By The Metric Maven
One of the difficult aspects of embracing metric to the fullest extent possible, in the US, by an individual, ok–by individual I mean your humble Metric Maven, is the embarrassment one feels as they experience everyday life in a non-metric country. Each night when I watch the local weather; I see weather maps that have predicted snowfall in inches, which metamorphize into feet. Strangely, the Ye Olde English meteorological changelings never become yards. One could easily use millimeters and have a single unit for rain and snow. Meters for meteorologists would be optional. Given the choice between visualizing 0.2″ and 5 mm, I’ll take the millimeters.
The basis for the current muddle of units in the US goes back to the humble barleycorn. There are three barleycorns to an inch. In other words, the fundamental unit of measurement, the original basis for all the inches, feet, yards, miles and so on is the humble barleycorn. Other countries used the width of a thumb as the “basis” for an inch, but not the Anglo-Saxons. To this day American shoe sizes are derived from the barleycorn. This means that 36 barleycorns equal one foot. Of course the fact that the average length of an actual male human foot is around 10.35 inches (with a 0.47 inch standard deviation) is not a surprise. Behind the relationships between all the archaic units of length used in the US, is a series of shotgun weddings from the past. One of these shotgun weddings was the mile. It was actually a Roman unit that was 5000 feet, but a shotgun wedding with an English furlong produced 5280 feet.
Many wax poetic about the heritage and richness of these forcibly related units. I see nothing poetic at all. I see nothing but the prosaic utterances of Barleycorn Hillbillies. Try for just a moment to imagine you grew up with a smooth continuous measurement system (i.e. SI). 1000 mm is a meter. 1000 meters is a kilometer. The prefixes are shorthand for how many meters are under discussion, or how many times it has been divided—by one thousand. The meter is the only fundamental distance base! The meter is also the product of the best metrological methods available. Suppose this person, who knows only metric, then hears one American woman tell another: “My goodness Alice, my little Johnny grew a foot.” Now the person from a metric country could be expected to recoil at such a statement. Perhaps the poor boy had grown up near a nuclear waste site, which caused a new appendage to grow. Worst of all, the woman seemed to be proud of it. Imagining further, that this metric person had never heard of a “measurement unit” called a foot, how would it sound after she was told? My expectation is that to a metric person, it would sound like Johnny’s mother was a member of the most unsophisticated culture on this planet. A foot as a measurement unit?—hilarious and so precious that the Barleycorn Hillbillies would make up such a quaint and absurd fundamental unit, which is different for every person. This is a ridiculous situation. That’s why I finally have to put my foot down over this issue.
After immersing myself in metric, here is how I’m beginning to react to my fellow citizens describing the world with the dead set of medieval units in everyday use: The units we use are metaphorically similar to zombies from Night of the Living Dead. They are corpses that wander our culture eating our brains. Don’t believe me? How about answering this question: “How many feet in half a mile?” The units just ate your brain. I used a factor of one-half as I’m constantly told that we have a system based on two, a “binary system.” A most annoying fact is that the persons asserting this truism apparently have no concept of how completely incorrect it is. (3 barleycorns = 1 inch, 12 inches = 1 foot, 3 feet = 1 yard, 5 1/2 yards = 1 rod, 40 rods = 1 furlong, 8 furlongs = 1 mile, there is no two anywhere that I can see). So how many meters are in 1/2 kilometer?—why 500 meters of course. I’m sure you’re still working on cyphering that there are 2640 feet in 1/2 mile. Perhaps Jethro Bodine could give you a hand with that. Ok, feet weren’t fair? I didn’t use a unit which is close to a meter? How about telling me how many yards are in 1/2 mile? I doubt 880 yards immediately rolled off your tongue.
What’s even more fun is that certain American drinking establishments offer “a yard of beer,” or a half-yard if you’re not that thirsty. Yes I know it’s traditionally called a “yard of ale” in the country which provided the sourdough starter for our dead units. Seriously, in the era of cell phones, GPS satellites and such, we are offered a three dimensional volume of beer, which is described as a one dimensional length? I hear rumors that metric countries have a meter of ale, heaven help us, Jethro has arrived in the building.
The real fun begins with a US gallon. The English gallon was defined as the volume of eight pounds of wheat. So we have volume defined in terms of a compressible mass. Don’t forget 7000 wheat grains make a pound. And we all know that four quarts make a gallon, and two pints make a quart, but we often cook with cups. So how many teaspoons are in a cup and how many tablespoons are in a gallon? There are 1000 mL to a liter, and that’s really all you need to use metric. The metric system just seems too modern I guess—like a “cement pond” poured with yards of cement—not ale. When I watch any cooking program, I’m immediately reminded I live in the land of The Barleycorn Hillbillies. It’s both frustrating and embarrassing.
So why did I call the set of units employed in the US as “dead?” It’s simple, they are. You might not have noticed, but the world has changed a lot since the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century there were about 30 million horses in the US—about one for every four people. Estimates indicate that about one-third of the nations farmland was required to produce horse feed. Meanwhile in the 21st century, I haven’t needed a horse for transportation or plowing–at all. But the unit used to describe the energy produced by an internal combustion engine, in the land of the Barleycorn Hillbillies, is “horse power.” I am at a loss why we don’t have divisions into “pony power,” “mule power,” and for fine measurement “hamster power.” Power is measured in watts, which is a joule per second, which is of course defined by the metric system (SI).
Years ago, a friend of mine owned a Plymouth Road Runner. It had a 383 cubic inch engine, which probably produced about 415 horsepower. Now I tell you this information because you are certainly intimately familiar with horses, and interact with them on a daily basis?—right?—you don’t? Well then, why would you object to the internal combustion engine described as having 309 kilowatts under the hood? Too modern?—not enough Mr. Ed for you?
The current set of US units are so dead, they cannot describe something that first became useful in the 19th Century, completely transformed the 20th, and is taken for granted in the 21st. Without it there would be no DNA testing, photocopying, cell phones. GPS or other modern creations. It was proudly featured in the 1893 Colombian Exposition, and today essentially everyone in the US has it. It is electricity. No matter how many barleycorns you lay end to end, you will never make it to a standard coulomb, kilowatt, volt or ampere.
The idea of living without electricity is anathema to most, yet because our measurement “system” has been dead for well over 200 years, we cannot use it to describe perhaps the most important physical phenomenon of the last 200 years. So when purchasing a hybrid car like a Prius, should it have two values? Horsepower for the internal combustion engine and watts for the electric motor? No, The Barleycorn Hillbillies won’t stand for it. Here is the copy I found that describes the Prius, it has “A 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor produce a combined total output of 134 horsepower.” In America, it’s a PigFish car. Would it really cause the (metric) Statue of Liberty to collapse if it read that the Prius has: “A 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor produce a combined total output of 100 kilowatts.” Strange that 134 horsepower is almost exactly 100 kilowatts, it’s like it had been designed that way! Kilowatts can be used to describe a gasoline engine or an electric motor equally. Australians manage to do it for cars with internal combustion engines:
The lack of metric in the US precludes our citizens from directly describing the modern world. I find it all as backward as describing how well an aircraft can carry cargo using units called broomsticks and kilowitches. Our Ye Olde English units are suited to a pre-industrial and pre-scientific age, not to the current one. We cannot describe and understand the big problems which confront us, if we choose to hide behind meaningless units, and remain Barleycorn Hillbillies. Rather than continue living in the past, we should embrace the measurement system that is constantly being refined and lives, which is the metric system.
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.