Building the case against the English System as standard


Exhibit A. The English System is based on living (or once living) objects.

This is NOT a good idea. Living things make poor measuring tools because no two living things will ever be identical in size. Without a true standard to measure by, no one will agree on a measurement.

Poppy seeds, and barley corns were the basis for English lengths. These items would never be able to measure to the amount of precision that we need today, especially in technology.

What would happen if we used peanuts to measure with? You and I could reach into the bag and measure objects around the room. Would we ever have the same answers? Likely no. This is because no two peanut shells are exactly identical .(have you ever seen an odd shaped shell filled with 1,3,or even 4 peanuts?)

The LENGTHS of the English system were based on changing biological objects like the ones below.

Just like the peanuts from before, no two living things will be perfectly identical and would therefore make a really BAD standard to measure from.

poppy seed

barley corn







**I have also found rumors that the yard could have come from the waist-line of the king. In those days, having a large tummy was a status symbol of the rich. **




Historically, many of these measurements were based on the ruler in charge.

Everything we buy or sell must at some point be measured. Measuring objects the same way sets up good communication for fair trading. It would be difficult to know what to expect from town to town and country to country if everyone used a different system. Pre-revolutionary France had over 250,000 different units of weights and measures! How crazy would that be to trade even between the neighboring village!

Imagine if NBA giant Shaquille O'Neil went back in time and became the king of a country using the English system.


If he so desired, he could call for all of his servants to use his foot size as the standard for measurement throughout his kingdom. All trade would be based on Shaq measurements.

If someone bought a yard of material in Shaq's kingdom, it would be the length of his arm (to his nose).

The digit, foot, yard, and cubit are all units based on human measurements.

Now, Imagine if King Shaq's kingdom was overthrown by the new King Mini-me!

How might this change the way goods are measured in the kingdom?



What if a sly merchant didn't change his prices on a yard of material from the good ol' King Shaq days?



Exhibit B: The English System has a different word for each of its units.


Eventually the "English" system had at least a little order to it. Even if there are a few different units to remember In the English system there are MANY individual units to remember. I place this chart here to impress upon you how cumbersome the English system can be. You can also use it as a tool for those units that you will have to use in the good ol' US of A.


It's just for your information and a laugh :)

not convinced yet... try these and see if you still like the English system


Exhibit C: Living with two systems at the same time causes confusion!

The United States really needs ONE system of measurement to make things simple. We are the only major country that still uses the crazy system outlined above. Mixing the old system along with the newer metric makes for a very confusing "American" way of life. I believe that if we taught ONE (metric) system from the beginning of school we would score much higher on math and science tests compared to the rest of the world. As it is, we are bombarded by similar but different units every day of our lives.

We can go to any gas station and buy our gas and milk in gallons (English)...

...but the soda is bought in Liters (metric) AND/OR fluid ounces (English) at the same time

The original marathon was 26.2 miles ... (English)


...but we run 5-40 K races (metric) as well


We need two sets of wrenches when fixing our cars. Imported cars from other countries will use metric while domestic will need English.

convert your wrenches

' is the symbol for FEET and " is the symbol for INCHES

source: wikipedia

This Olympic sized pool is 50 meters long (metric), but it is 8 feet in depth (English)

We are REALLY confusing ourselves when we use both systems at the same time.

Football is measured in yards (English)



While the other football is measured in meters

The USA will live with conversion confusion until CONGRESS decides to convert to METRIC.

Why should the USA switch over completely?

The English system of measurement was useful throughout the Middle Ages because it was based on common things that everyone had access to but hopefully I can prove to you that it is filled with problems for the 21st century.

We confuse the issue greatly by mixing the two systems. The founding fathers had the opportunity to switch systems in the 1790's and chose not to. Thomas Jefferson tried to convince the Congress to fix our metric/English conversion and convert with Europe. While Jefferson's proposal was base 10 (metric) it still had a long list of unit names. If he had fully adopted the French system, he might have been able to lead the change.

Every Congress since could make the change as well. While we wait...we will live in a country with two systems.

Here is conversion calculator for when you need it

Having more than one system will leads to costly CONVERSION CONFUSION!

Scientists are supposed to know better and only use metric units, but what happens when scientists use two different systems at the same time? Check out this COSTLY mistake...

In 1999, the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) launched a probe towards Mars. It's purpose was to orbit around the red planet and take measurements of the martian atmosphere. Like a weather satellite for Mars

In order to send the rocket into space, calculations must be done to determine how much thrust will be needed to complete the mission.

One team in Colorado used English units called foot-pounds, while the team in California used the metric version called Newton-meters.

As a result, the probe was given too much thrust. Instead of coming into a gentle orbit around Mars, the orbiter slammed into the atmosphere like a brick wall and burned up.

Not so much "crash and burn" but more of a burn and crash!


Exhibit D: Today's micro-tech is MUCH smaller than a poppy seed!

What would happen if I drilled a poppy seed sized hole out of a flash drive? It wouldn't work correctly or even at all. This means the components of the drive must have been measured using something smaller than a poppy seed.

The poppy seed is the smallest English unit. Today we have microchips that are smaller than the poppy seed! Technicians would have to use extremely small fractions in order to compete. Decimals are much more user-friendly for small measurements than fractions.



Exhibit E: The English System is not "base 10".

How many poppy seeds would fit in a Marathon?

4 poppy seed in 1 barley corn

3 barley corns in 1 inch

12 inches in 1 foot

3 feet in 1 yard

1760 yards in 1 mile

26.3 miles in a marathon

The relationship between units in the English system are all over the place. This makes doing calculations with the English system more difficult than it needs to be.

There is no big-picture design to this system because it was pieced together from multiple common traditional units.

The metric system is "base 10". This means that the relationship between ALL metric units are divisible by 10. You'll find that it is much easier to move decimals (left to multiply and right to divide) than dealing with multiple units.




EXTRA!!! The Origins of the Metric System

The standard shouldn't be NOT biological, but LOGICAL - Sami Sinclair-Hall (6th grade) - 2013

Everyone on Earth should use a system based on Earth - Patonica Brown (6th grade) - 2013

Pre-revolutionary France was estimated to have had over 250,000 different units of weights and measures. This would make trading from village to village and town to town EXTREMELY difficult. In 1790, twelve scientists, scholars, and philosophers were commissioned to create a NON-CHANGING system of measurement. The best non-changing object to base the system on would be the size of the Earth.

In the Greek, metron means "to measure" so the new base unit of length was titled the METER.

The meter was defined to be exactly 1/10,000,000 the distance from the Equator to the North Pole. However no one had measured the Earth precisely so they did not know how long the meter would be.

Jean -Baptiste Delambre

Two astronomers set out from Paris, France in 1792 to determine the distance around the Earth. Obviously they could not measure the entire world by hand. Oceans get a bit difficult to measure.

They would have to get creative and use the math that they learned in school.


Pierre Francois Mechain

Back in their geometry classes they learned a bit about triangles.



Triangles have three sides.



Triangles have three angles.
If you know TWO angles and the length of ONE side you can calculate the length of the other sides!

This is called TRIANGULATION!

We use it to meausure distances, heights, and even the space between stars!


The men would get permission to build scaffolding around the tallest building in the area. From that height they chose two recognizable landmarks and measured the line-of-sight angles to both of them. This would make one corner of a triangle on their map.

After carefully repeating and recording the measurements, the men would pack up their equipment into a horse-drawn carriage and ride out to the two landmarks and then repeat the process across the countryside.


Once you have TWO angles and ONE distance, you can calculate the rest of the triangle.

After SEVEN years, the scientists were able to measure triangle after triangle across the countryside of France (and a bit of Spain)!



Desire, patience and math can do great things.


They used mathematics and astronomy to determine how much of the entire globe they had measured between Dunkirk and Barcelona.

The Earth is round and they had measured a portion of it. They calculated how much of the Earth's circle they had measured and from that they could calculate the distance around the globe.


This is like determining the distance across a tiled floor by measuring one tile very accurately and then counting the number of tiles.

The distance across France would be like one tile and the rest of the globe would be the number of tiles across the floor.

When we compare their calculations with those made from satellites today, they were 99.81% correct! (The world is actually a bit less round than they thought. It is fatter at the equator due to its spin)


The meter was defined to be exactly 1/10,000,000 the distance from the Equator to the North Pole.

That's 40,000,000 meters around the globe!

The LITER was to come directly from the meter. It was determined to be the space of 1 decimeter cubed. That means:

10 cm length X 10 cm width X 10 cm height = 1000 cm 3


The Kilogram is the metric unit of mass. It describes how much matter is present. It was to be derived directly from the Liter.

The French determined that one kilogram would be equal to one Liter of pure water. Overall this was a good idea seeing as though water is the most abundant compound on the surface of the planet.

Practically though, the impurities in water make this a very difficult measurement to be accurate with.

"Conquests will come and go, but this work will endure."

- Napoleon Bonaparte (on the metric system)


Using the Metric System Prefixes

Estimations for "the Real world"
length (meters)
volume (liters)
mass (grams)

weight (Newtons)

4.45 N = 1 pound

"one quintillion" 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
100 light years
the Pacific Ocean
The mass of the Earth's coal deposits
"one quadrillion" 1,000,000,000,000,000
one tenth of a light year
a Great Lake

the total biomass of the world's fish

OR 1 tsp of a neutron star

"one trillion" 1,000,000,000,000
distance to Saturn
Lake of the Ozarks
The Great Pyramid of Giza
"one billion" 1,000,000,000
distance to the moon
a large skyscraper
one stone from the great Pyramids
liftoff weight of the Space Shuttle
"one million" 1,000,000
weather fronts, the great lakes
local community water tower

clydesdale (large horse)

adult Blue whale
"one thousand" 1,000
10 minute walk
small hot tub
wooden baseball bat
football player
"one hundred" 100
short file cabinet
"ten" 10
2 nickels
wooden baseball bat
"One" 1
soda bottle
stick of butter
"one tenth" 0.1
chalkboard eraser
2 nickels
"one hundredth" 0.01
width of finger
house fly
"one thousandth" 0.001
20 drops
bread crumb
"one millionth" 0.000001
organelles in a living a cell (mitochondria)
human egg cell
"one billionth" 0.000000001
width of DNA
normal human cell
"one trillionth" 0.000000000001
distance between the nucleus and electrons
mass of one E. coli bacteria
"one quadrillionth" 0.000000000000001
mass of the HIV virus
"one quintillionth" 0.000000000000000001
mass of a ribosome inside the cell


The six basic types of measurement

(my advice is make flashcards to learn the following table)

Type of Measurement



metric ruler

Length Practice at



graduated cylinder

Volume practice

more practice

Gizmo: Volume

cubic meters

metric ruler



Ohaus balance practice

Gizmo: balance practic



heat (temperature)




thermometer practice



spring scale


a more detailed chart like the one above is available in .pdf here

Test yourself by filling in a blank one here


How to use the equipment

The meter stick (metric ruler) - measures length

1000 millimeters = 1 meter

100 centimeters = 1 meter

10 decimeters = 1 meter

.1 decameters = 1 meter

.01 hectometers = 1 meter

.001 kilometers = 1 meter

All of these measurements to the left are identical.

In each of the 10 centimeters above, there are 10 millimeters!

Each millimeter is .1 of a centimeter. That way if the object you measure goes past a centimeter mark, you can count the millimeter lines and create a decimal.

A measurement of that goes exactly to 2 centimeters would be called 2.0 cm

but it is also 20 millimeters

AND it is 2 hundredths of the whole meter stick (.02 meters)

A measurement of that goes 4 lines past 2 centimeters would be called 2.4 cm

but it is also 24 millimeters

AND 2.4 hundredths of the whole meter stick (.024 meters)


What would this measurement be?


The meter stick can also measure area and volume.

AREA (Length X Width)

Area is 2 dimensional and must be labeled as a length X length.

We say that area is "squared"

VOLUME (Length X Width X Height)

Volume is 3 dimensional and must be labeled as a length X length X length

We say that volume is "cubed"


Graduated Cylinders measure liquid volumes

Volume is the amount of space something takes up.


The word graduated refers to the lines on the cylinder. Because they are evenly spaced up the side, we say the cylinder is graduated.

Many think of a graduate of high school or college when they hear the word graduated. The years of schooling are evenly spaced just like the lines on the cylinder.

Understanding the MENISCUS
Make certain that you are reading the cylinder with the meniscus at eye level. If not, you will be reading from the wrong position and getting incorrect answers.
Liquids tend to stick to the sides of the container that it is in. This odd "dip" in the liquid is called the meniscus. Believe it or not, even a lake will show a meniscus on the shore line. You will often see a more dramatic meniscus in glass containers than plastic.
Perspective is everything!!
Look at the difference between being the driver and being a passenger! Most equipment MUST be viewed from a specific place to get accurate readings.
Finding volume by displacement

The volume of weird shaped objects can be found using the graduated cylinder!!

Dice often appear to be perfect cubes, but mostly they have rounded edges and routed out numbers on each side. These would be near impossible to measure with a ruler.

Good luck finding the volume of these with just a ruler...

Toy bulldozer


human body

Instead of using rulers, we can place most objects underwater to determine their volumes.

Water is a fluid which means it changes shape to its container.

If we put an EXACT amount of water in a graduated cylinder and place the object in, the water will rise. The rise in water level will equal the space of the object that was submerged.

How much space do you take up?

Mark the water level in your bathtub with a crayon before you get in. When you sit in the bathtub the water will rise because no two things can be in the same place at the same time.

Get all the way under the water (with your breath held) and mark the water level again.

The space between the water level lines represents the space your body takes up.

If you want, grab an empty 3 Liter bottle and fill up the tub between the lines to see how many Liters of space you take up.


the Balance - measures mass
A balance is used to measure mass. It is often just called a scale even though the name is not very descriptive. Historically, an object was measured by placing it on one side of a pivoting bar. Then by placing small masses of known size on the other side the two sides of the balance would eventually become "balanced" ! The object's mass can be recorded by writing down how much mass was required to balance the balance.


The "triple-beam balance" allows for objects to be massed without the need for individual masses to be lost. Instead the triple beam balance uses levers to adjust 3 or 4 masses on sliding bars. No pieces are removable or lost. The triple beam is read by adding up the numbers indicated by each of the sliding bars.

Each of the sliders measures to a specific accuracy.

The large slider measures only in 100 gram increments. Move this slider to each slot until the balance falls. This means you are within 100 grams of the mass of the object. Move the slider to the slot just before it fell.

The medium sized slider measures in 10 gram increments. It is moved second. In the same way, move the slider down the slots until the balance falls. This means you are within 10 grams of the mass of the object. Move the slider to the slot just before it fell.

The small slider measures in 1.0 gram increments. It is moved third. Move the slider down the beam until the balance is perfectly balanced. The white line on the beam should match up perfectly to the white line on the balance.

Add up the masses from each of the three beams to determine the final mass.

Get some balance-reading practice


spring scales - measure forces (weight)


Weight is the amount of force between two objects.



stopwatch - measures time

It is a common misconception to think the stopwatch measures to the millisecond. Most actually go to the 1/100th of a second called a centisecond.

Stopwatches should be used like a trigger on a gun. The index finger has a quicker response for most people than the thumb.


thermometer - measures the amount of heat in an object


Thermometers used to be filled with Mercury because of its great ability to expand due to heat. We have since learned that Mercury is a nerve toxin and would be an unwise substance to place in something so easily accessible as a thermometer. (not to mention that we put them in our mouths) Now, thermometers are filled with a red colored alcohol that does the same job as Mercury.

The more heat, the more the alcohol in the thermometer will expand and rise. The higher it goes, the higher the temperature.

many contain fluids that expand.



some are digital

NEVER stir with a thermometer...they are fragile. Look to see if the thermometer is broken before you use it



Using the Equipment Accurately and Precisely

First of all we need to understand the difference between being accurate and precise. Study the pictures below of some accurate and precise target practice.

Why is it important to be as accurate?

A telescope works by collecting light off a giant mirror and then focusing that light to a single point.

The mirror bounces light to the middle like a pitch back bounces a baseball.

Most telescopes are ON Earth and have to gather light AFTER it has gone through the Earth's atmosphere. The Hubble space telescope is in orbit around the Earth. It can look at space clearly without the "noise" of our atmosphere.

If the mirror is not the correct shape the light will never focus correctly. It would be like having the wrong prescription eyeglasses. That's exactly what happened to the Hubble telescope.

The tools needed to grind the mirrors to their perfect shape were only off by 1/50th of a human hair! That's not much at all, but when the telescope focused in on things that were distant and dark the pictures were not clear.


Pictures of space that should have been crystal clear came back blurry or non-existent.

Something had to be done to fix the problem.

These are pictures of the galaxy m100 BEFORE and AFTER the Hubble was fixed.


My fifth cousin is Air Force Col. Thomas Akers. He was part of the space shuttle Endeavor crew sent in 1993 to repair and upgrade the Hubble telescope. You can read about the specifics of his space trip on Wikipedia

Why is it important to be precise?

Precision means that you can do something the same way over and over again. There are many professions that will require you to perform operations again and again exactly the same way.

When my son Joel was born almost two months early he spent some time in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). For the most part he was doing great but needed some help breathing and eating. The feeding tube (seen left) went up his nose and down his throat to his stomach. He didn't like this all! I know because he pulled it out several times.

We carefully measured out the amount of milk that went in his tube. Hey that looks like a graduated cylinder over there!

His stomach was small so we didn't want too much. Too little and he wouldn't be fed enough.Using a bit of gravity, we held the graduated cylinder above his head allowing the milk to flow into his stomach.

Measuring volumes going in him is only the start. We also need to measure the volume of liquids coming OUT of him. Instead of trying to catch everything in a graduated cylinder we weigh him with and without his diaper. That way we can calculate how much of the food stayed with him.


Yes, I know the scale is measuring in pounds which is the English system. (One day it might measure in Newtons)

At some point you will have to dose out medications. Most meds are given over and over again. It is VERY important that you have the skills to dose the medicine correctly each time. Overdosing or underdosing can be a big problem or even fatal. You must learn how to measure accurately.