If you read my blog, you know I live somewhere in an obscure country of Slovenia in Europe. Therefore we use Metric system of measurement for pretty much everything. It’s easy, since everything is measured in sets of tens. It certainly makes math easy and coherent.
Meter as a standard for example is made of 10 decimeters, and one decimeter is made of 10 centimeters. As you can see there’s a pattern there: centi- is smallet than deci-, then it’s mili-, then nano- and so on and on it goes. The same is true for adding bigger sets of tens (or hundreds for that matter). 100 centimeters is one meter, 1000 meters is one kilometer, etc. The tricky thing happens with numbers in computer industry, because K which stands for Kilo- is not really a round thousand of pretty much anything. One Kilobyte for example is 1024 bytes, even though there has been pressure to count 1024 bytes as Kibibytes which I presume nobody really knows about; in the same way 10002 bytes is supposed to be 1 Megabytes of data and 10242 bytes is supposed to be 1 Mebibytes of data. As you see even with metric system there’s problems when it goes with real application of numbers and the same power that introduced metric system (the State) gave us problems that come with it.
Just as the modern despicable notion of a necessity of a Nation State, and other abhorrent ideas, metric system was given to us by the horrendous set of events that had unfolded in 1790’s France: French Revolution. Those guys wanted to change everything. They wanted to give us 10 day week, 10 hour day, and everything humanly possible that one can do in sets of tens. Metric System of measurement was one of them. In that time most of the known world used anything but Metric. The metric system was actually being developed from 1791 onwards by a committee of the French Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the National Assembly and Louis XVI to create a unified and rational system of measures. They set themselves to embark on a journey to create a system of measurements that one could easily do math with and supposedly had a basis in science. The metre was originally defined in 1793 as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. In 1889, it was redefined in terms of a prototype metre bar (the actual bar used was subsequently changed twice). There was actually a 0,003% mistake in the measurement and thus to this day the meter is still not a completely true length in a scientific sense.
I could go on and on about the history, but I think you can read about that elsewhere online or in the books. The point is that peoples in the past had used many different measurement systems (we actually still do) for different uses and all-in-all they were all pretty much devised in trying to solve problems, measuring and what-have-you in daily lives of people in question. Most of the world had a variation of what we today call Imperial system. Thus, when Royal British Imperialism had spread over the globe, the only thing in regards to measurement was to set the lengths of many concepts of measure that people had already known. Foot was always about a length of a foot long; a hand around a hand wide, and so on and on. The only thing British actually did is set the standard for the global merchants. While one could argue whether that was needed to be done by a decree, or would the merchants have done that by themselves is irrelevant for today’s topic.
You might be saying at this point: “oh come on, get to the point already… why do you like imperial so much?”
As I said, Imperial-like systems of measurement were made to accommodate different measuring techniques for different things. Inches (coming from Latin, meaning one-twelfth part) while also being “regulated” by the Crown has its origins in the thumb: King David I of Scotland in his Assize of Weights and Measures (c. 1150) is said to have defined the Scottish inch as the width of an average man’s thumb at the base of the nail. This makes even more sense in other languages, where expression is still in use, in Slovene 1 Inch being Palec (meaning Thumb). The modern 2,54 cm long inch is interestingly not very different from dunajski palec (Wiener Inch) defined as 12 lines or 0,02634 m; or even from russian sotka being 0,021336 m… or the thickness of grown man’s thumb or a length of the second phalanx of a thumb (the tip bone of the thumb).
The point is, that one can easily measure with their thumb instead of any specific tape-measure.
The same is true for a foot. A foot is actually the oldest measurement known to mankind, that we still use, dating back to the Sumerian Lagash at around 2575 B.C. measuing at 0,2645 m. An average male, being around 160 cm tall would have around 275 mm feet, closely matching the same principle of measuring something on the basis of human body lengths. It is worth noting, that sometimes historical ft. is longer at around 30 cm, suggesting that an average size of a shue was being measured, which is also true in some languages. Slovene as an example uses Čevlji as a name for ft. in measurement, meaning shoes, not feet per-se. That being said, Greek, Roman, Chinese, French, English and other traditions used this unit of measure always between 270 mm and 350 mm. Furthermore it is also worth noting that even European (Wiener foot or Dunajski čevelj) was made of 12 inches (12 Wiener Inches = 1 Wiener Foot) at the length of 0,316 m. Not too shabby considering that modern Imperial Foot is 0,3048 m.
Here the point is again take something you know to use it to measure something or at least to approximate the length.
The same goes for all other non-metric measuring systems. But this is not all. Even though it might feel more convenient having everything in metric sets of tens for division, Imperial division is actually also grounded in more common sense than one would think.
You see, when you divide by 2 in Metric, you can do it only once or twice properly, then you get into trouble with uneven numbers. 10/2=5 , then 5/2=2,5… 2,5 cm, except for machinists perhaps, is the lowest you can go before getting into troublesome territory of rounded numbers. This is especially true with woodworking. True, that I haven’t been able to do much in woodworking lately because of college stuff, but still. As I set myself to do something with wood or even cutting paper to some extent, I started leaning more to the Imperial system for usefulness instead of Metric. Okay, so 12 Inches is a foot. divide by 4, by two or by three you get even numbers. Then Inches you can divide infinitely into halves, quarters, sixteens, thirty-twos and so on and so on. It is much easier to think of shaving another 1/16th off to get a tenon and mortise a close fit and another 1/32 if it needs just that little bit more. It might be tricky to reverse the math, but as far as usefulness goes, it’s much more coherent and better suited to do real world stuff.
You might be saying: “But hey, woodworkers do use Metric now, don’t they?” The answer is twofold. Yes and no. For plans and many aspects of working with measuring wood they do use Metric to be sure, but planks are to this day being made and sold in inch-sizes. And that’s not only true about the US market. Here in Slovenia, EU, you can go to the store and buy “colarca” which will generally be around one inch thick. Those who build timber-framed houses “american way” are sometimes switching most of everything into Imperial and complain (but not loudly…) only a little bit about the fact that they have to provide plans to the Municipality in Metric. That’s in Europe, mind you. I should note that while I studied architecture for two years I stumbled upon a curious thing. As I was drawing rooms and as I tried to organize them in efficient ways, Metric gave me troubles as most things ought to be rounded per meter or at least per 20 cm intervals, though 50 cm intervals usually were preferred. And If I wanted to do timber framing, division was terribly awkward. Oddly I found Imperial much more space efficient and easier to organize rooms in round divisions from a yard in my case (yard being 3 feet or 1-ish meter; and one foot 12 inches or 30-ish centimeters).
Aviation and Naval measurements are another example where to this day they use Imperial. The reason being that for aviation one yard being close to a meter, and one foot one third of that is much easier and convenient to figure out how much to go up or down. Or with nautical units, where 6 feet being 1 fathom would correlate to a length of rope between both hands stretched wide. Knot for nautical uses comes from the knots tied in the log line used with the sand glass. The log line was thrown onto the sea and the knots in the line were counted as they ran out during the sand glass interval. To this day knots on cables are of similar distance from each other and rarely anyone complains about the way measuring is done. In a sense it’s much more precise. Again we use a familiar thing to reference it to, not some abstract idea like a predefined rod that was decreed by the State.
Similar is again true in typesetting with picas and points, also in sets of 12 instead of tens, where the basic idea of the point system is to generate different type sizes by multiplying a single minimum unit calculated by dividing a base measurement unit, originally as one Royal French Inch. While it is daunting to fathom the idea at first, when one starts using typesetting units for typesetting, it gets much easier and one simply couldn’t do it properly with Metric (I suppose one could, but the math would be tricky). Here 1 pica = 1⁄6 inch (British/American inch of today) = 4.233 mm; and 1 point = 1⁄12 pica = 1⁄72 inch = 127⁄360 mm = 0.3527 mm. It is much easier, for example, to figure out, how many sets of points go into one pica on both sides of leading and above or bellow it to accommodate different sets of font sizes so that they all fit on a page and cover each other on the other side of the paper as well. Again, divisibility by two, four, six, three and twelve is crucial.
If these examples haven’t made enough point into why Imperial is practically superior to Metric, let me suggest an example, which we probably all know, where most people all over the world know exactly what size something is in Inches, but are always confused when it’s presented in Metric centimeters:
Buying Flat Screen TV-s or Computer Screens. Even in countries where people predominantly use Metric in their lives, rarely anyone can imagine the difference between television screens with the diagonal size of 109,22 cm; 119,38 cm and 121,92 cm. Even if you round it to 110, 120 and 122 cm diagonally, one can still not imagine it. However if you tell people that this is 43, 47 and 48 Inches, as some of the standard ones for TVs, most people will know how big that is. The reason is that we know that an inch is around twice as big as a centimeter and we can find that easier to conceive in our minds (again probably because of our thumb and linguistic reasons that suggest it in many languages) and is thus easier to divide the screens into larger, but not too large, sections, that we can grasp in real life without the tape measure. Aviation as noted earlier prefers feet in a similar way. I must note, that with TV screens in Europe it’s getting increasingly difficult to find Inches in the technical specifications even online, I’m glad, however, that most often the producer’s code for a product includes some specs in the name (I’m just looking at a Samsung 4K tv with a code ” UE48JU6472″ which tells me what I need to know to grasp the size: that it’s 48″ big.
Sure, Metrics has its uses too and doing math in elementary school as well as high school definitely makes it easier. Doing math on fuel consumption for kilometers is also somewhat easier to me. But then again I think that Industries that need Metric should be able to choose to use it or abandon it in favor of Imperial or what-ever works for them. Today it really shouldn’t be too big of a problem with conversion for people who are not in the said industry, although we have heard of numerous mistakes when it comes to making specialized machinist equipment in collaboration between NASA and ESA. At the end of the day we can blame those fanatic statists in France during their revolution. Even though they say that they tried to use reason to devise systems, I honestly think their ideas were unreasonable or are at best only applicable to certain situations, but shouldn’t have been or be mandated and decreed by any State and thus by their coercion. Needn’t I mention that scientists create new ways of measuring all the time in the sub-nano scale and in astronomical uses, where Metric would be impossible to be used anyway.
Even if for most of the history measurement units were not exactly conformed, they were in it’s idea always tied to concepts that we know and not invent. They were roughly similar in it’s concept and idea and could be visualized better, applied better and since similar in concept could be modified easily if necessary to ease the market forces and trade. I would think that had States not intervened, most people today would use much improved and more compatible systems of measurement that are different for it’s applied use but are compatible as a unified idea of measuring things. Instead we have some Metric, some Imperial and lots of issues, that mostly comes from State laws, regulations and other abhorrent decrees that make everyone worse off in one way or another.