A New Measurement System

The European metric system has one big advantage over ours: there’s one basic unit for each measurement of length and mass: the meter and the gram. The other advantage, of course, is that you convert between orders of magnitude by moving the decimal point around (multiplying or dividing by 10).

We could adopt both those conveniences and greatly simplify our measuring system. My proposal is the Decimal English Measurement Units (DEMU) System (DEMUS).

For the basic unit of length, the foot is most agreeable. It’s one we’ve been used to for over 200 years. Ask someone how long a foot is, and he’ll hold his hand up to within an inch or so of the right distance.

English units are bogged down with far too many basic units. For starters, there’s inch, foot, yard, and mile. To get from miles to inches, multiply by 5280 to get feet (or 1720 to get yards), multiply that by 12 to get inches (or multiply yards by 3 to get feet). (There are 63,360 inches in a mile.) Once you get to inches, you start dividing by 2 until you get to 64ths. Some fanatics (mostly engineers and craftsmen) may go down to 128ths.

Besides those, there’s cable, chain (2 varieties), ell, fathom, furlong, league, rod – and that’s not all the English units for length.

Let’s rip it all up and start over. We’ll keep the foot, because we all know what a foot is. Most adult humans are between 5 and 6 of them.

All we have to do to make life simpler is go decimal. Smaller units: 1/10 of a foot is the decifoot. 1/10 of a decifoot is a centifoot (1/100 of a foot). 1/10 of that is a millifoot (1/1000 of a foot).

Here’s how those eminently sensible units compare to the current awkward system:

1 decifoot = 1/10 foot = 1.2 inches (about 1 3/16”)
1 centifoot 1/100 foot = .12 inch (about 1/8”)
1 millifoot = 1/1000 foot = .012 inch (about 1/64”)

Now we can easily convert, for example, 250 millifeet to centifeet (25) or decifeet (2.5), and vice versa.

Now for the other direction: 10 feet make a dekafoot, 10 dekafeet make a hectofoot (these last two hardly ever used), 10 hectofeet make a kilofoot (1000 feet).

So far, from millifeet to kilofeet gives us a range of a million to one.

Standard paper is about 0.003”. In DEMU, that would be 0.25 millifeet. The old-fashioned mile is 5.28 kilofeet.

To measure longer distances, it’s convenient to jump to megafeet: 1000 kilofeet (a million feet). A megafoot is a little over 189 miles.

So far, we’ve covered lengths from a piece of paper to 189 miles. The distance from Los Angeles to New York (airline) is 2470 miles, close to 13 megafeet. Or about 13,000 kilofeet. The distance around the equator is about 10 times that: 24901.5 miles. That’s about 130,000 kilofeet, or 130 megafeet.

This simple adoption of a simple system will greatly improve our ability to work with lengths both short and long.


10 responses to “A New Measurement System

  1. Dr. Joseph T. Gregory - Auckland, New Zealand - expat U.S.A.

    I have a dear friend that has a goodly-sized mole – which stands out – right in the middle of his forehead. I am sure that he wouldn’t dream of having it removed. It has somehow grown on him. Our unwieldy imperial system is our mole – we just couldn’t change it – sensible of sensibilities – not a prayer! Only an act of Congress could alter it … wot chance of that? Joe Gregory, New Zealand

  2. lectorconstans

    That’s perhaps an apt comparison. Do you remember when Formerly Great Britain converted from their real, God-given currency system (pound, guinea, pence, farthing, shilling, tuppence ha’penny)? There was an outcry; people thought the world had ended (well, maybe the Victorian era).

    Then there was the time, not too long ago, that the Powers That Be (legions of umbrella-men) decreed that the English system (pounds, ounces) was no longer sanctioned, and that we’d bloody well better go metric. Another outcry, and at least dozens of merchants prosecuted for dealing in ounces.

    I’m all for progress, but I prefer the carrot over the stick.

    Thanks for stopping by. (We were in NZ in the 1980s, for Halley’s comet.)

  3. I guess I would just say again that I think traditional English units of measurement are part of the rich texture of our inherited culture and language. I wouldn’t want them replaced with a “better” system, almost any more than I would want a 1984-style replacement of English with Newspeak.

    That may sound the same as the mole comment, but I don’t think it is! English (or any other language that develops organically over centuries or millenia, probably) is beautiful, not a blemish.

  4. I found this post very entertaining. Now I’m wondering what you would do about pints, pecks, bushels, gallons, and ounces (among others)

  5. As these are no longer useful in a techno-modern society, they can be dismissed. I hadn’t thought about anything other than length and speed. We might end up going to miilpecks and kilopints. The possibilities are endless!

    (Though I’m reminded of the French Revolution, when the thugs who finally grasped power decided to reform the calendar. The result was not pretty (beside the fact that it was really unworkable).

  6. Well this decifoot and kilofoot could be extremely useful because a cubic foot is about 1000floz so what if we define a cubic decifoot as an ounce, then we have a mass/volume figured out already(just use the prefix fl to denote if it is a volume rather than a mass). A Dekaounce or even a Hectaounce could also be a good mass but the deka and hecta prefixes are a not very nice to say let alone hear.

  7. lectorconstans

    Good idea – but the cubic foot is only about 957 ounces – that may be a problem with accuracy.

    But it is a really good “rule of thumb” approximation.

    The next question is, what’s a good “basic unit” for volume? Ounce, pint, quart, gallon? I tend to favor gallon right now, because I can see a gallon. Each of those seem to be defined in terms of one another: Gallon = 4 quarts; Quart = 1/4 Gallon. Eventually they get to cubic inches…. Maybe that’s what the base unit should be.

  8. Well I meant the uk oz which there are ~998oz in a cubic foot. For me, the best volume is uk pint (20oz) but a gallon is good as well.

    Side note: I’m not so sure why people hate the imperial system/FPS, I don’t care what system people use just as long as they stay in the same units and write which units they’re using. This decimalization of the foot maybe easier for people to understand and work with.

  9. lectorconstans

    I came across Imperial Ounces (1.73 cu.in.) and US Ounces (1.80 cu.in.) and even “US food labelling fluid ounce”, which is “exactly 30 millilitres”.

    (That’s not right – if it’s a US ounce, it should be defined in terms of milliliters.)

    Part of the units problem is that most of the measurements came from different arts & sciences: British, French, Italian; measuring dry stuff like wheat, measuring liquids (wine, oil, gas &c.) Gold is so special that it takes its own ounce: the troy ounce (probably a holdover from that ancient Greek city). Diamonds aren’t very big, so they get weighed in carats (141 to the ounce). Naturally, there are International UK, and Metric carats, and even a “pre-1913 US carat”. So you can see why the situation is just about hopeless, and cries out for reform.

    Then there’s the well-known Scots “wee dram”.

    I think I can simplify this in the next installment: Volume

  10. “Dekaounce or even a Hectaounce could also be a good mass but the deka and hecta prefixes are a not very nice to say let alone hear.”

    You can drop the “a” at the end of the prefix if it precedes a vowel. So it would be dekounce and hectounce. Which are only slightly easier to pronounce.

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