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Monday, August 13. 2018
So-called "imperial" measures, or British Imperial, are or were practical, while metric measures are somewhat more arbitrary.
The mile, as the word implies, was 1000 paces of a Roman soldier (mille passus), but the concept evolved and changed and now there are all sorts of miles despite the kilometer taking over in most places. The American mile is about 1700 yards, but the origin of the yard is obscure.
What countries do not use the metric system?
Quiz: What do people mean by a "country mile"?
Posted by The Barrister in The Culture, "Culture," Pop Culture and Recreation at 14:10 | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)
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There are two kinds of countries. Those that use the metric system and those that have landed men on the moon (shamelessly stolen from someone on FB)
As a consulting engineer I work in both US Customary (not quite Imperial) units and both Metric and SI. Note that metric system is not the SI (or system international). The older metric system tried to be somewhat practical, while SI is fixed on natural ratios of fundamental units.
When steam engines ruled the world you needed a measure of power that people could relate to . That was naturally horsepower. At the time horses provided almost all motive power not done by waterwheels. A business man evaluating a new steam engine needed to know how many horses it would replace. So standardized measures of horsepower were created. The metric version or Cheval Vapeaur was very close to the Imperial version. Today the metric unit for power is kW (kilowatts) for all uses not just electrical power.
A car's power output is more relatable in HP than in kW in my opinion.
All measuring units are arbitrary, so the only advantage of the metric system is that it based on decimals. Even that is not much of advantage, especially in every day life. I can quickly divide a foot or yard into halves, thirds, and quarters. What is a third of a meter? If the quick and easy division into common fractions is not an advantage then why do we still use the 24 hour clock with 60 minute hours?
It would have been more practical to take the most common measure of the time, the imperial mile, and overlay a decimal system. But of course, you can't be using the British system when you're busy chopping off the heads of nobility and clergy.
Why are there 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day? Who decided on these time divisions?
THE DIVISION of the hour into 60 minutes and of the minute into 60 seconds comes from the Babylonians who used a sexagesimal (counting in 60s) system for mathematics and astronomy. They derived their number system from the Sumerians who were using it as early as 3500 BC. The use of 12 subdivisions for day and night, with 60 for hours and minutes, turns out to be much more useful than (say) 10 and 100 if you want to avoid having to use complicated notations for parts of a day. Twelve is divisible by two, three, four, six and 12 itself - whereas 10 has only three divisers - whole numbers that divide it a whole number of times. Sixty has 12 divisers and because 60 = 5 x 12 it combines the advantages of both 10 and 12. In fact both 12 and 60 share the property that they have more divisers than any number smaller than themselves. This doesn't, of course, explain how this system spread throughout the world.
Phil Molyneux, London W2.
Dirtyjobsguy is right. American engineers use a variety of units systems depending on who and where their clients are. But almost all American engineering is done in customary US (not Imperial) units. I was taught at least seven separate systems, including both the Imperial and US systems, cgs, mks, SI, poundal, and slug.
On the other hand, the US is one of the original signers of the Paris convention on units, and all American units are legally defined in terms of metric units. E.g., 1 inch is defined to be exactly 2.54 centimeters.
The UK did not sign the original convention.
There are periodic efforts to impose metric units on the US, but the US economy is too large, bigger than the rest of th G7 combined, and there is too much accumulated stock and title deeds to make a go of conversion.
Dirtyjobsguy is also right that the customary American evolved naturally, which occasional fits of imposed rationality, whereas the modern SI system is the product of academic physicists who are obsessed by creating an almost axiomatic system based on a few principals, e.g., one mole of C-14 as the basis of mass.
In one physics class the prof had us use the furlong-slug-fortnight system for a week.
It's just arithmetic to switch among the various systems, but there's no question SI is one heck of a lot easier for engineering. For everything else, who cares? People like to use units they're used to and have a natural feel for.
A "country mile" is somewhat more than "a piece" but not so much as "a fur piece". (Whether "a fur piece" is "a far piece" or "a fair piece" is another question.) Out in the country, it's harder to judge a distance such as "4 blocks" or "just past the 7-11" or "the next street after Fairburn Avenue" the way city folks do, not just because there's no blocks, no 7-11 and no Fairburn Avenue, the distance isn't a human-scale distance like a few inches or a few feet and the road is liable to be hilly and curvy where the "as the crow flies" straight-line distance and the odometer reading on your car are two very different things.
Other country measurements:
A tidy step
A good ways
Up the road a piece
Out of Range
Clear to hell and gone
Plumb nearly--plumb out of the country and nearly out of the world. Example: Their farm is plumb nearly.
A great fast shuffle by Rory Gallagher. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ja6HmnHQhx4
One of many...
On September 23, 1999 NASA lost the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft after a 286-day journey to Mars. Miscalculations due to the use of English units instead of metric units apparently sent the craft slowly off course -- 60 miles in all. Thrusters used to help point the spacecraft had, over the course of months, been fired incorrectly because data used to control the wheels were calculated in incorrect units. Lockheed Martin, which was performing the calculations, was sending thruster data in English units (pounds) to NASA, while NASA's navigation team was expecting metric units (Newtons).
We wouldn't have had the great "Gimli Glider" story without
conversion confusions between metric and imperial units.
I wrote the article on the Country Mile for Yankee Magazine over forty years ago. It is abridged here: https://newengland.com/yankee-magazine/living/new-england-environment/going-the-extra-mile-knowledge-wisdom/
For temperature, Centigrade may be superior for many scientific endeavors, but for human living, Fahrenheit is better for human living. 0-100. Anything below 0 is Too Damn Cold. Anything above 100 is Too Damn Hot.
Without reading the definitive article, a country mile is roughly the same distance as one mile as the crow flies. Road miles to cover it are considerably longer. My neighbors over the next ridge are 200 yards away. A mile down my road, .2 miles to theirs, and a mile up their road to drive there.
We were all set to convert to Metric in the 70's. The kids had been taught metric in schools, most things sold by weight had both pounds and kilograms printed on the packaging. Road signs were in metric and miles. Then some senator put up a bill to "delay" the change over to metric. One of his constituents/donors/cronies got him to implement a delay so that he/his business wouldn't incur the costs of the conversion. After that congress never set the change over date again and it all went by the roadside. The metric system is better for a number of reasons and it costs us millions, perhaps billions every year we don't change. And yet some congressman was bought off cheap to screw up the conversion to metric. I wonder how cheap it is to buy a congressman???
I'm a ship's Captain and can tell you that the Nautical Mile for distance and knots for speed will never be replaced by anything metric or otherwise. The reason is quite simple: The Nautical Mile (roughly 6,080 feet) is the measure of one minute of latitude. It's how we measure distances on charts. For the same reason, the knot (nautical miles per hour) will remain in use.
A couple of related tangents.
Prior to the adoption of the metric system, both England and France used feet and inches. However, they did not use the same value for the inch. Thus Napoleon seemed to be rather short when to the British when the difference between the two measurement systems was not taken into account.
Secondly, in order to make sure two items would fit together or otherwise compare them, it was necessary to know if they were built to French rule or to English rule. Many craftsmen wouldn't be bothered to work to either standard, but would just use convenient measurements based on body parts. Thus their goods were said to be built to rule of thumb. That expression has nothing to do with the stick with which you could beat your wife, no matter how many times that story is told.
Imperial units are human-based (foot) whereas the meter was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, a much larger world-sized standard.
Imperial units are better for everyday measurements; metric is easier for physics and engineering.