Metrication matters - Number 15 - 2004-08-10
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
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My wife, Wendy, responded to the story about the statisticians and the deer by saying, 'If you've got your head in the fridge and your feet in the oven, on the average you're comfortable!' After mulling on this for a few days, I informed her that with the refrigerator at 4 °C, and the oven at 180 °C, the average would be a most uncomfortable 92 °C. On hearing this she immediately commented, 'I didn't say whether either of them were turned on!' Aaaarrrgggh!
One reader liked the Biblical references in Meticatrion matters 14 and remarked, 'Thank you for the Biblical feast'. She then quoted 'Thou shalt not have in thine house divers measures, a great and a small' (Deuteronomy 25:14) and 'Divers weights, and divers measures, both of them are alike abomination to the Lord' (Proverbs 20:10) and then pointed out that this is what many traders are currently doing. They buy in metric units, and they sell in any old units that the punter will stand for. The example she gave was of the computer industry that designs, and builds everything with metric units and then labels the screen size in inches! Aaaarrrgggh again!
Go the last millimetre
We are often confused when we try to answer the question, 'Is this industry, or that industry, metricated yet?'
This is because many metric industries dumb down their measures when they sell to the public. Most of the world's manufacturers design in metric units, purchase all of the parts to make their goods in metric units, construct in metric units, sell (to the wholesale trade) in metric units; and then they dumb everything down for their ultimate customer, the members of the public (who are sometimes known as the lucky punters).
Although all British Standards are fully metric and their users are fluent in metric units, but this does not necessarily reach the consumer. The following examples were sent to me from a friend in England.
(a) British Standards use the watt (W) as the unit of power. However, product documentation still frequently expresses power in horsepower (HP) for engines or British thermal units per hour (BTU/h) for central heaters and air conditioners.
(b) Although the British Standards Institution (BSI) recommends the international A sizes for paper (BS ISO 1008:1992 - Photography - paper dimensions), this standard has not been adopted by manufacturers of filing cards or of photographic paper. Commercially available photographic prints are commonly 6 by 4 inches (152 by 102 mm) rather than the recommended A6 size (148 by 105 mm). This apparently small difference is sufficient to make the standards mutually incompatible and leads to enormous waste of paper. The A and B series of paper sizes were specifically designed to limit, and in many cases to eliminate, paper waste.
(c) Following previous unsuccessful attempts to establish international standards for clothing sizes, which failed to be accepted by the clothing and retail industry, a renewed attempt is being made to develop a new Europe-wide standard based on metric body dimensions (draft BS EN 13402). The British Standards Institutution (BSI) carried out much of the research for this innovation, but it remains to be seen whether the reform is accepted by industry and consumers.
(d) In accordance with the Energy Information (Refrigerators and Freezers) Regulations 1994 (SI 1994/3076, as amended), refrigerators and freezers are legally required to be labelled with standard information such as net usable internal volume in litres (L). However, many retailers confuse the consumer by giving the internal volume in cubic feet (cu ft) when many refrigerators are labelled in litres, making comparisons between refrigerators and freezers much more difficult than they need to be. (By the way, when you are buying a refrigerator freezer you can estimate your needs by allowing 200 litres for two people plus 20 litres for each additional member of your family. However, if you are a grandmother who entertains lots of grandkids, this advice won't make much sense.)
(e) The British standard for measuring instruments (BS 4484-1 – Specification for Measuring Instruments for Constructional Works) has recommended, since 1969, that folding and retractable steel rules and tapes should be exclusively metric, with the primary graduations at the top edge of the rule or tape. It is in fact virtually impossible to obtain such instruments in the UK from either trade or DIY suppliers. As a result, carpenters, bricklayers, furniture-makers etc, who work from exclusively metric drawings and specifications, are obliged to use dual measure (imperial/metric) instruments with feet and inches as the primary measure on the top edge of the rule or tape.
(f) The Passenger Car Fuel Consumption Order 1983 (SI 1983/1486, as amended) requires the motor trade to give fuel consumption figures in litres per 100 kilometres (L/100 km), with the alternative of miles per gallon. Neither of these measures is of much help to British motorists since, although fuel is sold exclusively in litres, road distance signs and car odometers still display miles.
Many industries have taken advantage of the financial and efficiency gains made possible by using the simplicity and honesty of the metric system, but they are not prepared to share these advantages with their customers – they have yet to 'go the final millimetre' in their metrication process.
Friesland, in the Netherlands, has eleven towns, and the distance between them is a little over 200 kilometres. The famous 'Eleven Towns Tour' began in the 18th century, and participants skate through all the towns of Friesland in one day. To get the 'Eleven Towns Award' your pass has to be stamped in all eleven towns and you have to be back in time.
The tour is not held every year, as it depends on the weather. To participate, you have to enrol as a member of the Eleven Towns Society, but as there are safety considerations, only 16 000 participants receive a pass, and the membership book is often closed for decades. Personally, I will wait till they reduce the number of towns to ten – to make it a decimal tour (and I don't know how to skate)!
In Australia, the standard cup size, used for cooking, is 250 millilitres. This means that 4 cups are one litre and two cups are half a litre. This selection made fractions of cups a little difficult for me – until I decided to cheat. I now think of a standard cup as 250 mL if I want one or more cups, but – here's the cheat – I think of a standard cup as 240 mL if I want a fraction of a cup. By doing this ½ a cup is 120 mL; ¾ of a cup is 180 mL; and 1/3 of a cup is 80 mL. The missing 10 millilitres is only equivalent to two teaspoons and obviously less than this for fractional quantities of a cup. There are very few occasions when this will affect the end result.
5 Signs of the times
Jim Elwell, an electrical engineer in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA picked up a Carb Solutions Chocolate Crisp candy bar recently. When he got it home, he noticed that the label read: NET WT. 1.06 OZ (30 g). He reckoned that the candy bar was clearly packaged as a 30 g candy bar, but then a conversion to ounces had been made before the priority preference was given to the old ounces. As they didn't say whether they were dry, fluid, or Troy ounces. we can never be sure! Jim Elwell (at http://www.qsicorp.com noted that the Carb Solutions Chocolate web site shows all their candy bars as 30 g (or 60 g for protein bars), but their other products are all sorts of odd sizes. See: http://www.carbsolutions.com
Thomas Jefferson (1743/1826) was clearly a supporter of decimal number systems when he said, 'When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred'.
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8 Rule of thumb
Here is the recommended illuminance for various jobs: in an office use 300 to 500 lux (lx); in a laboratory use 300 to 500 lx; and in a production facility use 500 to 750 lx. Does this make production workers twice as bright as office workers?
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 England in 1303, an Assize (a meeting to regulate the weights and measures of articles offered for sale) was held. One of its decrees read:
From this, in 1303, it is clear that several measures with the same name – pound – were to measure mass, weight, money, and capacity or volume.
... an English penny, which shall be called sterling, round without clipping, shall weigh 32 grains of wheat dry in the midst of the ear, and twenty pence do make an ounce, and 12 ounces one pound and 8 pounds do make a gallon of wine, and 8 gallons do make a London bushel, which is the eighth part of a quarter'.
At that time, there were several English pounds: the Tower pound was probably the one meant by the Assize, but there were also lighter pounds such as the subtill pound and the foyle pound.
Later, the troy pound and the avoirdupois pound were introduced from France, to join the other pounds in England. I leave the ideas of the 'subtill pound' and the 'foyle pound' to you and your Google.
By the way, the current 'pound' in use in both the UK and the USA is the modern form of the French Avoirdupois pound; this is actually a 'metric pound' as it is defined in the UK and in the USA as exactly 0.453 592 37 kilograms. This French avoirdupois metric pound is the pound used in the famous 'pound of bananas' or 'metric martyrs' kafuffle in England; apparently, they don't want the French metric pound replaced by any other French metric kilograms.
10 Hidden metric
Could it be that the metric transition of the motor vehicle industry (that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s) is being obfuscated by their public relations 'experts'? An article in the Salt Lake Tribune (syndicated from The Washington Post) reported that the new hybrid Ford Escape has a '2.3-liter, 133-horsepower (99 kilowatt equivalent) gasoline engine that works less in city driving ... by letting its '70-kilowatt (94-horsepower equivalent) electric motor takes over for urban duty'.
Why do I get the feeling the engine was designed as a 100 kW engine, then dumbed-down and rounded to 133 horsepowers and then back-converted (smartened-up?) and rounded incorrectly to 99 kW?
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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