Kiloglugs of Liquid?

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

In a recent episode of Modern Marvels Essentials, on The History Channel, the subject was Freight Trains. Modern train braking systems, which use a combination of air brakes and dynamic brakes, are described. On long downhill grades, the electric motors, which are used to move the train, are used in reverse as electrical generators. This provides mechanical resistance, and slows down the train. This is called dynamic braking. The operator of the train then is shown on screen and states:

“I’m in full dynamic brakes. I’m demanding 35 kilopounds from my motors.”

A modern flat panel computer screen is shown, mounted in the cab of the train engine. A small yellow rectangular indicator is then shown with this title: Effort klb, and the number -34 inside of the indicator box. Kilopounds!? WHAT ON EARTH! A metric prefix kilo with the non-metric unit of pound (force). The unit is described as effort?–not force! It seems as though the engineering designers of the train anthropomorphized their creation! Perhaps too many Thomas the Tank Engine reruns? Kilopound “Effort” is simply an American proxy, mongrel retread unit, with an attached human metaphor, created out of thin air. Its use should embarrass American engineers with its absurdity.

A Kilopound?—What will we create next?—the peter for pint-liter?

I was convinced that a unit this ridiculous had to be an aberration, and was created in a single instance of industrial foolishness.

When I next had breakfast with Sven, I related the strange unit and before I could finish my sentence Sven asked with slight surprise and levity:

“Haven’t you heard of a kip?”

My mind screeched to a halt, the walls began to close in on me, and time ceased for a microsecond.

“A what?” I blurted.

“A kip, a kilopound?”

No, in fact, I had not. Sven asserted the “unit” was not uncommon in the US.

I stated with incredulity: “Metric prefixes with non-SI units?—that’s just wrong. It’s twisted.”

Sven told me to look on Wikipedia for Kips, he suspected there would be an entry. There is, and reading it only distressed me further.

A kip is a non-SI unit of force. It equals 1,000 pounds-force, used primarily by American architects and engineers to measure engineering loads. Although uncommon, it is occasionally also considered a unit of mass, equal to 1,000 pounds, i.e. one half of a short ton. One use is as a unit of deadweight to compute shipping charges.

1 kip = 4448.2216 Newtons (N) = 4.4482216 kilonewtons (kN)

The name comes from combining the words “kilo” and “pound”; it is occasionally called a kilopound. Its symbol is kip, or less frequently, klb. When it is necessary to clearly distinguish it as a unit of force rather than mass, it is sometimes called the kip-force (symbol kipf or klbf). Note that the symbol kp usually stands for a different unit of force, the kilopond or kilogram-force.

The kip is also the name of obsolete units of measure in England and Malaysia.

When I checked the reference, I found out that the kip has alternative definitions, making it a retread unit:

In England, at least as early as the 16th – 17th centuries, a unit of count for skins, 30 for lamb and 50 for goat. Also spelled kippe, kyppe, and kipp.


In Malaysia, ? – 19th century, a unit of mass primarily used for tin, about 9.19 kilograms. link to a chart showing relationships between units of mass in Malacca  Said to be equal to 37½ Dutch troy pound, but that is difficult to understand, as it is much closer to 37½ marks trooisch.

Dutch troy pound?—marks trooisch? A kilogram-force?—called a kilopond? Who could confuse that with a kilopound?

Wikipedia made matters worse for my blood pressure by also telling me:

There are also reports of engineers using base-ten SI prefixes in combination with Imperial or US customary units, for example the kiloyard (914.4 m). The kip or kilopound is regularly used in structural engineering. Similarly, the kilofoot is quite common in US telecommunication engineering, as significant distances in cable route planning are usually given in thousands of feet. Instruments like optical time-domain reflectometers usually have an option to display results in kilofeet

Humans seem to relish creating new units, and apparently are most interested in doing so when they have no idea how to use commonly accepted ones—you know—SI.

When I operated an offset printing press years ago I went to a technical lecture on how to understand all the interrelated parameters of this printing method. One needs to mix fountain water of a printing press with a small amount of acidic chemical, generally just called fountain solution. It is then best practice to measure the PH pH of the solution and make certain it’s within an accepted range. If the PH pH varies, and the acidity becomes too large, it can damage the printing plate. As I recall, the amount of fountain solution was about 50 mL to a liter of tap water.

The technical lecturer then related that he was called into a printing company to investigate problems with plate wear and printing quality. He asked the pressman how much fountain solution he puts into a liter of tap water.

The man replied “two glugs.”

Yes, he was taking the bottle of fountain solution, turning the bottle over and counting two glug sounds. He had created a new proxy unit, where sound would be used to measure liquid volume.

I’m sure a lot of American engineers might laugh at this story, but apparently they don’t seem to realize that creating kilopounds, kiloyards, kilofeet is not far from determining the dynamic breaking in kilopounds needed for a set of railroad tanker cars with 500 kiloglugs of water in each.

Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many American engineers see nothing wrong with feral and mongrel units, and have tried to justify them, rather than “giving in to metric.”  One may not judge a book by  its cover, but I’ve often had a hard time not judging engineers from Engineers according to their preference for metric or not. It’s long past time that American Engineering, Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical, Civil, Nuclear and so on, demand and embrace metric in the US. Unfortunately US engineers may be desensitized to these scientific absurdities because they grew up in the perennial Barley Corn Hillbillies zeitgeist. When one is surrounded by a world measured with imperial and a science classroom where metric is taught in isolation, it’s tough not to be inculcated. However, this is no excuse. In Engineering the simplest way to solve a problem is often the best and most robust. Engineers are taught to express formulas produced from mathematical derivations in the simplest form possible. Why should measurements be any different? Everything you need to express engineering quantities, in the simplest manner possible, is provided by the metric system. One possible way to determine the difference between Engineers and engineers is that the former use kilonewtons (kN) and the later use kilopounds or kips. The feedback I’ve received from well known engineers (and scientists) which I have approached about endorsing metric, has been tepid or non-existent. It seems very much like a “foolish consistency” to me.

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16 thoughts on “Kiloglugs of Liquid?

  1. PH? For a blog on measurement, you should know better..


    From the chemical symbol for Hydrogen and, well the p is less defined. Some say power (or the German/French words for power). In modern usage, it just means “decimal cologarithm of” (the concentration of Hydrogen). Regardless, the p is never capitalized.

  2. I appreciate your efforts and support the movement to the metric system in the US. I deal with detailed measurements every single day as a drafter, and I can attest that there are a lot of times when it’s obvious using metric system would be more appropriate, especially pertaining to gauges of sheet metal and tubing (a “gauge” is different from material to material) and the “numbering” of bolt sizes. I can also attest that nearly every desk in my building has a printout somewhere on the walls with fractional and decimal conversions.

    However, I have to say, I’ve been following your blog for several months, and it has started to take on an exasperated and self-righteous tone that betrays the message you’re trying to convey. Your posts seem to be headed in the direction of the extremist rantings of a fundamentalist when what I really want to hear is the sober apologetics of a researcher. I’m not certain who your target audience is at this point, for your film or your blog, but I’m a supporter of your cause, and I find myself reacting against your message due to the way you’re presenting it. I can only assume that someone not as keen to convert to SI would have a dismissive reaction at best. I truly wish you the best with your project, and I want your film to be a success. I hope you have the discipline to keep some of your gut reactions in check in the future. You can do better!

    • I appreciate that you are reading my blog. I am not making a film. Linda Anderman is making one. I am a Professional Engineer who, I believe, has every right to be exasperated at this point after 180 years of resistance to the metric system. It is one of the reasons I began this blog. I have written about gauge early on. It is called Don’t Get Engaged with Gauge. I may appear sanctimonious as it is hard to present such irrational information without appearing so independent of the prose chosen. We are saddled with the dogma of Ye Old English units, and have been since the beginning of the republic. I do not see my position as one of fundamentalism, mine is one of change. To press for professionalism in the technical trades and studies, and for the US as a whole, I do not see as a problem. The resistance to this message for almost two centuries is. This weekend I had a retired math teacher and engineer laugh dismissively when I told them the Australians build their houses with millimeters. I am met with this reaction constantly. I see plenty of prejudice against changing accepted weights and measures dogma, that is fundamentalist.


    • I have to disagree with your response. This is exactly what metrication in the US needs, someone willing to be pushy. Too much time has been wasted on the soft weak approach. This is the type of approach metric haters prefer as it gives them comfort in that it means metrication will never occur.

      The USMA is approaching its 100th birthday and it has always adopted the sweet and sugary approach rather than one that is more aggressive. The result has been a metrication that has barely happened and where it did happen it was outside of their influence.

      The auto and other industries didn’t take the approach you prefer, they took the aggressive approach to the point of not hiring workers opposed to the metric system and blacklisting suppliers who refused to comply. If you want something done and done quickly you have to be forceful and aggressive or else it simply won’t happen.

      When I read comments like yours I’m remind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. An opponent to metrication pretending to be a supporter and insisting that metrication not be by decree and threatening not to support metrication if it is. Such supporters metrication doesn’t need.

      • “Daniel,” have you taken the pushy approach in your own profession, or are you still peddling products signed exclusively in in.-lb., without even metric conversions?

        We favor the use of in.-lb., but certainly would provide equivalents. Dual units hurt no one except for revolutionaries who want to mandate change.

        Seriously, why don’t you climb off of your internet soap box and effect change in YOUR OWN WORKPLACE, before you harp on a group, incidentally, the same group that banned you from its mailing list, for being too nice and not taking enough action. . .

  3. Imagine the horror of the engineer and math teacher if you told them Americans build cars (and light trucks) in millimeters. But we do. We encounter plenty of suppliers and some engineers who don’t want to work in metric. But that’s all right, there are more out there who will, and we just keep looking. Those who hate metric should recognize it is a litmus test to us, we need to consider you no further.

    However, to add to your horror, microinches (25.4 nm) are another mongrel unit widely used in the electroplating industry, also surface roughnness.

    I am not going to 100% agree with Alex, but your blog can be a bit strident. As American industry is split, it might be worth looking for examples in slightly different fields which ARE metric, and do some comparisons. In hybrid cars, what you are calling dynamic braking from the locomotive industry is called regenerative braking and is an important aspect of the improved fuel economy of hybrids (the other two are shutting off the engine at stop lights, and using a smaller engine because you can also tap the electric motor for peak acceleration power). I’m not aware that we display it to the driver, but the system strategy is to first use regenerative braking, and only use friction brakes when regen can’t supply the driver-demanded braking force (always happens at low speed, may happen in panic stops). Perceived handling requires a smooth transition between the two.

    • Something to keep in mind here—it’s been mentioned before, but bears repeating—is that this is an advocacy blog. Being a dispassionate researcher can certainly be beneficial, but generally only when people are paying attention. When a nation is in a centuries-long snooze, being a literary gadfly may be more effective. The problem is that it’s generally not possible to be both. That said, a great deal of basic research does go into these: I know of no other metric advocate, of any stripe, who has actually slogged all the way through the 240-plus pages of John Quincy Adams’ haverings on weights and measures, only to discover that what J.Q. was saying wasn’t what most metric advocates today seem to think he was saying. The Maven is also, notoriously, an advocate for the kind of active and coordinated national program of metrication that got Australians metric in a single decade, and at negative cost. This preference stems from our being promised a metric future, way back in grade school, at a time when there was reason to think the promise might have been kept. Well, we’ve been kept waiting personally all our lives—as a nation for centuries—and told that if we just kept thinking happy thoughts, Tinker Bell would eventually perk up. It’s pretty much a given that you will see further occasional displays of impatience.

      You speak of regenerative and dynamic braking as being the same thing, only in different industries. Actually no, they are fundamentally different. Both have the motors in the wheels of the respective vehicles running as generators, to reduce kinetic energy, but the similarity ends there. In a hybrid car, the energy is regenerated (more properly recovered) in a battery or flywheel or other energy storage device, so that it may be returned to the wheels later. This is a real saving of energy. What was happening in the locomotive was far less interesting, and to give the filmmakers their due, they were careful to call it dynamic rather than regenerative braking. Such a locomotive is equipped with what amounts to a gigantic toaster in the roof, and a big fan to keep it from melting. The energy from dynamic braking is thrown away completely, just as the energy from ordinary brakes is thrown away. Not a single joule is saved, it’s just blown out the roof rather than heating the wheels. The only saving is a certain amount of brake shoe, and you may be sure the railroads have calculated to the penny the life cycle cost of brake shoes versus putting giant toasters in locomotives. That the filmmakers were doing everything they could to make this sound radical was another reason for having some fun with this, but it wouldn’t have been apparent to non-engineers. (True regenerative braking is used in some electric rail lines, where recovered energy can be fed straight back into the power grid.)

      • Sven,

        Apparently not in production yet, but locomotive builders are designing true regeneration into next generation. Just an example:

        Of course it is an advocacy blog. However, success stories and why they are successful can be an important tool in advocacy, the comparison between success stories and failure stories even more so. Automotive went metric for about the same reason as Australia; it saves money, at least if you decide to go metric efficiently and look for savings opportunity.

        The steel industry told Congress how expensive it would be for them to metric. When automotive told them we would only buy metric sizes in the future, they asked what sizes we would like. 🙂 Those sizes are now widely used in the appliance (white goods) and some other industries. The heavier bars, plates, beams which are used in construction, not automotive, remain customary.

        • How much does it now cost the steel industry to produce two almost duplicate sizes?

  4. In computing, there is a practice much worse than using an SI prefix in combination with outdated units, which is using those prefixes to mean “something near to”. I’m talking about the incorrect use of units kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, etc. A lot of people (even engineers) think that a kilobyte can mean 1024 bytes, which is not acceptable. Take a look at Wikipedia (which is one of the most used websites), and you’ll see that not only many don’t see this as a problem, but they encourage it. In a tiny investigation (so please take this with a grain of salt), I’ve noticed that those who accept this are all from the US. Please investigate this!

    • BTW, here’s a Wikipedia link:

      (P.S.: I have changed my nickname (to that a kind of trains which I like), so there’s no confusion between “Sven” (who was here much before me; and maybe also he of Swedish origins?) and “Sven G”…)

    • Note that OS X, currently (from Snow Leopard onwards, IIRC), uses “exact” SI prefixes: for example, in the Finder, 1 GB = 1 000 000 000 bytes…

      BTW, a French-speaking(-only) curiosity is that they call the byte an “octet”: thus, 1 GB 1 Go – always original, the French!

      Well – but maybe the octet is more self-explanatory and rational, after all… 😉 🙂

    • I believe now most people interpret a kilobyte and any other prefix of byte to their proper SI meaning. If you have a 2 TB hard drive most people will take it to mean 2 x 10^12 bytes and not some binary meaning.

      • Well this is wasteful and irrational, since bytes and bits cannot be base ten. There is only an on and an off state, so using anything besides a power of 2 is simply throwing out memory.

        1024 is 2^10 10 000 000 000 sub 2. (Or if you want to be a nit-picker, there are certainly nobel candidates for that award here, ten bits can represent 0 to 1023 so 1 111 111 111 sub 2.

        1000 is 1 111 111 000 sub 2. So there are three bits being wasted all to make a number that looks neat in base ten.

    • Things are getting a little odd here. First, it isn’t that “even engineers” do this: they were the ones who started it—back in the 1960s, when a “kilobyte” was an enormous amount of memory, and “megabytes” were still blue sky. Engineers and programmers needed a word for 1024 bytes, and given that this was so close to 1000, it would have been remarkable if they hadn’t borrowed kilo- for their own nefarious binary purposes. True enough, this is a corruption of the pristine decimal nature of the prefixes, but it’s also a small example of how metaphor can meander into a formal system. Anti-metricationists who assert that the metric system impoverishes language should take pause: apparently it does not. In fact, it’s almost impossible to keep metaphor out of of anything.

      Megabyte, gigabyte, and terabyte are still context-dependant, and although I’m usually content to see blame for metric incompetence fixed on my own country, in this case I’d be very surprised if this case wasn’t perfectly international. For external memory (disc memory) terabyte is used in its decimal sense. But for internal memory (“RAM”), gigabyte means 2^30 bytes exactly. If I bought an 8-gigabyte computer, and got only 8,000,000,000 bytes, I would be very displeased—in any country. And that terabyte disc is never more than approximately a (decimal) terabyte, formatted or unformatted.

      The obvious solution is to introduce explicitly binary prefixes, as in the link EuroCity gives. Kibibyte, mebibyte, gibibyte, tebibyte: these are phonetically similar enough to make the analogies plain, while distinct enough to eliminate the ambiguity. The abbreviations are also distinct, and there seems to be some official sanction for the series. The only problem I see is getting people to use them. I tried “gibibyte” on a technician in a computer store recently, and got the expected blank look. Perhaps this has better recognition in other countries?

      EuroCity: When you first appeared as Sven G, we wondered briefly if we hadn’t discovered a friend of metrication in Svengoolie, a popular purveyor, in the US, of gothic films of widely varying quality, rubber chicken humor, and some quite good movie history. You are very welcome under either moniker, but this thread being somewhat train-oriented, your new one seems apposite.

      Speaking of trains, we seem to have gone rather magnificently off the rails. We seem to have gone from the meaning of metric prefixes in describing computer memory, to the internal representation of binary numbers—although it’s actually rather difficult to be sure. Rest assured that whatever the meaning ascribed to kilo-, the four zeros in the binary representation of one thousand (it’s actually 1 111 101 000) are not wasted: they are every bit as significant as the ones—that’s why it’s called binary. Nor are bytes being wasted: those extra 24 bytes will get used, whether they’re included in the word kilo- or not.

      • Sven, the “G” was only for Gustafsson: I’m half Swedish (and half Italian)…

        EuroCity, BTW, is a classification for international intercity trains in Europe:

        Today, of course, there is also a more important network of high-speed trains across the continent (but it could be even better than it is): something that could be a good thing also in the US – of course, if made metrically… 🙂

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