By The Metric Maven
One day many years ago I had a strange experience with a word. It lost its meaning. I could pronounce it, and think about it, but the word had become temporarily disconnected from its assigned meaning. The sensation was one of disengagement with a description of my world. Thankfully I experienced this for only a short period of time. Recently I discovered this phenomenon has a name: semantic satiation. Here is a definition:
Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation) is a psychological phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.
Semantic satiation describes a situation where a word has a meaning but it is temporarily lost. I have also experienced the loss in meaning of a word that is not just used in a repetitious manner, but is also assigned a multitude of meaningless meanings. This word also has at least 14 definitions. This mercurial word is gauge.
We have 12 gauge shot guns, wire gauge, railroad gauge, drill bit gauge, stubs iron wire gauge, sheet metal gauge, film gauge, loading gauge, structure gauge, and who knows how many dimension gauges of which I’ve never heard.
But gauge can also refer to a measuring or comparison device such as an air gauge, rain gauge, gauge blocks, water gauge, needle gauge, and many more.
The idea of gauge is batted about by Engineers and technical people with certainty—as if there should be an immediate comprehension. Yet, if you examine gauge as a dimension standard, you will immediately realize this is an oxymoron. Gauge is a dimensionless number. Gauge seems to be the measurement equivalent of the throw away phrase “Ya know what I’m sayin’?”
For instance, let’s suppose I want to drill some holes into a printed circuit board for a solid bare wire to pass through. I want the wire to have a hole that is as close to its diameter as possible. If I had a metric wire with a diameter of 1 mm, I could go to my drill index and select a 1 mm drill bit. It would then be easy to drill a hole as close as possible to fit the 1mm wire. Metric wire sizes correlate with metric drill bit sizes. It’s so easy even a caveman could do it.
There is only one problem with this simple solution, I live in the United States and thus far I’ve found no distributor of metric wire. I must rely on American Wire Gauge for wire sizing. I must go to a wire gauge table and find the American Wire Gauge number is 18 (AWG 18), for wire which has a 0.0403″ diameter (1.024 mm). The wire gauge numbers go from 0000 (0.4600″) to 40 (0.00314″) with larger gauge numbers proportional to smaller sizes.
Now I need to find a drill bit with a 0.0403″ diameter. The gauge sizes for drill bits are from 1 to 80 and A to Z. I locate Drill bit gauge 59 which is 0.041″ (1.041 mm). This is close to 1 mm and probably acceptable, but the wire gauge number is 18 and the drill bit gauge number is 59. There is no correlation. Don’t ask 18 what?, or 59 what?, they are just dimensionless integers, chosen by our infallible Anglo-Saxon ancestors–who used three barleycorn in a row to define an inch—and used the weight of 7000 barleycorns for a pound.
Why does the drill bit gauge designations change from numbers to letters?—I have no idea. This complete lack of correlation between gauge sizes of wire, and drill bits, illustrates that gauge is a meaningless dimension designator. Gauge simply stands between you and a useful, accepted, accurate, and understood dimension—like millimeters.
I find myself astonished that there is considerable resistance to metric system adoption, even when I point this irrationality in gauge designation out to machinists. It begins to look like they want a set of mystic runes to read, so their profession remains esoteric, and difficult to understand by outsiders. Why have a system this confusing?—when there is one—the metric system—which is ready to go. If you have 0.7 mm wire and a drill set with a 0.7 mm bit, what’s to dislike? No look-up tables, no strangely odd numbers and letters, just drill the hole.
How about American Standard Sheet Metal Gauge? Let’s take 19 gauge sheet metal, how close to a millimeter thick is that? Well it depends on the material:
Gauge Steel Stainless Steel Aluminum Zinc
19 0.0418″ (1.06 mm) 0.044″ (1.1 mm) 0.036″ (0.91 mm) 0.060″ (1.5 mm)
So what does gauge number mean if the dimensions are all significantly different! It doesn’t seem to represent a constant dimension. Why on earth can’t we just shoot for say 1 mm +/- a tolerance?—and have numbers with units attached? Or, if there is a manufacturing reason for the differences, just use millimeters. The larger the gauge numbers for sheet metal, the smaller the thickness. If we want the closest 1 mm drill bit, it’s 59 gauge. The closest 1 mm wire is 18 gauge. The closest 1 mm sheet of metal is 19 gauge. We won’t even go into Stubs Iron Wire Gauge, and tubing gauge. There is no rational correlation between gauge number and physical dimensions.
A 12 gauge shotgun has a barrel diameter in which twelve balls of lead, of the same diameter as the barrel, are equal to one pound. It takes twenty lead balls of the same diameter as the 20 gauge shotgun barrel to equal a pound. What if you obtain a .410 shotgun?–well that’s in caliber. I would argue that 9 mm is more descriptive than 12 gauge, 20 gauge or .410, even to Americans.
The use of gauge, as a size description in America, is a perfect illustration of the completely irrational dimensional arrangement of our building construction materials. They are the materials that drive our physical economy. This causes confusion and waste, for no reason. Our system is long past being ripe for reform—it’s rotting. I don’t understand why the American public, and the technical community, doesn’t demand mandatory conversion to the metric system. I just can’t gauge why.
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 not of direct importance to metric education. It 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.