The Metrics of Wasted Time

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The late Pat Naughtin argued that it costs each person in the US about $16.00 per day because we don’t have the metric system. At first this seemed hard to believe, but as I’ve observed, it might actually be a bit low. My reasons for believing this are mostly anecdotal, which is always fertile soil for confirmation bias, but I end up hearing so many examples. For instance here is one I was told recently.

“My mom has a great Metric system story for you. She had the oven looked at over the weekend and when we she went to preheat  the oven to 350 F, it wouldn’t get hotter than 290. She opened it to see if it was heating at all and was knocked over by a wall of heat. Suspecting something was very wrong she went to get my dad and a thermometer and found it to be around a raging 550 degrees! I guess reading your post might’ve helped her out a bit here. After my dad took a look at it he found the guy  who fixed it turned it onto Celsius instead.”

The vast majority of temperatures around the world are measured in Celsius, only in the US do we waste effort by using Fahrenheit. But we waste more than effort. My father has told me tales of how the lack of metric has cost money and time at his shop. One that I found interesting was about belts on a bindery machine. Bindery machines are used to create books from groups of printed pages generally called signatures. They have belts which convey the books along. I’ve not been in printing for many, many years. As I recall, most belts have a set of metal staple-like fasteners to join their two ends. This type of belt splice has been phased out long ago apparently and now high tech adhesives are used instead. The adhesive is placed at the splice and then an electrical hot-iron like tool is used to heat and set the adhesive.

It was found that the splices would last from about 6 months to one year, despite the fact the manufacturer claimed they should last for five years. This failure rate was not so excessive that it raised ire, but it did cost more time and resources than advertised. The maintenance person began reading the users manual and it stated that the iron should be set to 100 degrees. An infrared thermometer was used to measure the iron. It was 100 F. The temperature was not specified as C or F. They began to wonder if it might possibly be in Celsius. The entire world, other than the US, would assume temperature in Celsius, but here in the US, Fahrenheit is the default thought. Indeed further research indicated the adhesive needed to be cured at 100 C. The iron was set to 212 F, which is, of course, 100 C. When this temperature was used to cure the adhesive, the belts have remained spliced without failure, with a length of duration as long as the manufacturer claimed.

My father also works on many types of machines used in a print shop. One day a machine which ties bundles of printed fliers failed. He looked at the side of the machine, saw it was made in the US, and assumed it was designed with US Olde English Units. He retrieved the US tools and hauled them across the shop. It was only as he began using the wrenches that he realized the machine was metric. He put all the tools back, and then went to get his metric tools. Of course in the US we have the “advantage” that we get to purchase two sets of tools rather than one, doubling our tooling costs.

An opposite situation happened to me many years ago. My father was on vacation when the latch on the copy-board of the process camera failed. A process camera was used to make negatives for printing plates, today it is no longer needed. The problem was simple, after years of latching and unlatching, the threaded fasteners holding the latch had “stripped out.”  The hole left in the metal was too large to hold a machine screw of the design size. Myself and the camera person took the fastener to a  hardware store. The person there looked at the screw, went over to a cabinet and offered a tap which was “the next size up.” We went back, tapped both holes and the new machine screws fit perfectly. The latch was repaired and I thought all was well.

That belief was shattered when, after he returned from vacation, we told my father about replacing the fasteners. My father asked what size fastener we used. I don’t recall what it was, perhaps a 6-32 or so. When he heard this, my father went ballistic. We were both stunned and asked what the problem was. “This entire camera is metric and you put American fasteners on it, I try to keep all metric equipment metric and all American equipment American. I have no idea if he did anything about it, but clearly if we had become a metric country in 1905, this would probably never been an issue in the latter decades of the 20th century, it would have been assumed at the hardware store, that the fastener was metric. I was very young then. Today I would have measured the fastener myself by determining its size with a screw thread checker, and known better. If we had converted to metric, my only question now would be coarse or fine thread, but alas because we have metric or US Ye Olde English fasteners it is still a toss-up.

The battery on my significant others’ car appeared to have problems one evening. She was across town. It is a Japanese car of mid 2000’s vintage. I brought my metric tools as I have been assured car design is all metric. Well it’s 99.9% metric. In order to preserve the illusion that barleycorn inches from the 14th century are still relevant, the bolts on the battery clamps of cars are US Olde English dimensions. I was very agitated but had the good sense to throw in a crescent (expandable) wrench and was able to get the clamps off and clean the battery posts.

Two or three years later, the car battery finally gave out at an airport. Fortunately, she had AAA. I waited with her as the service truck arrived. The technician pulled out a new battery and laid it on the ground. I saw him pull one wrench out of his pocket and remove the strap which held down the battery. He then put it back into his pocket, he retrieved another and took off the battery post clamps. I asked him “is one of those wrenches metric and the other non-metric?” He smiled back at me and said “yes.” The battery clamps bolts are non-metric and the strap bolts are metric. He pointed out that because they were different types, non-metric and metric, he could not get a single wrench with both sizes on it, so he had to always carry two wrenches.

Metric only tap set with “English” and metric labeling. This is of course impossible — click to enlarge

In my own engineering work, I see small amounts of wasted time constantly. Here is a typical version of the typical story. I receive some dimensions in inches on a sketch drawing to begin a design. I always tell my customers up front I only use metric (only later are some of them shocked when they realize I meant it). I immediately convert the dimensions on the sketch or paper drawing over to metric, and then realize that many are integers, such as 80mm,  150 mm, 225 mm and so on. I wonder if this is a coincidence. I work on the design, and as I confer with my customer about the details I mention that when its converted to metric there are a lot of integer dimensions. I’m then told “oh yeah, this is for a [Fill in the blank with a European, Asian or South American Country] and they sent their designs to us in metric.” I constantly see this happening. It hides the fact that these designs are actually metric, and our US meddling creates pigfish. It wastes time and introduces opportunities for error.

These are US engineering companies with which I work, and they often balk at metric. I have even worked with a medical company which has an engineer who takes umbrage at my use of metric in the designs I’ve presented to them! Medical equipment is supposed to be metric.

Recently I realized that I should buy an actual set of metric taps, rather than the piecemeal way I’ve been purchasing them. When I received the metric-only tap set, it was marked in both English and Metric. This is of course impossible. I had to use my less than optimal eyes with a magnifying glass to insure the taps were indeed all metric. I then covered over the meaningless “English” label so only the metric label was exposed. This just wastes effort.  It’s long past time for this dissonance to have been settled by statute or executive order in the US. It just wastes time and money, among other things.

Voltaire once said that “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Americans are oblivious to the wastes of time created by non-metrication, and without seeing these snowflakes of waste, cannot even conceive there might be an avalanche. There may be eight million stories in the Naked City, but it is hard to estimate how many wasteful stories there are in this Non-Metric Country, but these have been some of them.

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.

17 thoughts on “The Metrics of Wasted Time

  1. As a 7th and 8th grade Math teacher I see a huge waste of time in our use of the US Olde English Units in our Education System.. We spend days and days teaching unit conversions from gals to quarts to pints to ounces, from Fahrenheit to Celsius and Celsius to Fahrenheit, from miles per hour to feet per second (always a challenge no matter the Math level of the student). Our state standardized tests always include questions on these conversions and even includes conversion tables on the State supplied formula sheet.

    Our poor tech ed teacher must struggle with getting student to read and use a ruler and then deal will all the fractions involved. 1/2 inch, 3/16 of an inch, 3/8 of an inch. I often wonder how much of our struggle with teaching and using fractions would disappear with the adoption of the metric system.

    I keep telling my students that my generation failed when we did not follow through with the conversion to metric. I tell them it is now their responsibility to “fix it” so that their kids do not have to go through the same difficulties. One of my advanced classes even wrote a letter to our current President at the end of last year asking him to restart the conversion. As yet no reply.

    • Well, if all young (and youthly, in their souls!) people really used the metric system, both locally and globally, ***in everyday life***, then the “politicians” (sic!) eventually would have no choice: immediate SI adoption, by popular will (see also “We, the people…”, etc. etc.)!

      Sadly, this isn’t the case, also because the school system is rather obsolete and self-referential (personally, I would prefer to see the school superseded by a free network of shared, open source knowledge: not only via the web, but also and above all between real people in everyday life – maybe rather utopian, today, but let’s see, maybe in some decades or so, who knows…).

      As teachers, anyway, you could perhaps radically refuse to teach the US customary system (which, however, would require a unity and ideals that sadly don’t exist, today); or, maybe much better, try to passionately teach young people ***to use the metric system in everyday life*** (eh!) – i.e., turn the young into positive and non-violent revolutionaries, at least in this field (yeah, difficult, but not impossible, if with passion…).

      BTW, I recently made the mistake to buy (via Apple TV) “Star Trek Into Darkness” (sic!): well, living in Italy, of course i got the Italian version; after some time, I suddenly heard something like “30 meters”, IIRC: this, sadly reminds of some US customary conversion; so, please, tell me that that this film didn’t revert to “Ye Old English”, after some time with successful metric units in their future (anyway, this film, too much like Star Wars: nothing to do with the imaginary Star Trek universe; and even the Kilngons – among others – turned into ridiculous alines – well, thats really too much! what a sh…t…)…

      Another rather obscene thing, to say it the British way, in the field of movies and TV serials: the mythical Doctor Who (great!) apparently also uses “Ye Old” (sh…t), sadly (in the Italian version, they use “miglia” (miles: nobody uses that in everyday life, here!), instead of “chilometri” (kilometers) – well, I guess nobody is perfect…

      Well, the US would probably need a Dr Who-like space-time warp/wormhole, in order to “resync” itself with the world! 😉 🙂

      But before that the world must change, of course – the times must change…

        • BTW, here is a rather interesting page about science fiction and measurement systems:

          Of course, the really major problem remaining in SI is that time is not measured decimally, mainly because it is based on our planet’s rotation and revolution around our star, besides on our moon’s cycle.

          Not an easy thing to solve, as long as we remain on Earth…

          For example, we could take the year as the base unit, thus measuring time also in milliyears and microyears; or, conversely, take the day as a base; or just the second (also that a strange, “derived” name for a base unit), as in metric time: but there would no more be an exact correlation with the current system, based on the daily, monthly and seasonal cycles.

          Well, we’ll have to see how this can be solved, I guess…

    • Quote: We spend days and days teaching unit conversions from gals to quarts to pints to ounces….

      That is part of the problem, translating between US and metric units.

      When you learn a foreign language you don’t learn it as something to be translated from your own language and back again, you learn it as something to be used for asking directions, watching movies, composing letters. It should be the same with the metric system. Your students should be learning that a doorknob is about a metre from the ground, and that a nickel weighs five grams.

      Why not teach your students their height, weight and the length of their pace in the metric system, and get them to weigh and measure a few common items, so they get a feel for them?

      • I do not teach conversions from Old English to metric. We talk about metric in terms of things the kids know i.e.. 1 mm is about the thickness of a dime. Our principle is 2 meters tall. Their pinkie finger is about 1 cm wide. They are all aware of metric liquid measures in metric thanks to Coke and Pepsi.

        The waste of time I was referring to was the difficulty converting units of measure in our current measuring system.

        The only time we do conversions to metric and visa versa is with temperature. I use this opportunity to develop the Algebra equations necessary to do the conversions. We need to do this in PA because it is tested on the state standardized test.

        • Sorry, I misunderstood you. It looks as if I failed Reading Comprehension.

  2. I think before anyone sees the light and realizes that America needs to metricate, Americans have to be jobless, homeless and starving. When the economy is supposedly going good Americans see no need to metrication. When the economy is weak, metrication becomes an expensive folly.

    I would be curious how one labels a metric screw tap in USC. I once thought if we are stuck with USC screws they should be renamed with a metric size, preceded by the letter “I”. A 1/4-20 would become an I6.35 x 1.27. All inch fasteners should have a metric head so only a metric set of tools are needed. In fact, I’ve encountered a number of Chinese products forced to use inch based fasteners as having metric heads, so the Chinese don’t need to use inch tools.

    • Addendum: It appears that a #6-32 works out to a M3.5 x 0.8 mm. A standard M3.5 has a thread pitch of 0.6 mm, so the inch version is course compared to the metric version.

    • I should have looked at the picture a little closer before I asked. As I already mentioned though, a 6-32 is equivalent to am M3.5 x 0.8, which is not a standard size. The M3.5 x 0.6 mm is, and yet the box labels it as an M3.5 x 6, missing the decimal point. Also, none of the metric sizes are correctly written as SI rules require a leading zero to the left of the decimal point if the number is less than one.

      What it seems to me is that the container was meant to be a one size fits all and the it would be used if all the taps were metric or all the taps would be inch. If selling inch taps the holders would be filled with the listed inch taps. If selling metric taps the holder would be filled with the listed metric taps.

      The problem with this is you can never be sure which taps are actually in the box. You would have to look at each tap. If you assume and guess wrong, you could be tapping the wrong size thread. And that in itself can be a cost casualty to add to the growing list.

    • BTW, here is an interesting article on the (UK) Metric Views site:

      … And, yes, probably it is rather utopian to think that people (young or not…) will stimulate metrication with ideals that sadly aren’t present, in this “society” (or, rather, in a largely indifferent mass of self-referential individuals? who knows…): so, being forced by circumstances (i.e., international trade) is perhaps the only option left, after decades of almost nothing done.

      It shouldn’t have been so, however…

      • … And of course also in Europe there isn’t enough “unity”: the continent metricated a long time ago, but there is still rather a mess of old (albeit decimal) units still circulating, and also errors when writing units in everyday life.

        For example, in Italy, many people still write, for example, “mt. 5,00” (completely wrong) instead of “5,00 m” (the right way); and quintals and cubic centimeters are still used, among other things; and so on (probably the situation is similar also in many other countries of the EU).

        While, for example, Sweden is much more virtuous on this front (Scandinavian simplicity and rationality? who knows…), also being one of the very few countries in the world to officially adopt the ISO date format (YYYY-MM-DD), also in everyday life: also because people take these things more seriously, probably.

        Anyway, besides fully metricating the US and UK, there should also be more attention towards superseding a “customary” use of the metric system which sadly is still prevalent in many countries: i.e., don’t use obsolete (albeit decimal) units and formats anymore, in everyday life.

        OK, enough said (and sorry for the too long posts)…

  3. Some years ago, when Canada was more metric than it is now (i.e. prior to NAFTA), I was a consultant on a major hospital in Toronto. We were into digitising and re-measuring the entire hospital (some 100 000 m²), and the question came up, that, since so much of the hospital was built in pre-metric days, whether the exercise should be done in imperial or metric.. The architects quoted a certain fee to do the job in metric units – and 15% more to do it in imperial. Metric ruled.

  4. A few years ago, following an incident that we had read about in a newspaper, a friend and I were trying to estimate the size of a sphere that would hold 2000 [British] tons of water. It took me less than a minute to estimate the size of the sphere as being about 17 metres in diameter (without using pencil and paper or any other external aids). I used the approximations that 1 ton = 1 tonne, a kilogram of water has a volume of one litre, so a tonne of water has a volume of 1 cubic metre. This reduced the problem to solving the equation 4*pi*r^3/3 = 2000 (r is in metres). Setting pi=3 and working in units of 10 metres, the problem became one of solving r^3 = 0.5, giving r as being between 0.8 and 0.9, or d being about 1.7 or about 17 metres. When I gave my answer, my friend was busy multiplying 2000 by 2240 to get pounds of water, before dividing by 62.5 to get cubic feet.

  5. I have often thought of how much more it costs companies to print SI units along with the outdated units on such things as food labels, magazine pages, internet news screens, automobile instruction manuals, etc. Each individual label probably doesn’t cost much, but multiply by untold numbers and the costs add up. Also, how much more does it cost automobile manufacturers to produce speedometers with both units and to also place systems in cars that enables one to switch the odometer between both units of measure. My wife’s bathroom scale has a switch that enables it to be read in either SI or the other version of measurement. I use kilos when I weigh. How much more did it cost the manufacturer to put a dual system in each scale? To be included in all of these costs listed above, the time of the workers involved in calculating the difference between both units, designing the product, obtaining the raw materials and manufacturing must also be considered. If the expenses could be totaled, they would most probably be astronomical.

    We can all hope that 2014 will bring progress. Happy New Year to all!!!

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