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.