By The Metric Maven
When I decided I would change my engineering lab over to metric, I immediately and unknowingly encountered the limits imposed by the Invisible Metric Embargo. I was mantled in American ignorance about what I needed for tools. Finding them would become an odyssey. “Where could I get a decent “meter stick?” was my first question. Clearly Canada is a metric country. I will get online and purchase rulers from there I thought. I spent a lot of time and found only wooden meter sticks. They were all in centimeters, and within the confines of my blissful ignorance that seemed fine. At that point I was only disappointed with the poor quality of the rulers I obtained. I use a milling machine to create printed circuit boards (PCB) with millimeters and wanted a fairly large sized scale. I measured the board dimensions with the Canadian metric ruler in centimeters, shifted the decimal point in my head and then would check against my millimeter drawing.
About that time I wrote a pro-metric editorial for a local paper, and in response received emails from Pat Naughtin and Mike Joy, both from Australia. Pat congratulated me on the editorial; Mike wanted to provide help. When I described my current work, Mike offered to send me a millimeter only ruler. I did not want him to go to the expense, and I really could not see the need. Mike insisted. He told me that he had used centimeters, and they had caused mistakes. He assured me I would see the light after he sent me “real metric rulers.” When the 300 mm and 600 mm rulers arrived at my door, I was engaged with milling a PCB. I removed the rulers from the shipping container even as the mill was running. When I started to check dimensions, I was truly shocked by the amount of eliminated mental effort produced by this simple change. I immediately planned on banishing my centimeter “yardstick” from Canada to an uncomfortable place in my garage.
Sven counseled me about centimeters a fortnight or so before, and I really didn’t see why they were a problem. I began watching Naughtin’s videos, read his metric epistles and the light went on—centimeters really are a bad idea. I had already purchased a centimeter tape measure and now I really did not want to use it. Naughtin pointed out that Canadians, despite their official metric status, did not adopt metric in their housing construction. I went online and looked for millimeter only metric tape measures in Canada. I looked and looked but all the hardware stores offered mostly inches, centimeters, or combinations thereof.
Not long after this, Mike Joy visited the US and brought along a very nice Australian millimeter-only tape measure. I offered to purchase it from him, but he had a person in Vancouver Canada to whom it was promised. I was really jonesing for the tape measure. This was yet another confirmation that Canada was not the place to find millimeter-only metric tools and is part of the Invisible Metric Embargo.
I wanted to put together some type of metric cookbook, and I figured Canada might have some I could purchase. I contacted a number of persons in Canada who had Canadian cook books for sale. They informed me they all used Ye Olde English measures. One woman was clearly confused why someone from the US would want a cook book in metric. Peter Goodyear (another Australian) later offered useful links to some useful Australian cooking websites.
I have only spent about three hours in Canada, and most of those were in a restaurant. I had come to the conclusion that Canada was not nearly as metric as it would appear. I wondered about England, and based on my Canadian experience began to doubt how metric it might be. Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association convinced me that the UK is about 80%-90% metric. England is not Canada, It is very close to being a completely metric country.
I began to see both Canada and the UK as inverse metric m&m’s. Canada has a thin outer metric coating and looks metric on first glance, but hidden inside its slim shell is an unappetizing center of Ye Olde English/Imperial usage. England’s m&m outer shell makes it look like an Imperial nation. Roadways have miles, pints are sold in pubs, metric martyrs are in the news, but when you get past the outer shell, the interior of the English m&m is all metric.
In Early February of 2016 a small engineering company in Ohio contacted me. They found the Metric Maven website and wanted to know if there was any place, other than Australia, where they could purchase millimeter only tape measures. I told them that the Fastcap 32 was the only one I knew of available in the US, and it is not nearly as high a quality as my Australian ones. The Fastcap 32 was not good enough for this engineering company’s needs. I finally directed them to a number of Australian sites. They had the same concern I did when I first ordered some from Australia, that the tapes which arrived would be in centimeters and not millimeters. I had to tell them that I’d never found a millimeter only tape measure in Canada (not even an inch/mm tape) and there would be little hope other than Australia to purchase one.
Less than a week later an email arrived from a recently retired woodworker in Canada. He had been thinking about switching to metric in his work, and it came to him that a millimeter only measuring tape would be a very simple way to dimension his work all in integers. He stated that he had come to this conclusion independently and then did a web search to see if a mm only tape measure existed and where he could obtain one. The search directed him to this US based website, where he found images of millimeter only tape measures. The woodworker was quite surprised to find that an Invisible Metric Embargo exists in both the US and Canada. He could not find a mm only tape measure in Canada, nor in the US.
On 2016-03-05 a carpenter from Western Australia had an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit. Here was a bit of the exchange:
Mr Gupples: always wondered about stud placement in metric countries. maybe you guys dont use the metric system, i dont know. do you do 16 on center there? are plywood sheets 4 x 8?
Australian Carpenter: Stud placement is typically 600 center to center. That’s basically 2 foot. It gets tighter in cyclone prone areas. 450 centers. That’s 1 and a half foot. All measurements in millimeters.
We still use feet and inches but not for anything precise. Some older blokes will still call a sheet of ply an 8 by 4 rather than a two four by twelve.
Samz0rpt1: weird. canada uses 16 oc and 4 by 8 sheets. so do you guys have metric tape measures or do you use metric imperial ones like what you would get in home depot (hardware store)
Australian Carpenter: Meteic [Metric] both sides.
The use of millimeters is seen by Samz0rpt1 as “weird.” He wants to know how on Earth millimeter tape measures can be obtained. I’m assuming he is probably Canadian and is as surprised as the retired Canadian woodworker about the Invisible Metric Embargo. I see this shock on the faces of US engineers every time I tell them about metric construction. Provincial, thy name is American.
I won’t chastise Canada too much for their non-metric ways in housing construction. They clearly know better, but they have the overwhelming negative influence of an ill-tempered Olde English bully to their south with which to contend. This antique non-metric country to Canada’s south still constructs all their houses in inches, with all other compliment of irrational Ye Olde English measures for plumbing and such. The best way to help make the US more metric might be if Canada would take the lead with metric construction, because I see no way the Frozen Republic in the US will ever mandate metric. Canadians, please try to muster up as much outrage as was found when the beaver was to be taken off the nickel, and implement millimeter metric construction in Canada. It only took the Australians about 18 months to complete. Perhaps this will help the backward neighbor to your south to finally see the advantages of metric they currently cannot even contemplate.
When John Shafroth was introducing metric legislation in the US at the end of the 19th century, Canada was on board. Here is an article from the December 30, 1900 issue of The Times of Washington:
Canada began its metrication 70 years later, but has stalled out with a metric system implementation that is but a veneer. It’s been 115 years, it’s time to ignore the US and complete your metrication. If you did, this American would thank you for it.
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.