Metrication matters - Number 13 - 2004-06-10
1 Feedback - notes and comments from readers
3 Oddities - measurements from around the world
4 Tips - pointers and methods to make your measurements easier.
5 Signs of the times
7 Q&A - readers' questions and answers
8 Rule of thumb
10 Hidden metric
Last month I shared with readers of 'Metrication matters' an item which began:
'You're right about the metrication issue. Anybody of my age or younger – I will be 41 next month – has been taught the metric system since the age of 5'.
In response to this I received this letter, also from England.
I am 40. I have never been taught Imperial measures in school and yet I am surrounded by people who talk about inches, pints, miles and ounces. I find it quite obscene that I have to learn about measures that were declared moribund before I could walk.
Why did the government listen to the old stick-in-the-muds? It didn't happen with decimal currency because it couldn't. Talk to a twenty year old about shillings and he will think you are talking about Austria, before the Euro. This is how it should be. The past is a different country, we have moved on.
But why did we allow some conservative old fogeys to keep on talking about their miles, pints, ounces, stones, feet and Fahrenheit? We should have buried these things in the 1960s when we left the shillings and 240 pence in the pound nonsense.
Tens, hundreds and thousands. So easy to calculate. So much easier than twelve pennies in a shilling, twenty shillings in a pound, sixteen ounces in a pound, fourteen pounds in a stone. Not to mention gills, chains, rods, poles, fathoms, bushels and firkins. A cube 100 millimetres by 100 millimetres by 100 millimetres defines a volume of one litre, if you fill it with water it has a mass of one kilogram. If you raise the temperature to 100 degrees the water boils. Cool it to zero degrees and it freezes. This is simple, this is elegant, and this is beautiful.
The oldies say: 'Don't talk to me about them kilo-whatsit things laddie I think in inches'. But, the oldies are trying to force me to think in old measures too — despite the fact that all the old measures were scheduled for replacement four years before I started primary school.
It is time we buried the imperial system. The only way do do it is to be draconian about it.
Do not allow people to ask for, demand or even talk about imperial measures. If you don't draw the line like that, the old fogeys will force it down our necks for ever more. Why must my children, and probably theirs as well as our grandchildren and great grandchildren, have to learn about pounds and inches just because some older people will not make a little effort?
Name and address supplied
Readers will recall the survey from the last edition that contained three questions. My comments are interspersed.
Which topic is the most useful to you?
I was surprised that so many people liked the historical references – the puttonyos was particularly popular. As one example, Guy Le Couteur wrote: 'The most important topics to me deal with the colourful history of weird and wonderful measures from the past such as the puttonyos. Please waste more of our time this way, it brings the history of measurement to life - and the more of these measures you can find, the more compelling the arguments for measurement rationalisation . . . by presenting the "Tower of Babel" in the measurements world, you can put a great argument for a lingua franca . . . all the variety is very colourful and lots of fun - but it's not at all practical'.
Which topic is the least important?
The answers here were mixed, as they tended to reflect the personal interests of individual readers. I could see no pattern to these response.
Have you have any suggestions for new themes for 'Metrication matters'?
Again I could discern no particular trend but I will be influenced by all reader's suggestions and recommendations in future editions.
Thanks to all the readers who responded for your help, and for your time.
A 'Metrication matters' reader, Han Maenen, recently travelled to England from the Netherlands by ferry. He noted, 'When I was on the way back I was invited to visit the bridge of the ship. Apart from the nautical mile and the knot all other measurement data were in metric. The 'fathommeter', for instance, did not measure in fathoms at all, making 'fathommeter' just a name for an instrument that measures depth at sea. It was a digital one and it recorded a depth of about 55 m under the keel when I was on the bridge. There was one person on the bridge and the ship was sailing on the automatic pilot, all on its own!'
Read this list aloud:
kilogram, kilohertz, kilolitre, kilometre, kilonewton, kilopascal, kilowatt.
Then read this list aloud:
nanometre, micrometre, millimetre, metre, kilometre, megametre, gigametre.
Now repeat the above two lines several times getting faster all the time.
And see if that gets kilLAHMetre out of your verbal pronunciation system.
The main reason that the pronunciation, KILLometre, is recommended is because it is the one pronunciation consistent with the rest of the metric system.
5 Signs of the times
A Georgia (USA) company, Merial Limited, makes a product to help treat fleas on dogs. Supplied through veterinarians, the product is sold according to the dog's weight, and these are listed on the packets as: 11-22 lbs, 23-44 lbs, 45-88 lbs, and 89-132 lbs. Somebody is not telling pet owners (and their dogs) that these values have clearly been converted from the exact metric values: 5 to 10 kilograms, 10 to 20 kg, 20 to 40 kg, and 40 to 60 kg.
'You, in this country, are subjected to the British insularity in weights and measures; you use the foot and inch and yard. I am obligated to use that system, but I apologize to you for doing so because it is so inconvenient, and I hope all Americans will do everything in their power to introduce the French metrical system . . . I look upon our English system as a wickedly brain destroying piece of bondage under which we suffer. The reason why we continue to use it is the imaginary difficulty of making a change, and nothing else; but I do not think in America that any such difficulty should stand in the way of adopting so splendidly useful a reform'. From a lecture by the English physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin 1824/1907) in Philadelphia (1884 Sep 29).
Q: I cannot recall if you have ever run an issue-by-issue list of as many outdated measurements as can be found. For instance, one month, you could ask people to send in every measure they know for land area and its metric equivalent. No doubt you'd get a list of over a thousand different local measures ...
A: No, 'Metrication matters' has not done this. When the urge descends upon us to research old measures, we simply refer to Russ Rowlett, Director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at the University of North Carolina, at any of his web pages, such as: http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/dictA.html where we are soon intrigued and then sated with measures such as:
arm's-length, arpent (1), arpent (2), arratel or artel, arroba (@), arshin, artaba, and the as.
Then we recover ourselves, shiver slightly, and get back to the business of metrication.
8 Rule of thumb
If you multiply the diameter of a tree trunk by 10, you will know the approximate radius of the tree's roots. This is normally about the drip line of the tree. For example, a tree with a 200 millimetres trunk will have a drip line at about 2 metres (200 mm x 10 = 2000 mm = 2 m).
To fertilise trees supply 20 grams of complete fertiliser for each millimetres of trunk diameter. For the tree in the above example (with a 200 millimetres trunk) you will need 4000 grams (20 x 200 = 4000 g = 4 kg) of fertiliser.
A large tree has an evaporative cooling capacity of about ten kilowatts (10 kW). This can be compared to a single room size air conditioner with an energy input of about 1000 watts (1 kW) with a cooling capacity of a little more than 2000 watts (2 kW).
By the way, I am always on the lookout for 'Rules of thumb' to add to my collection. I prefer metric ones but I also like to convert 'Rules of thumb' from old units to SI units. Please send your 'Rules of thumb' to
In Japan room sizes are quoted by real estate agents in 'tatami' or 'jo'; a bedroom is about six jo; smaller rooms are four or five jo; and a living room might be 14 jo. Traditionally, Japanese floors were covered with mats called 'tatami' – and each 'tatami' was supposed to have an area of one 'jo'. These mats gave their name to measuring the area of floors – you simply work out how many tatami mats (how many jo) you will need to cover your floor. Unfortunately, this method only works if there is a standard size tatami and this seems not to have been the case. 'Tatami' (and therefore 'jo') vary from real estate agent to real estate agent. (Note: I wonder why the involvement of 'real estate agents' doesn't fill me with confidence).
When you are next seeking accommodation in Tokyo or Osaka, you will find that smaller tatamis are used for measuring apaato (small apartments) and bigger tatamis are used for measuring houses or mansions. Also note that modern 'tatamis' seems to be shrinking; older places have larger six tatami rooms than the six tatami rooms of newer places. See: <http://www.teaching-english-in-japan.net/conversion/japanese_jo > Just remember not to order your furniture until you have measured your new rooms to the nearest millimetre.
10 Hidden metric
In the current climate of increasing oil prices, it is interesting to note the tenacious use of the barrel to report prices of our precious oil supply. I suspect that this is done simply to confuse the general public. When petrol is approaching a dollar per litre, it might not be in the oil company's best interests for the public to know that at $40 per barrel, it only costs the oil company twenty-five cents per litre (25 ¢/L) to buy. ($40 ÷ 159 L/barrel = 25 ¢). How much are you paying this week?
Pat Naughtin is a writer, speaker, editor, and publisher. Pat has written several books and he has edited and published many others. For example, Pat was the lead writer of a chapter of a chemical engineering encyclopedia, and recently he edited the measurement section for the Australian Government 'Style manual: for writers, editors and printers'. Pat has been recognised by the United States Metric Association as a Lifetime Certified Advanced Metrication Specialist.
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