Saturday, February 3, 2018

Pound, Kilo, and Kelvin: Measuring Science

Sign of the former Weights and Measures office, Seven Sisters Road, London, EnglandThe good news is that Imperial Forces are losing the battle for planetary dominance. The bad news is that we still play for their team.

The British Imperial System of measurement, born in 1824 to help streamline a host of odd units inherited from various cultures, was at the time an improvement. In 1965, the UK adopted the decimal-based metric system, despite the fact it was invented by the French. Today, metric is universal in science and medicine, and of the 195 nations on the planet, only 2 have yet to abandon the former British system for general commerce.

Being obsessed with the levy and collection of taxes, the British monarchy was never a slouch at taking stock of things. Mostly other people’s. Tenth-century Saxon King Edgar the Peaceable supposedly had a royal bushel made for the kingdom. Who knows how it was established, but I guess being a ruler entitles you to measure anything. Even the Magna Carta mandated a “… standard width of russet and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges.” (Please don’t ask me what that means.) In the Middle Ages, a rod, equal to 5.5 yards, was calibrated to “the length of the left feet of 16 men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church.” I assume feet fresh from church ensured an honest measure.

Along the way, someone must have noticed that feet came in different sizes, and that having four different-size gallons which varied by what they were intended to hold, was confusing. So, enter the British Imperial System. It designated a single gallon measure, but spared the 12-ounce or Troy pound to remain beside the 16-ounce (avoirdupoid) pound we use in the U.S. for everything not gold or silver.

Although the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is based on old British units, it was not revised when the Brits enacted the Imperial System in 1824. Consequently we wound up with a “Queen Anne wine gallon” (231 cubic inches), 17% smaller than the British gallon. Our bushel (2,150.42 cubic inches) is 3% smaller than theirs, too, and our ton came up short as well. I chalk it up to unresolved motherland-issues from when we were a colony.

For those of us not endowed with a math mind, the U.S. Customary system is an imperial pain in the brain. If 16 ounces or oz. (of anything but gold or silver) make a lb. or pound, how many oz. in say, 3.71 lbs? I get stuck on how “oz.” and “lb.” should sound in my head, and why we don’t get better abbreviations, never mind how to do the math without a calculator.

Then there’s the metric system. Adopted into French law in 1795, it uses decimals with 10 as the base, rather than 12, 16, 5,280, or whatever else a given Imperial unit is based upon. I get it that 31,000 meters make 31 kilometers, but ask me to multiply 31 miles by 5,280 feet, and I’ll get back to you in a day or so. The main problem is that while I understand 16 inches — a piece of firewood — it is hard to picture 40 centimeters, the same length.

The metric system is governed by an international conference which maintains standards for the meter, kilogram, ampere, degree Kelvin, and other base units in the Système international d’unités or SI.

According to the heart surgeon who sliced me open ten years ago, there is a round piece of plastic inside my heart, marked “Edwards Life Sciences 32mm. USA” It sounds a lot more professional than “15/16 of a barleycorn,” three of which once equaled an inch.

I would really like to see a push toward modernity and away from a system abandoned by the very culture that created it. As it stands, some of our products are measured in drams, minims, grains, furlongs, short tons and long tons. Americans make up only 4.4% of the world’s population. It would seem prudent, not to mention economically advantageous, to measure our goods in a way the rest of the world can more easily understand.

However, if I ever score a Troy ounce of gold or silver, I will not complain about units.

Photo: Sign of the former Weights and Measures office, Seven Sisters Road, London, England, courtesy Flickr user Nico Hogg.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


7 Responses

  1. Smitty says:

    Fun article. Keep up the good work.

  2. Indeed an excellent survey and history. I add two notes and a story.
    The problem you mention “I understand 16 inches — a piece of firewood — it is hard to picture 40 centimeters, the same length” has disappeared a few miles west of us here in Buffalo. It does take time to get used to a new system but youngsters who never dealt with the old do not face that problem..
    We had begun the changeover when Ronald Reagan nixed it. Publishers of school texts that had already converted were nearly bankrupted by having to go back.
    I was in England shortly after they converted their finances to decimal. I asked an elderly shopkeeper about the change. Her response: “I don’t know what the government did with all those farthings they took from us.”

  3. Randy Fredlund says:

    Adirondack residents are in a perfect position to institute the changeover. 255 is a much better assessment of the warmth of a winter morning than zero.

  4. The reason why they even came up with the metric system in the first place because there were a hundred and eighty-five some countries with each with their own measurement system, trade was a little ridiculous!
    And yet here we are 2018 and America’s still trying to trade with the World of a different measure system! Go figure… And good luck…
    Only two industries is holding America back from actually converting over a hundred percent… The construction industry and the national highway system with the people who run it!

  5. Dan says:

    The metric system is grey, boringly uniform and has no soul. Think Orwell’s 1984. The English system teaches one to think using intigers and multiples of other than ten. And a foot is, well, a foot.

    Feel free to use the metric system for science. Me, I’d rather go hiking for a couple of miles…

  6. Bill D. says:

    I remember Elementary School in Massachusetts in the 50s where we were told that the metric system was right around the corner. So we do the family tried to understand it. But to our detriment, it has been a very long corner.

    • Bill D. says:

      Autospell: “dutifully” became “do the family.”
      Seems like the British measuring system is at work inside autospell.

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