Measures and mistakes due to our lack of the metric system

triptick

The scene when the Spinal Tap’s manager discovers the prop is MUCH smaller than he expected.

In a scene in Rob Reiner’s mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, the rock group’s manager (played by Tony Hendra) goes to pick up a piece of scenery that is meant to evoke Stonehenge in connections with one of the group’s songs. He indicates that he’s quite pleased with the model with which he’s been presented with until he finds out that it is the finished piece and not a model. He expected something 18 feet high, not 18 inches high.

The designer (played by Anjelica Huston) seeks to defend herself and pulls out the napkin she’d been given to work from to show that the specifications indicated 18″ by 18″. She’d done exactly as instructed.

Closeup of napkin with specifications

A zoom in on the napkin held in the character’s hand reveals the specifications she was given was, in fact, not 18 feet but 18 inches.

Within our measurement system, the difference between (“) and (‘)* is huge. In fact, the difference is 279.4 mm or 11 inches!

“Well,” defenders of our current measures might say, “that was done for comic effect and bears no relationship to the real world.”

I beg to differ by way of an example supplied to me by a coworker.

Her husband needed a metal bar fabricated and specified on the order “3/4″ x 3/4” x 1/2′ Long.” However, instead of getting a bar that was three-quarters of an inch wide and three-quarters of an inch thick and six inches long, he instead received a small block since the (1/2’), or a half foot, direction was read instead as part of an inch rather than part of a foot.

Shows the instructions

The instructions as provided to the fabricators.

Photo of small aluminum block.

Instead of a six-inch-long bar, he ended up with a block slightly smaller than an inch in all dimensions.

As if that isn’t confusing enough, the (“) and (‘) symbols can denote both lengths and durations. Thus, 5’ 4” could mean either five feet and four inches or five minutes and four seconds if there were no context indicating which measure was intended.

So, along with the many stumbling blocks of education and medicine, and other errors related to commerce, this particular vendor had to record the original order as a loss and make and send an item that actually conformed to what the customer had originally specified.

Such errors would be greatly reduced if orders were written in “mm” for the measures rather than in the easily mistaken (“) and (‘) units.

Thus, the order could have been written: “19.05 mm x 19.05 mm x 152.4 mm.”

A lot less ambiguous.

I wasn’t able to find any information on how frequently such errors are made, but if I only had to look to the office next to mine to find an example, can they be very far away from any of us in this country?

Close up of ruler with metric and customary units.

U.S. rulers often contain a confusing mix of whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth units. Metric system rulers usually just mark on the whole (10) and half (5) counts.

In conducting research for this piece, I also came across information related to “how to read a ruler/tape measure.” One source went into detail about how to distinguish between the half- and quarter-inch marks on such tools. In contrast, metric system-based rules only have differing marks to help count the “fives” and “tens.”

As I continue to look, the more examples I find of how we’re making our lives more difficult since we don’t use the metric system exclusively in this country.

Have an example of confusion/problems you’ve encountered due to our lack of metric system adoption you’d like to share? Feel free to comment on this page or send an email to me at milebehind@gmail.com.

Stay tuned. Right now I’m researching our very early history with the metric system in this country. Luckily, prior to the last metric system push in the mid-1970s, our government put out a 200+ page document that goes into just such history. I’m now rereading it within the context of the book I’m writing.

Thanks for getting all the way down here.

Linda

* Note: Marks for feet and inches should always be indicated by straight lines, rather than by using quotation marks, which are usually curved. Did I have to look up how to make the straight lines to indicate feet and inches to write this article? Yes, yes I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Blog from the UK Metric Association on Trade with the United States

A few weeks ago the chairman of the United Kingdom Metric Association (UKMA) asked me if I’d be willing to write a blog post on U.S.-U.K. trade. I would have been happy to—if I had more than a superficial understanding of the details. So instead (and since I figured he knew far more about the situation than I do) I asked him if he’d be willing to share his thoughts through my blog. He consented and what appears below are his words. This has also been posted on the Metric Views site at http://metricviews.org.uk/2013/03/will-eu-us-trade-agreement-bring-in-metric-only-labelling-in-the-us/. I thank him for sharing his thoughts with us. To visit the UK Metric Association, go to http://ukma.org.uk/.

Please note: “Notice to stakeholders: public session of the EU-US High Level Regulatory Cooperation Forum in Washington, D.C. – 10-11 April 2013.”  If interested and in the area, you might want to attend since it relates to this blog. For more information, go to http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/international/cooperating-governments/usa/jobs-growth/index_en.htm.

Will EU-US trade agreement bring in metric-only labelling in the US?

 A key point of President Obama’s State of the Union address on 13 February was the proposed EU – US trade agreement, which has been under preliminary discussion for the past year . (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/13/state -of-the -union -free -trade – europe). As this agreement is supposed to remove regulatory barriers to trade, there should now be a serious opportunity to remove the US ban on metric-only labelling of most packages.

The problem is that the EU and the US have conflicting labelling requirements.

The EU’s Units of Measurement Directive requires metric labelling of packages, but following lobbying from both American and European exporters, an amendment in 2009 permitted a “supplementary indication” in non – metric units, provided that the supplementary indication was no more prominent than the legal, metric indication. Thus, the metric quantity is mandatory, but the non – metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK).

However, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the US requires that goods that are regulated at the federal level (i.e. most foodstuffs and some household goods) must be labelled with both metric and US Customary measurement units. (US Customary is similar to British “imperial” for mass (weight) and length, but differs for volume). Individual States may allow metric-only labelling for the minority of goods regulated at the State level, and all except Alabama and New York have done so.

The one-sided result is that, as far as measurement units are concerned, US packaging and labelling is accepted in the EU, but EU packaging and labelling may not be accepted in the US. Consequently, any European exporter is faced with the choice of either (a) establishing a separate production line for export goods or (b) dual labelling all goods so that they can be distributed to either the home or the US market.

The reasoning behind the 2009 amendment to the EU Directive was that, if the amendment had not been agreed, exporters would have had to produce separate packaging for the two separate markets. It was claimed that this would be a significant additional business cost and hence a non-tariff  barrier to trade, which would be illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.  Rather than insisting on an immediate reciprocal concession from the US, the European Commission decided, as a gesture of good will, to concede the point in the hope that the US Congress would relent and allow labelling that was legal in the EU to be imported into the US. So far, however, this has not happened as it is opposed by powerful industrial interests that are influential in Congress.  The ostensible  – and illogical – basis for their opposition, is that if metric-only labelling were allowed, manufacturers would have to change their package sizes to rounded metric quantities – e.g. 500 g rather than 1 pound (454 g), and this would entail major investment in packaging machinery. Since there would obviously be no such requirement, one can only conclude that the real basis of the opposition is protectionist.

The significance of all this for metric advocates on both sides of the Atlantic is this.  If metric-only labelling were permitted in the US, then it would be possible for European manufacturers to dispense with supplementary indications completely.  This would be particularly beneficial in the UK, where the ubiquitous presence of imperial units is a constant drag on adapting to metric units, as well as being a reminder that the process of metrication – begun 48 years ago – is still far from completion.  In the US the increasing presence of metric-only labelling would provide an incentive for American consumers to visualise and familiarise themselves with the metric units that they may have touched on at school but have long forgotten.

There are of course many other aspects of package labelling (such as specifying chemical contents and nutritional information) that may need to be resolved in the forthcoming talks, but metric-only labelling would be an easy win that it should be possible for the parties to agree.

© 2013  UK Metric Association