Saturday, June 19, 2010

Living in the Past - The Imperial System

As a Canadian growing up in the 90's I am used to using the metric system for pretty much all measurements.  Albeit I do causally use the Old Imperial system for my personal height, weight and some other incidental social uses but in general I keep away from it.  Why? Because it makes no logical sense.

What is the Imperial System?
The Imperial system as we know it today was inaugurated in 1824 by the British. It was subsequently adopted by as an international standard in measurement. The origins of this system come from just after the turn of the first millennium, 1066, but has been since heavily revised.

When I first moved down to the United States in 2007 I was talking to some Americans who referenced the "standard" measurement, or the "standard" system.  I was confused as to what they were referring to. I came to find out that it was what I knew as the Imperial System.  I was somewhat amused at the name as it showed in my eyes an aversion to the United Kingdom origins and also because the "standard" measurement was somewhat ironic in its title as "the standard" is only found in the United States of America.

Currently there are virtually no countries that use the Imperial System of measurement, but rather they have adopted the Metric system so reasons which will become indubitably clear as we continue.

The Imperial system was discarded starting in the middle of the 20th century, and is now obsolete. The following map shows the adoption of the metric system in the world today.

As you can see the only countries not to adopt the Metric system is the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia.

What's Wrong With the Imperial System?
The Imperial system is very unintuitive and random. To understand it you must remember apparent random numbers, deal in obtrusive fractions where in the dividend constantly is changing, and convert to metric for scientific measurement.

Let us take a look at the current Imperial measurements in relation to their like measurements.

 12 inches = 1 foot
 3 feet = 1 yard
 4840 sq. yards = 1 acre
 5280 feet = 1 mile
 1760 yards = 1 mile
 16 ounces = 1 pound

Volume (Dry)
 2 pints = 1 quart
 8 quarts = 1 peck
 4 pecks = 1 bushel

Volume (Liquid)
8 ounces = 1 cup
16 ounces = 1 pint
2 pints = 1 quart
4 quarts = 1 gallon

Notice the very unintuitive numbers and names. Here is an example - how easy it to remember that a mile is 5280 feet? How easy is it to remember that a cup is half of a pint, or that a quart is double a pint? It a very arbitrary system with little correlation or intelligent logic. 

I worked in construction as a cabinet installer. The problem was that they would use both measurements because even when you are in Canada there are those that still use the Imperial system, or there are objects or material that come from the United States. Striving to make calculations in imperial is about as fun as doing dental work on a tiger. Lets say you had to had to add two imperial measurements, add 23/32 and 3/8.  You would have to times  3/8 by 2 (to make it 6/16) than again by 2 (to make it 12/32) then add it to 23/32 making it 1 3/32. This may not seem very complicated to you, but converting and measuring it with a tape measure several times every day takes up significantly more time than it would in the metric system. 

What is the Metric System?
 The metric system was conceptualized in France in 1791.  In stead of using arbitrary numbers it uses a system based on the number 10, the same system that we currently use to count. In stead of having strange fractions such as 2/32 or 1/64 or 1/8 it uses decimals such as 0.063, 0.016, or 0.125.  These are perfectly standard to each other requiring no conversions or simplifying to use together.  by 

Looking at the above measurements all I would have to do it add .719 (23/32) to .375(3/8) which is 1.094. No conversions no dealing with small integer ticks on the tape measure, as a construction worker it makes it much easier.    

Not only is the number system much simpler the names are intuitive, logical, and are less finite(meaning you don't have to invent new words for larger numbers). Lets take a look at the metric measurements.

Pico    - 0.000,000,000,001
Nano  - 0.000,000,001 
Micro - 0.000,001
Milli   -  0.001
Centi -  0.01
Deci  -  0.1
Deca -  10
Hecto- 100
Kilo   - 1,000
Mega -  1,000,000
Giga   - 1,000,000,000
Tera   - 1,000,000,000,000
Peta   - 1,000,000,000,000,000

And it continues on both smaller and larger. These measurements apply to various measurements: Length, weight, volume, mass, etc.  You don't have to remember arbitrary words and number for different measurements, it is common language in relation to the base measurement (e.g. Meter, Gram, byte, watt).  


For simplicities sake American needs to bit the bullet and finish what they tried and failed to do in the 80-90's change the broken system.  I am no republican, I am not democratic, I am a Canadian, but I see hope in the some changes that are being purposed today in the United States. To change means to admit that you are wrong, or that there are better systems out there. 

I sometimes feel that America turns a blind eye to change because of supposed prosperity, but an inflexible country will not stand long. I would prefer to see the United States as a economic and political world leader, but to continue to be such change is needed. It is something that I think America struggles with, we need to look at things as they are, acknowledge what doesn't work, and embrace the change. America has been a leading power in society for the less than 100 years, I would prefer that it stay as it is now for a longer duration of time.

In closing; when it comes down to it the Imperial system just does not measure up, it's time for change.


Anonymous said...


Ben Mcmillan said...

Lots of countries which are supposedly metric still use a lot of imperial measurements - for example in the UK distance is in miles, weights in pounds.
This is probably even worse than not being metric.

Anonymous said...

To Ben above ^^^ There are likely many reasons for this, firstly the metric system was only really introduced in the 70's ( and therefore there are still many people in work who grew up using imperial and indoctrinated the system in their kids long after the metrification, I myself grew up well after metrification but still am very used to imperial measurements, I would especially find speed, distance and liquid measurements VERY alien if it were (exclusively) in metric.

So what is the reasoning behind this...

Well, as I stated above, firstly "old people set in their ways" is the biggest and most prevailing.... but then the boomer generation are the beginning and end of most problems *sigh*

Second, during the process of major, country-wide change from one system to another, it is always the case you get "entrepreneurial persons" who understand the value of both systems... but the consumers for a while don't. In short, every major transitional period gets it fair share of people using it as an excuse to rip people off. Another example was the (mainland) european switch to the euro.

Thirdly, cultural, as I stated certain measurements are enshrined in british culture, for example let's take the following (stereotyped) sentence: "After a nice sunday roast and a (one) pint at the pub with the family you drive 5 miles home at a sensible 30mph" (p.s. don't drink and drive people)

To me the following sentence "just isn't" british:

"After a nice sunday roast and 0.57 litres of ale at the pub with the family you drive 8.05 kilometers home at a sensible 48.28km/h"

This is most likely (and surprisingly to most non-british people) the BIGGEST reason that we have a somewhat strange dual system where things are marked in imperial but no-one actually uses it... with (ironically to the blog post) the exception perhaps of things to do with property and fittings.

Finally, the metric system is french, which should explain two things immediately, 1) why a canadian would be posting about the metric system and 2) why the british are slow to adopt it. Ok, it's a very xenophobic reason, but nevertheless that sentiment will be there if you scratch beneath the surface. I'm not (at all) saying that's "my" reasoning, merely, I think it probably is an "unsaid" reasoning for many british people!

This leads me back to the main blog post, I must say I do find it perplexing why americans hold on to a british invented system. However, history has proved time and time again the americans seem extremely good at adopting something wholesale, changing it "slightly" then declaring it not only their own, but also that it's a world standard. In my experience of being to america, to most americans declaring something a standard (implying a world standard) "will" be the case, as america "is" the world to them.

Anonymous said...

Whoops, this:

"This is most likely (and surprisingly to most non-british people) the BIGGEST reason that we have a somewhat strange dual system where things are marked in imperial but no-one actually uses it... with (ironically to the blog post) the exception perhaps of things to do with property and fittings."

Should have read:

"This is most likely (and surprisingly to most non-british people) the BIGGEST reason that we have a somewhat strange dual system where things are marked in METRIC but no-one actually uses it... with (ironically to the blog post) the exception perhaps of things to do with property and fittings."


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