. Three-hundred-seventeen millimeters is nine, so it took one more syllable using the hundred designation. Well, that way it is barely longer. I have no studies which compare the linguistic efficiency, but for the most part I think it’s pretty close whether one relates cm or mm values linguistically.
This form of argument was also enlisted against the use of metric pre-fixes, and the metric system in general in centuries past. It was stated the units had too many syllables. Yard or meter, kilometer or mile, micron or micrometer, it’s the same complaint. Actual understanding of measurement quantities is sacrificed on an imaginary altar to some innumerate linguistic deity. The same argument could be made about English in general. Suppose I say “I have a group of books” Why do I need an s? Why can’t I say “I have a group of book.” The word group clearly tells me there are more than one book–it’s just extra! The great advantage of having the extra prose in a language is that it offers more and redundant information. This provides clarity. A millimeter, milliliter, and milligram all tell us the division of the base unit is by one-thousand with three syllables. This one syllable shorter than one-thousandth of a meter. One can also directly write down the numerical values from the prose.
As I have said before, the centimeter is but a pseudo inch which is maintained for no good reason and complicates the measurements made by ordinary citizens. It is the hold-out on the 1877 metric chart which has not been exorcised. The centimeter needs to be banished to where-ever the decimeter, decameter and hectometer were exiled over the years. We can get along without them just fine, and with greater ease of use. Is a milliliter and a gram too small of a unit to use?—I never hear that argument. Would you miss the centigram or the centiliter if they were never again used? Then why would you miss the centimeter?—what makes it so special? Reject it! Choose simplicity over familiarity.
The following conversation is from the BBC series Sherlock, “The Sign of Three” shown on Masterpiece Mystery! in the US and aired on 2014-01-26:
Sherlock: “Two Uh..beers please”
Sherlock produces two 500 mL graduated cylinders.
Sherlock: “Four-Hundred-forty-three point five milliliters.”
Apparently only the metric system is accurate enough to provide the perfect amount of beer for the famous detective and his partner Dr. Watson: 443.5 mL.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.