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IMPERIAL MEASURES - THE ORIGINS
This is a brief description of how some of our measures have evolved, rather than be arbitarily imposed upon us. That is why they have lasted so long.
It is followed by a letter from Sam Malin in reply to a Canadian e-mail received via this site.
The imperial system has its origins in the mists of time. The ancient Egyptians certainly used a version to build the pyramids. It is based upon human quantities, ie. an inch is a "thumb", a foot is a ... er.. foot! Another standard for an inch was three barleycorns. A yard is the distance between your outstretched hand and nose, etc. A cupful is the amount of water you can hold in your cupped hands. A hundredweight is the most a person can carry. A handy sized throwing stone weighs a pound.
Imperial measures are usually based on 12's or 16's because these can be divided into fractions.
The metric system was devised at the time of the French Revolution in a frenzy of destruction of all things ancient. In 1795 they calculated (inaccurately) the distance between the north pole and the equator and divided it by ten million to produce the metre. It related to nothing on a human scale although was a bit larger than a yard. Everything is based on the unit ten which is very inflexible, albeit easy to calculate. If it was such a good system why do the French pack their wine bottles in boxes of 12?! A third of a metre is an infinite number! Actually Napoleon detested the metric system!
The metric system has never been adopted voluntarily. It was a criminal offence to use the old imperial system in France, just as it has now been made so in Britain.
V Linacre arr D Delaney
I accessed your site by error and I was, surprised, fascinated, and most of all shocked. What are you talking about? I have read with interest you "rage" against the metric system. I am not sure if you understand it or even if you understand the system you conveniently call "IMPERIAL". What imperial? Rome Imperial? Do you know the Empire finished about One Thousand years ago? ... Canada is not metric and the old system is still in use? You are kidding! [Very long message severely snipped!]
REPLY FROM SAM MALIN
You letter to BWMA was forwarded to me, a fellow Canadian.
You obviously live in a different Canada from me, or, perhaps more accurately you see the world, or at least Canada, through metric-tinted glasses.
Let's walk together from my apartment on Burdett Avenue in Victoria. As we leave the drive we pass the 5 mph sign on the left we turn left - ah there is the entrance to the law courts parking lot Max Height 6'7" (1.98m) is marked. I offer you a coke "on tap" at the Macs - is that 8oz 12oz or 16oz.
Shall we drop into Safeway - you show me lots of metric packaging (often with exact equivalents of Canadian units e.g. 568 ml, 454 g etc). But then I draw your attention to the Lucerne butter in a plastic container labelled 1 lb. And I drag a reluctant you to the loose fruits and vegetables where, like everywhere else in Canada they are priced sold in pounds and ounces (with kg and g sometimes indicated).
You are pretty upset and say lets take the ferry to Vancouver to get away from these "imperial" (more on "imperial" later) units. Again with apparent shock, you notice that the distances to the ferry terminal and intermediate towns like Sidney are given in miles as well as km. When we arrive at the terminal, the boards giving the fares state that vehicles over 20 feet (no metric equivalent given) long. We arrive in Tsawassen, on the Vancouver side, driving to Vancouver we pass some small farms for sale - 25 acres, 45 acres no hectares. On arrival in Vancouver there are some large notices placed by the city by the roadside concerning re-zoning. All dimensions are in feet only. Similarly, signs up for office space and apartments are in square feet ... only. We cross Vancouver to take the Skyride up Grouse Mountain. The (new) information board at the bottom states that the vertical climb is 4500 feet (and only in feet).
Let's go to Alberta shall we? No you say - you have already seen the dual unit height signs on bridges there.
We then talk about other matters and in passing you ask me my height (I am tall) "six six" I say. You then state your height in feet and inches. I don't rub it in - for virtually all Canadians of all ages give their heights in feet and inches and their weights in pounds.
Let's go and have lunch with my friend Blair, an architect. Inevitably measurement comes up. You are fishing for an ally. I almost feel sorry for you as Blair says that on the occasion he gets metric plans he translates them into Imperial (sorry but that's the word he uses) so the carpenters and other builders can make use of them. In any case, it is a lot easier as lumber is sold in - dare I say it? I will!: IMPERIAL (Sorry Antonio).
Lets go fishing. We can compare the weight of catch with the other people fishing . We always talk pounds and ounces.
Shall we go diving at Deep Cove -
even the up-to-date internet site gives all depths in fathoms. Can you
fathom that Antonio? I'd go the extra mile for you but I fear if I a give
you an inch you'll take a yard. I hope I'm not getting miles off subject.
Our measurements. Our language. Our culture.
If you are still with me, I would like to take the time to rebut some of the other points you raise in your e-mail. Don't leave me now, you might learn something about your own country, about history and about measurement.
On Imperial. Well as you should have already inferred, Imperial is not from Imperial Rome but from Imperial Britain. We know where miles comes from and the same goes for pounds. These units are founded in human experience based on human dimensions. Ok, now metric is simple and scientifically proven. Antonio, what do you mean by scientifically proven, could you explain?
I don't want to upset you with too much reality so henceforth I shall do what the Government of Canada does when referring to our traditional units and call them Canadian units not Imperial.
The next few paragraphs are based on the freedom2measure web site:
Accuracy (I know you have already conceded this point but you might find the argument interesting) Where a metric unit exists along with a standard Canadian equivalent, neither one nor the other is more accurate. In 1959, all countries using traditional units such as inches, feet, miles etc. decided that an inch would be defined as 25.4 mm exactly (or 1 cm = 1/2.54 inch). Other traditional units were similar defined (1 pound = 453.59237 g - or 1 kg = 1/0.45359237 pounds exactly). This means that Canadian units are as standardized and as accurate as any metric unit. As for evidence of this, consider the fact that man was put on the Moon, a task requiring almost unimaginable accuracy and precision, using customary units. If you think that that is out of date ... the Space Shuttle Program runs with customary units as does every Boeing coming off the assembly line today. Too American? Ok, as does every Bombardier aircraft coming off the assembly line today.
Decimals and Fractions Metricators will sometimes say that decimals are more accurate than fractions. There are a couple of responses to this. One is "So?". If instead of saying half an inch someone wants to say 0.5 inches, fine, let them. Or if someone wants to write a figure down as 0.341 ounces. Decimals and fractions are not mutually exclusive, they are both useful and available for use. There are cases where one is better than the other. If something is 0.197 inches long, many may prefer to write 0.197 than 197/1000. Conversely, many may prefer to write (or say) 1/3 (one third) of an inch (or centimetre!) than 0.3333333... (zero point three three three three repeated). The use of both fractions and decimals is appropriate to either system. Except for two facts... Given the base ten myth (see next paragraph) the metric system does not enjoy some magical advantage when compared to the Canadian system. The Canadian system is decimal friendly. On the other hand, the fact that 12 and 16 can be more easily divided into convenient fractions does mean that the Canadian system is more fraction friendly than the metric system ... read on ...
The Base 10 Myth The fact that metric units are base ten in fact has virtually no relevance either to day-to-day life or to scientific and engineering manipulation. This is because conversion between units of the same dimension (e.g. centimetres to kilometres) is rarely necessary or useful. Just consider practical experience. If you are working in a unit, say miles or kilometres, you stay with that unit. So if a distance is 121.5 miles you do not also think that it is 213,400 yards any more than you think that 121.25 kilometres is also 121,250 m. Also, if you must travel 294 miles from one town to another and then 35 miles onwards to a third town, the fact that the metric system uses base 10 for inter-unit conversions does not make the calculation 294 miles +35 miles=329 miles any easier than if it had been 294 kilometres + 35 kilometres = 329 kilometres. Even so, ironically enough, if you want to convert between units, we today can do it much more easily than our ancestors because of technology. If Canadian measurements are so complicated how did our parents and grandparents and their ancestors survive when they did not even have calculators? Now, we have far more powerful technical mathematical tools than previous generations had - calculators, computers etc. Interestingly, none of these machines use base 10. Without getting too technical, the reason that these tools are non-decimal is because base 10 is a poor system of calculation. This is because it can be divided by relative few other numbers - 1, 2, 5 and 10 - without giving a fractional/decimal result. Half of ten is 5. Beyond that it gets messy. Half of 5 is 2.5. Half of 2,5 is 1.25 and so on. 12 is better. It can be divided neatly by 1,2,3,4,6 and 12. And dividing by 2 gives us 6 and then 3. 16, found in our weight and volume units, is even better - prime factors 1,2,4,8 and 16 and dividing by 2 gives us 8, 4, 2, 1 etc. This is the binary system used by computers!
This points to advantages of manipulation in many Canadian units since when we work with amounts we often manipulate in terms of halves, quarters and even thirds. To be sure of being objective, think of situations free of Canadian or metric units. Sharing out a cake. Dividing up a document so that it fits on a diskette. Folding a piece of paper. More often than not divisions with which we are comfortable, halves, thirds, quarters come into play. Divisions out of which our customary system of measurement has grown. Half a foot is 6 inches, a quarter is 3 inches a third is 4 inches. Half a metre is 50 centimetres, a quarter is 25 centimetres and a third is 33.3333.... centimetres. Take your pick.
There is a simple piece of empirical evidence that points to the fact that the entire world can handle units that are not in base ten ... Time. Nowhere are there 100 seconds in a minute, 100 minutes in an hour and 10 hours in a day etc. And yet the world manages to tell time and to calculate time-related problems.
Temperature is a particularly interesting case. This is because we do not convert between different scales of units of temperature (i.e. we do not speak in millidegrees of Petadegrees etc.). Thus, base ten enters the Centigrade/Celsius system only in that there are 10 times 10 degrees between the freezing and boiling point of water. This is an utterly arbitrary way of fixing the size of a degree. In fact, under SI, water freezes at 273.16 K Furthermore, since the size of a degree Fahrenheit is smaller that that of a degree Centigrade, when describing the temperature around us Fahrenheit is more accurate!
Human Scale of Canadian Units
The fact that our units have different names for different scales of experience - for example we say six feet two inches and two pounds four ounces, reflects the fact that the human brain is better able to manipulate figures that are of a manageable scale. The metric equivalents, 198 centimetres and 1002 grams (or 1.02 kilograms) are numbers that are more difficult to visualize. (Under the metric system, you do not say 1 metre and 98 centimetres or 1 kilogram and 2 grams.)
Forced Change in Perspective
Awkward Impractical Names
One World or a World of Traditions
It is often said that the rest of the world uses the metric system so we must also.
First, taking this point at face value, the following question should be asked: Why? The value of our cultural heritage is vastly more valuable than say putting up signs with bridge heights in metres instead of feet because others do so.
This example comes from some French friends of mine who recently got back from England and told me that they had been disappointed on a recent walk around London to find that various metric direction signs are appearing (including the sign to the restrooms). They said that when they visit England they go for the differences not the similarities with France. They said that they could not understand why the British would lose part of their heritage and way of looking at the world by steamrollering away feet, miles, yards, gallons, pints etc! And they added that if England loses much more of its Englishness, they will not bother going back.
The advantages of our Canadian units is put forward in detail in this reply. However, the most fundamental reasons why metrication should be stopped in its tracks is because it is an unnecessary destruction of part of our culture and heritage. Moreover, and as Canada is a democracy this point is not unimportant, the vast majority of Canadians prefer our Canadian measurements where they have not been steamrolled. To unnecessarily change a fundamental aspect of our culture against popular opinion is simply wrong.
Against Pressure to Conform,
Diversity Lives On
Napoleon on Metrication
(The French people in fact did not readily take to the metric system. They only seriously began using it when forced to by legislation in the 1840s. Even today certain non-metric units survive in specific applications.)
The Democratic Deficit
But: Who ever asked the Canadian people if they want to have part of their culture erased by metricators?
The Example of the European Union
The Work of Unelected Metricators
Sam Malin, P. Eng.
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