One advantage to Imperial units

A sense of scale.

It’s terribly easy to get lost among strings of zeroes. As we endlessly see with the papers confusing billion for million etc.

But we’re measuring something in ounces, it’s small. In tonnes it’s large. Pints is easy to envisage, we’ve all actually seen someone holding one.

Decalitres? Sure, we can work it out but it’s not immediate in the same sense. And the number who get confused between deca and hecto litres…..

And sure it’s just an oldie casting back to something in childhood. Yet it is still an advantage in that we never do talk about one thousandth of a pound – a grain (not, actually, the same amount) gives a better mental image.

44 thoughts on “One advantage to Imperial units”

  1. Yes, I was wondering if it was just me.
    I can visualise, more or less, a pint, a foot, a pound, a mile but a number followed by some zeroes is just numbers.
    Is it purely that the measurements I learned as a youth have more meaning to me and do people who have grown up with the metric system have the same ability to just feel metric measurements?

  2. “ people who have grown up with the metric system have the same ability to just feel metric measurements?”

    Haven’t seen the slightest sign of it. Had a client who was brought up on metric borrow a tape to measure for carpet. Except that she measured in feet & ordered in meters. There was some considerable consternation at the size of the invoice.

  3. Few people seem to observe how the SI system is itself inconsistent. Thus the unit of mass is the kg: the name is unfortunate (I always thought they should rename it the Asimov) but the idea is precise. Therefore the consistent unit of molarity should be the kilogram-mole. But lo, it is the gram-mole, written “mol”, that has been adopted. The logically correct kilogram-mole thereby becomes “kmol”. I suspect this is the handiwork of chemists.

    But there’s more: presumably because chemists said “sod that” when someone suggested they work in cubic metres (it would be a bloody big lab beaker for which the cubic metre was handy) they insist on working in litres which they might, or might not, write as such or they might write in a derived SI unit which ought, logically, to be frowned upon as non-standard.

    What I must once have known but have long forgotten was what was done about the tiny disparity that once existed between the cubic centimetre (‘cc’) and the millilitre (‘ml’). (Obvs if the litre is illogical so is the ml, but there you go). If that disparity hadn’t been quashed then it wouldn’t be accurate to have two different ways of writing a litre.

  4. Can someone explain to me how the fundamental unit of mass is 1000 of something else? Surely the unit (good call on Asimov btw) should be 1 so 1 Asimov =1 kg and a gram would be a milli-Asimov

  5. This is particularly true with things like cookery. A sponge cake is all single numbers. 3 eggs then 6oz of butter, sugar and flour.

  6. Bloke in North Dorset

    It’s terribly easy to get lost among strings of zeroes.

    I did some work in Rome pre-Euro when the Lira had strings of zero’s for the smallest purchase. Even shopkeepers used to get confused, and not always in their favour. I was chased down the road a couple of times when they realised their mistake.

    There was more than a grain of truth in the claim that the only reason they joined the Euro was to lose all those zeros.

  7. It is easy to visualise a litre as it is a cube with 100mm sides. If you are un-metricated, 100mm is about four inches.

  8. Metric predates the SI by a couple of centuries, and is one reason (because they are useful everyday measures for the majority of tasks that don’t require high precision) we use kilograms and litres. The SI used to relate every base quantity to each other, though recent changes mean it no longer does, and it relies more on arbitrary factors of physical constants than in the past. Even the kg is now so defined, after attempts to relate it to the mass of some number of silicon atoms. The current definition might make sense to a nuclear physicist but not to most mortals.

    hecto- deca- and so on prefixes are discouraged because people don’t know what they are, and everything can be expressed in reasonable numbers using the “orders of three” prefixes.A notable exception is the decilitre (100 mL) widely used in blood tests, because it makes percentage calculations easier for innumerate doctors [ducks].

  9. No Timmy. Whilst ounces are small, tons is (are?) large. Tonnes is impossibly metric.

    Only pendants should be weighed in tonnes

  10. Bloke in California

    Ok, I have an SI question to which one of you might know the answer: why is the Ampere a fundamental unit instead of the Coulomb? It seems much more fundamental to me to define an amount of charge equivalent to some number of electrons and then the current is that charge per second, than the current producing an amount of force between two wires and everything based on that.

    Back on topic, another vote for the superiority of the imperial system, although it’s been occasionally amusing here to find Americans trying to convert something to metric for my benefit.

  11. Is it true that Australians pronounce metric tonnes as “tunnies”…
    We used to use that terminology in Canada – at least when I was working in marine construction and dredging. Of course, we also had to distiguish between short and long tons, although a tonne and a long ton were close enough as to make no difference.

  12. “Is it true that Australians pronounce metric tonnes as “tunnies” to differentiate?”

    I used to work for a British firm shortly after the transition to metric. We always used “tunnies” to distinguish them from long tons and short tons.

    We once had an argument with a supplier of liquid butane because our meter said we were receiving fewer tonnes than their meter said they were delivering. It turned out that the two meters used rounding of the density of butane to different numbers of decimal places. I have a weak spot for that story – humans, eh?

  13. Bloke in North Dorset


    Is it true that Australians pronounce metric tonnes as “tunnies” to differentiate?

    I don’t know about Aussies, but when these were brought in to service in the Royal Signals we referred to the as “one tunnies” with emphasis on the “e”.

  14. BiC,

    The Coulomb is just a multiple of a fundamental physical quantity, it’s dimensionless, like the Avogadro number. 1 electron charge is just 1 electron charge, the same (presumably) throughout the universe and (less certainly) for all time since the beginning of the universe, and the Coulomb is just a multiple of that.

    The purpose of SI is to create units that make sense in the real world while being determined in terms of those fundamental physical quanitities (that has been accelerating recently, most notably earlier this year).

    The ampere exists because it’s useful – you could equally talk about Coulombs per second. The Coulomb, as indeed the second and all the other base units, are defined because it’s inconvenient to talk in terms of electron-charges per hyperfine transition time of Caesium-133.

    You could get rid of a lot of other SI base units as well.* Certainly the mole could go, as could the candela, and the kilogram, but if you do that the newspapers will make even greater order of magnitude errors than they do now.

    *: In fact, you could probably you could abolish the lot and define everything in terms of the physical constants they are now defined as multiples of, but it would make the world very confusing.

  15. @Bloke on M4 September 1, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    +1 on cookery

    Shortcrust Pastry: 8, 4, 2 – flour, marg, sugar; mix and add water

    My UK observation: more people use kg for their weight but use pounds for food; height/length feet & inches

    Tyres are weird: 245/40×17 – 245mm wide (tread), 17″ diameter wheel

    Even weirder is why septics bastardised imperial with their small pints & gallons – don’t they prefer big?

  16. “small pints & gallons – don’t they prefer big?”

    But that way they get bigger numbers of pints and gallons.

  17. @ Stonyground
    A cube of water 100mm ona side is a pool of water on the table & most of it on the floor. Which is why the sensible amongst us prefer pints we can hold in the hand.

  18. But when at the Munchen Bierfest we were confronted by steins rated at 2 litres. The steal above the mark means that’s more like 2 1/2 litres full. Being that pissed just isn’t natural..

  19. That extra space in the Stein is to allow for a substantial ‘head’ on the beer – what BiG would call eine Blume (lit: a flower).

    Incidentally, the great advantage of imperial is, or more accurately was, better mental arithmetic ability.

  20. I’d walk a million miles, for one of your smiles.

    I would walk 500 miles.

    Moon river, wider than a mile.

    No one writes songs about kilometres.

  21. Most of the mental arithmetic derived from the old money.

    Did you ever wonder whether the Metric system (I do not refer to SI as such) is resisted because of its left-wing top-down command nature? Based on the circumference of the earth and a lot of other non-empirical measures, whereas Imperial although imposed on the empire (that is mere standardisation) has units derived directly for the empirical? Rather like remain vs leave, remain seems to think that if there is no EU to tell us what to do we won’t be able to do anything. Leavers just want the new rules settled so they can work round them to do what they want.

  22. I’ve always pronounced “tonne” with the “O” sounding like the “O” in “honest”, “politician ” and “oxymoron”.

  23. When I first was on the LSX, share prices were in shillings & pennies, calculators were 25lb of wheels ‘n cogs & the tool of the trade was a lttle norebook & pencil, write your trades in.
    487 shares @ 17 / 6 3/4…..piece of piss.

  24. “whereas Imperial although imposed on the empire”

    Was it? I’ll bet traditional units were used all over the place.

    Taxes levied would presumably be per Imperial unit.

  25. Amazing how many English can’t cope with base ten.

    Amazing how many English resent having their daily lives micromanaged by a bunch of unelected, unaccountable, corrupt foreign bureaucrats and jumped-up little corporals.


  26. @Bloke in Wales

    +1 Exactly

    If I sell in pounds & ounces customers can choose to buy if they want, or buy from a kg shop if they prefer – preference vs compulsion

    Compulsion imposed as preference not what TPTB want

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