EngSpokenRED.jpg (13479 bytes)     BRITISH WEIGHTS AND MEASURES ASSOCIATION
Return to main menu
rulerfadeRED.jpg (3463 bytes)

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

Dear xxxxxxx,

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. 
I could go on and on and on. The point is Imperial is not held to by "sticks in the mud". It is our culture. Our system. Metric has been forced on Canadians against even the will of the engineering profession. It has gained some currency where the government has a measurement monopoly - e.g. speed limits. Wherever people have a choice they stay with imperial. And that word bothers you. Well, I would tell you a rose is rose by any other name. The reason the word came about is because the measurements are those as standardized throughout the British Empire. The empire is no longer with us. But Canada was a colony and then a dominion in that empire. Thus Canada used that set of units. But, you might be interested to know, and I do not want to keep this from you, that the Weights and Measures Act does not use the term imperial (though it is commonly used by ordinary Canadians) - it prefers the term "Canadian Units". I won't belabour the point since I'm sure you know what I would add. On the subject of that Act, I imagine you know that a memorandum to the Act in 1985 froze metrication in Canada.

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
Another factor is that our customary units are simply more human because they are developed in reference to the scale of the human body. An excellent example of this is length where a foot and an inch are directly derived from lengths found on our own bodies. To see how we scale the world, take a look on you desk. Most of the items will be on the scale of inches to a foot. Centimetres - an arbitrarily-defined unit - are too small - metres are too big, and millimetres are far too small. This does not mean that metres are centimetres are bad but simply shows some of the advantages of our customary units. Indeed, these advantages are implicitly acknowledged by the fact that we are talking about the metric system. The accepted standard international system is SI, Système International (see below), in which centimetres are not used, but instead metres or millimetres take their place. But because the centimetre is nearer the convenient and comfortable scale of an inch, it lives on.

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
We have had plenty of time to choose the units we want for different applications. We have adapted them to the way our minds work. Metric units, which are imposed, often have a conceptually different basis. Take grain from farms for example. We measure this in bushels. A bushel is a unit of capacity. Our unit is based on the amount of space that the grain occupies. However, in metricated countries, the unit is the kilogram, a unit of mass (not weight!). Conceptually, and abstractly, in the grain example, this refers to the amount of matter that makes up the grain. Perhaps you thought that a kilogram measured weight? No. The unit of weight in the metric system is the Newton (or sometimes, the dyne). Like I said, the concepts in the metric system are different. Very often they are less practical because the units did not evolve out of human experience (see below).

Awkward Impractical Names
The naming system of the metric system is systematic but repetitive. Humans find words that are distinct easier to store. The metric system does not lend itself to this. In fact, the reason that non-standard names have evolved for metric units is to increase the contrast and thus memorability of different units. For example, kilogram and kilometre are often referred to as kilo and click respectively. The fact that the names for metric units are unremarkable and confusing is simply because they were artificially created; they did not evolve over time from human experience. In many cases, the abstractness of the names means that any feel of what they actually mean is lost. For example, under the metric system, the unit of pressure is the Pascal. The traditional unit is pound per square inch. Clearly, the traditional unit is clearer to visualize it is more practical.

Recipes
Traditional recipes use units such as cups, tablespoons and teaspoons. This units are readily visualized and are based on utensils in our homes. Metric recipes use milliliters and grams. Unfortunately for cooks, these are abstract concepts invented by scientists that are impractical in the kitchen. Let's keep our recipes understandable and practical.

Sexist
The metric system has been almost wholly created and standardized by male scientists and bureaucrats. At the time, during which women were considerably less liberated than today, woman had virtually no say in the creation and, in many countries, the imposition of these units. Perhaps, if they had, the value of the practical units used in those tasks undertaken by woman at the time would have been recognized.

Système International/Metric System
Strictly speaking, the international bureaucrats who try to impose measurements on people, do not promote the metric system but the Système International (or "SI"). The difference is that SI excludes many metric units. For example, centimetres are not part of SI. For measurement of distance, millimetres are ok, metres too and also kilometres but not centimetres. The reason centimetres live on is because they are the nearest in size to a convenient length. (No surprise that the inch, which evolved directly from human needs, is a similarly sized unit.) Interestingly, despite the best efforts of the metric bureaucrats, human nature is not entirely suppressible and the International Committee for Weights and Measures whose toy is the Système Internationale, is constantly revising units. At the same time different countries using metric units show preferences for different, often non-SI units. For example in France, agricultural production is often measure not in kilograms, or grams but in "qx" - metric quintals! In this, our traditional units, standardized by international agreement in 1959 are more stable than metric units.

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
It is often said that the United States is the only major country using this system. This is, however, false. See my comments above on Canada. Not only are there other countries that still mostly use their traditional units (e.g. United Kingdom - despite propaganda that claims it went metric in 1972), but traditional units live on throughout the World. For example, France, the source of the metric system, uses pouces (inches) for tires. In Ecuador, gallons are measured in gallones. In China, distances are often measured in li. And in countries where the Government has attempted to steamroller away traditional units, they live on.

Napoleon on Metrication
Some claim that Napoleon deliberately and happily carried the metric system to those parts of Europe that he conquered. In fact, his own feelings on the system were less than complimentary: The scientists adopted the decimal system on the basis of the metre as a unit." Nothing is more contrary to the organization of the mind, memory and imagination. The new system will be a stumbling block and source of difficulties for generations to come. It is just tormenting the people with trivia."- Napoleon Bonaparte.

(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
It is unacceptable that the way we measure, which is fundamental to how we see the world, to our culture and to ourselves, is being attacked without any recourse to the democratic process. It is wrong that there is no public debate, no vote on whether the people want change. If the Canadian people are asked, and a majority say they want complete conversion to the metric system, even though I do not like it, I will have to go with the democratic decision.

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
Popular opinion in the UK is against the metric system, even amongst the young who have had an entirely metric education. This has meant that the UK (and also Ireland) has shown considerable resistance to going metric, something that the European Commission (an unelected, unaccountable bureaucratic body) is pressuring them to do. The European bureaucrats do not appreciate this show of individuality and of disregard for their projects. Thus, the European Union has created a "Directive" that makes it a criminal offense in the UK and Ireland to use traditional units. However, the use of these units is not a criminal offence in any other member of the European Union.

The Work of Unelected Metricators
The metric system has spread through the lobbying and implementation efforts of bureaucrats, technocrats and other individuals and bodies not representative of the majority of the population.

The Writer
Perhaps you think I'm some out-of-touch old artsy guy. So I better let you know that I am in my thirties and a geophysical engineer who has lived in various countries around the World. Unsurprisingly, I am fully capable of working with the metric system. In fact, I am probably more at home with a wider variety of metric units than most people who have used the metric system since birth. I am not against voluntary use of the metric system. I accept that in certain scientific and engineering realms it is widely used. However, I am not comfortable with it, least of all in my day-to-day life. And I take exception to the suggestion that Canada is happily and anywhere near fully metricated.

Best regards

Sam Malin, P. Eng.

Design & Layout © S-Print 2001. Text copyright of individual contributors