I is for International System of Units

Those who claim the United States is slow off the metric ball are only partially right. “The key agreement is the Treaty of the Meter (Convention du Mètre), signed in Paris on May 20, 1875. 48 nations have now signed this treaty, including all the major industrialized countries.”

I blame Arthur. There’s this blogger/podcaster I’ve been following, AmeriNZ, an American expat now living in New Zealand. At some point in a recent podcast, he asked if anyone in his audience knew what one calls the United States system of measurement involving pounds, quarts, and feet, knowing, KNOWING that I would have to look it up; the scoundrel!

Since I could not find the answer anywhere online, I decided to contact the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and not just NIST but its Weights and Measures Division. And do you know what the woman on the phone told me? There IS no standard nomenclature for the collective U.S. weights and measurements!

Meanwhile, the system most people call “the metric system” is actually The International System of Units, Système International d’Unités, or SI for short.
At the heart of the SI is a shortlist of base units defined in an absolute way without referring to any other units… In all there are seven SI base units:
the meter for distance,
the kilogram for mass,
the second for time,
the ampere for electric current,
the kelvin for temperature,
the mole for amount of substance, and
the candela for intensity of light.
Other SI units, called SI derived units, are defined algebraically in terms of these fundamental units.
Probably most used among them is degrees Celsius; absolute zero is zero degrees Kelvin, -273.16 C.

Those who claim the United States is slow off the metric ball are only partially right. “The key agreement is the Treaty of the Meter (Convention du Mètre), signed in Paris on May 20, 1875. 48 nations have now signed this treaty, including all the major industrialized countries. The United States is a charter member of this metric club, having signed the original document back in 1875.” All countries have adopted the metric system, including the U.S., and most countries (but not the U.S.) have taken steps to eliminate most uses of traditional measurements. In fact, most food items in the US are marked with dual designations. A brief history of the metric system in the US can be found HERE.

“Nearly all countries people still use traditional units sometimes, at least in colloquial expressions.” For instance, a miss is as good as a mile or a pinch for an inch.

Bookmark this! Online Conversion.com converts “just about anything to anything else.” There is also Convert.exe, a freeware program…found to be virus-free [which] uses the 1959 conversion factors for distance, [weight temperature and derived functions]. Ah, so these measurements get tweaked from time to time.

Arthur and others moving to or from the United States have suggested going “cold turkey” in learning the new measurement scheme, and virtually all of them find the temperature to be the most difficult to translate intellectually. If it helps – I read this somewhere, but also sussed it out myself, and these are approximations – 16C=61F, 28C=82F, 40C=104F.

ABC Wednesday – Round 7

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

44 thoughts on “I is for International System of Units”

  1. I find it very frustrating that the US has not switched. In the engineering/mechanical design business, we are always coming across projects that require us to use the metric system. Since we are still using standard stock sizes found in the US, this leads to all kind of crazy stuff. The metric system is so much cleaner and more organized. I really wish the US would just switch. I don’t see that happening though. The financial stain on the manufacturing and fabrication sector would be tremendous, costing them many billions of dollars to switch (which is an uneducated guess, but I would suspect not far off).

    For the record, those of us in a business that uses these different standards usually refer to our current system here in the US as “English” as compared to metric, with a few calling it “Imperial”.

  2. I guess I am just too oldfashioned. I never could keep all the conversions straight in my addled brain. Love the little cheat note at the end. Its actually most helpful. Great post as always.

  3. bonjour dear Roger,
    I need to confess that I’m confuse sometimes about different systems.As we are from Brazil and there we use the International System, I’m glad that they use the same system here in Luxembourg.Very well done my friend!Great and interesting subject for this I theme! 🙂

  4. An almost overwhelming amount of “i”nformation, Roger, but fascinating. I don’t know how long it has been since Canada “switched” but I still think in feet and “i”nches. I also used to think in picas, points, column-inches, etc., during my working life as a job-shop/newspaper compositor. But the feet and inches, pounds and ounces, cups and pints and quarts, are firmly engraved in my mind since early childhood 60 years ago and refuse to be supplanted by anything unrelated to the printing trade.
    It’s a good thing I am now married to a man who taught the metric system (the international system of units) in school for 29 years, because he can do the conversions for me almost “i”nstantly.
    Alberta, Canada

  5. Hi Roger, interesting post. To add to Scott’s comment, yes, the system was devised as standard throughout the British Empire, and is known as the Imperial Measure over here.

  6. You use a decimal monetary system, your scientists use the SI-system, the rest of the world has accepted simplicity over complexity. Please do the same or you will sooner or later be left behind.

  7. RuneE – I assume you mean “you” in the general sense. I’d be all for going metric. When it was looking likely in the 1970s(!), I was for it.

  8. I’ve always thought it would be difficult to convert recipes to a system other than ours (USA), let alone shop for fruits, vegs & meats when you’re used to ounces, pounds, etc. As far a celcius…I’ve always doubled the temp and added 30 to get F. Close enough for me!

  9. Having been taught pounds, ounces, inches and feet at school, I’ve never totally got to grip with metric. Didn’t one of the NASA space flights go wrong because of a mix up of conversions from imperial to metric on the fittings. I can understand only too well how that happened.
    Still as long I can visualise a kilometre because of the Tour de France, 100g because it is a bag of sweets and 75cl a bottle of wine I think I’ll get by.

  10. We were just talking about this the other day – I’m going to bookmark that conversion site for sure, so thanks Roger!

  11. There is still resistance to metric weights and measures in the UK and any trader who dares to sell produce only in pounds and ounces is deemed a Metric Martyr by certain parts of the media. And woe betide anyone who suggests anything other than a pint of beer.

    It’s odd because we have had decimal currency for almost 40 years, buy petrol in litres and sugar in kilos, and measure temperature in celsius. Mind you the media can play fast and loose with the weather, using fahrenheit when it’s hot and celsius when it’s cold to exagerate the situation.

  12. Pingback: I is for Island
  13. I confuse very easily, and numbers confuse me very easily, please, don’t make me try to learn metric, I’m an old dog, I’m to old to learn… ; )

  14. I didn’t know the US didn’t have a name for our standard weights and measures. I did know that we’d signed on for the metric club, it just seems we tend to hang on and on and on until our cold dead finger are pried from whatever it is we can’t let go of THIS time!

  15. Great post and interesting that there is no name for the system of measurements like pound, miles, F, etc. Also, very interesting to me that the U.S. signed on to the international measurements so long ago but still the temperature in particular seems to always be F in terms of common usage here.

  16. When it comes to temperature, I find converting easy: when I’m in Europe visiting family or traveling, if it’s 28C, I say “feel like 82”. 😉

    Interesting that there is mind out there that went to this topic for the letter I. That was great.

    My ABC Wednesday

  17. unless used officially i use this system, but for just everyday basis i just use intuition…the so called dashes and pinches….interesting..

  18. All this just makes my head spin! Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to really comprehend the metric system. And thank you for leaving such a nice comment over at my place today. I appreciate your kindness.

  19. Well, being in international trade, this issue (among others, of course) has been the bane of my existence! We deal with thousands of products daily, which in our export software system are described in the [sane] metric system (since we export to globally), and my staff must manually convert for each American customer. That’s for size (cm/inches) and volume (cbm/cuft). I’ve always called the US/English system the Imperial system, so that still fits the I story today.

  20. You know, I love stopping by here to see what it is that I am going to learn (yes, call me a geek or a nerd and I will answer).
    I am always surprised at what it is that I end up learning. I can never anticipate what it will be and I like that!

  21. I love this – and I admit to being totally confused myself. I weigh and measure in SI units when I’m cooking – but I have no concept of how much 125g of soemting will be. I still have to think in ounces. And I still buy a “three pound bag” of flour – in spite of the fact that I’ll actually get 1.5Kg!

  22. I find it hardest with recipes. I will get a recipe sent to me from the US and they use cups and ounces and stuff. I then have to look it up, convert it and hope for the best. So far it’s worked out, but it is quite annoying: just use metric!

  23. America has the opposite of most things as opposed to the rest of the world.
    It was very confusing for us with the electric switches, voltage,metric system,driving(in America you have the left hand drive while it is opposite in most countries of the world).
    So I guess your AmeriNZ is now on the opposite side of the fence.
    Nice I post.

  24. I confess I didn’t read this entire post because I spent too much time reading your other posts about Twitter & Get Low – which were very interesting & enjoyable reads by the way, as was this one but I have to time myself otherwise I would be here all day.
    : )
    I also wanted to thank you Roger for explaining the Coney Island sign to Denise in the comment you left me today on my blog. Thank you!

  25. All that makes my head spin! I’m still stuck in ‘pounds shillings and pence’ and with ‘pounds and ounces’. Our UK system is a horrible mixture of metric and imperial right now and I now that the metric system makes sense for lots of reasons, but I don’t have to like it! LOL!

    Luckily for me, I have the Mac ‘dashboard’ which allows you to assemble your own preferred set of widgets, and one of mine is a metric converter!

  26. I am in my mid fifties, grew up in British Borneo, went to Canada and now in New Zealand.

    It is very frustrating not to think in pounds, ounces, miles , etc. The rest of New Zealand (I mean the young ones including my students) think metric.

  27. Ha ha…when I had my statistics subject in college, i took this 3 times for i always failed.

    Happy ABC Wednesday.

    Oh BTW. I also have comment on the letter “H” a while ago.

  28. Hi Roger,

    I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to swing by for “H” but will read that one in a minute. Thank you very much for stopping by mine last week. I still recall finding your blog when you were just starting out. Your post is quite informational for ABC “I” week! I used to tutor math and oh boy, converting to metric was a tough topic for many students. Many would visibly shudder. Actually, many shuddered at the mere thought of math! I’m glad the USA includes both measurements. Aside from those opinions and the wealth of background you presented, thanks for that helpful bookmark!

  29. I taught metrics in math for a little while, after using the other version all my life. I have discovered I am slightly dyslexic so when it comes to putting in decimals , moving decimals and adding zeros I have occasional lapses in knowing which direction to go. And as for photographic slides having to go into the projector upside down and backwards, I’m glad those days are over!! But I have trained my husband to go left when I say go right!!

  30. Even tho Canada uses metric and I have to teach it, there are still many times I revert to the “old” way!Pounds, Fahrenheit, inches.
    Great post for the week! Always learn something so interesting! Thanks!

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