Our common measurement language

One of the most important, and perhaps surprising, human achievements during the nineteen and twentieth centuries was the adoption around the world of a common language of measurement. Ronnie Cohen provides an illustration of the benefits this can bring.

I recently bought noise-cancelling headphones for my mobile phone. One thing I noticed was that the operating instructions were provided in 15 different languages. The specifications printed on the box appeared in 3 languages. The battery installation instruction sheet was written is 19 languages and the European Guarantee Information Document was written in 22 languages – none contained any measurements. However, the measurements on the box and in the operating instructions were provided in the one common measurement language that we know as the metric system. All the translations used common measurement units and symbols, even in the non-Latin alphabets used in the Greek and Russian versions of the operating instructions. The number formats varied slightly as some countries use the comma and others use the dot as the decimal point. The same can be said for the thousands separator.

Most of the units appeared in the ‘General Specifications’ section of the operating instructions:

  • Driver units: 30 mm
  • Maximum input: 28 mW
  • Impedance: 220 ohms at 1 kHz (when the power is on), 45 ohms at 1 kHz (when the power is off)
  • Sensitivity: 115 dB/mW (when the power is on), 110 dB/mW (when the power is off)
  • Frequency response: 10 Hz – 22 000 Hz
  • Total Noise Suppression Ratio: Approx. 13 dB
  • Cable: Approx. 1.2 m
  • Power source: DC 1.5 V
  • Mass: Approx. 150 g including battery, not including cable
  • Talk microphone: Open circuit voltage level -40 dB (0 dB = 1 V/Pa)

Other measurement units were found elsewhere. In the ‘Features’ section, a feature of “300 kJ/m3 Neodymium magnet” described sound quality. In the ‘Included Items’ section, a footnote for the approximate hours of battery life reads “At 1 kHz, 0.1 mW + 0.1 mW output”.

This single product contained the following different measurement units:

  • Millimetres (symbol: mm) – unit of length
  • Metres (symbol: m) – unit of length
  • Megawatts (symbol: mW) – unit of power
  • Ohms (symbol: the Greek lower case omega) – unit of electrical resistance
  • Hertz (symbol: Hz) – unit of frequency
  • Kilohertz (symbol: kHz) – unit of frequency
  • Decibels (symbol: dB) – unit of sound
  • Volts (symbol: V) – unit of electric potential
  • Grams (symbol: g) – unit of mass
  • Pascals (symbol: Pa) – unit of pressure
  • Kilojoules (symbol: kJ) – unit of energy

These are all the different measurement units found in a single multi-national product. This product shows the importance of measurements in our lives and of one common measurement language that everyone can understand and use. It helps us to compare one product with rival products on the market, no matter where they are produced or sold. While there are linguistic differences across the world, the metric system is a common measurement language that unites us all (at least in the context of measurement).

18 thoughts on “Our common measurement language”

  1. And from the information given the presentation of the values and units is excellent …
    Example: Cable: Approx. 1.2 m
    [1.2m is wrong]


  2. The first line is somewhat in error when it states: One of the most important, and perhaps surprising, human achievements during the nineteen and twentieth centuries was the adoption around the world of a common language of measurement.

    Unfortunately there are two common languages of measurement and even though since that time one measurement language has become universal and used by the majority, the other refuses to give up the ghost. Yet, its strongest adherents are not found in the land of its origins but in the land of its first openly successful rebellion to the motherland’s rule.

    But because the one nation that refuses to give up its adopted units has become dominating and powerful, the one true common system for the world is unable to become the sole system for all mankind. Until this country is either dethroned from its powerful position (sooner than most think) or freely gives up its backward ways of measuring the one true system will have to deal with this wannabe universal system for the near future.


  3. A good article, but may I point out one error – the symbol for the ohm is the UPPER case Greek letter omega, not the lower case letter. This ensures consistancy with the use of upper and lower case Latin letters for other symbols – watts, named after James Watt is denoted by a “W” (upper case), while metres, which were not named after any partcular individual are denoted by a lower case “m”.


  4. Could it be that reluctance in the UK and US to use the metric system is because its world-wide success is an example of the success of French rational thinking over British pragmatism?


  5. Derekp

    I think it has more to do with world power arrogance and perceived exceptionalism. The US still insists it is the top world power even though Russia, Europe, India and China are moving up quickly and in some instances have already bypassed the US. The US feels the world must follow US ways and the US doesn’t need to change its ways for anyone. The English think the empire gave them the right to impose their ways on the world even if the empire no longer exists.

    The UK though is more metric than not but imperial gets news coverage each time a Luddite whines, so there is an impression of reluctance.


  6. @ Daniel Jackson 2019-12-08 at 05:17
    Thank you Daniel for ruining my news free weekend!

    A few glasses later, and having trawled through the articles and comments, I rather feel this my have lost Johnson a majority.
    I was undecided between tactical and rational voting, but now tactical is an absolute must, two major issues is more than I can take in one moment of loyalty!
    Reason prevailing, I cannot see this issue getting past parliament (if indeed it has to), so on that it is a dead issue (he says hopefully).
    It remains, for the time being at least, that the UK is far too far down the road to full metrication for doing a U turn (he again says hopefully).
    If never before, this election is pretty much a make or break one for the future of the United or dis-United Kingdom.
    Looking forward to comments on this one.


  7. Electioneering puff, that’s what t is about – no change in law, other than a suggested change to allow shops – if they wish – to show price per lb or whatever.

    Given that they can do this already, as long as price per kg is shown, then meh, it might get a few more over 65’s to vote Tory.



  8. John’s comment:
    In my area, the local authority’s Trading Standards Dept. doesn’t bother to respond to alleged blatant infringement of regulations like hidden scale readings on fruit and vegetable market stalls, and the failure to comply with metric unit pricing laws.
    And to make matters worse, the Local Government Ombudsman doesn’t have the powers to ensure a local authority takes action against ‘rogue’ traders.


  9. I got the opportunity just recently to view an advertisement while watching a YouTube video. It was about a English man wearing Lederhosen being bombarded with news reports about Brexit and its negative effects on the economy.

    Then the video switches to him in a nice, clean modern office building in Bayern. The ad narrated by him goes on about Bayern being the leading region in IT and other technologies. Bayern by the way is modern and metric and no one is screaming to return to dead king units.

    The moral of the story is the English Luddites may want to make England quaint again, but the innovators and managers of industry want modern facilities, modern thinking people and modern metric units. They will have no problem fleeing England to places in Europe where the metric system is not demonised, leaving bankrupt town after town with empty factories, loads of people unemployed and a poverty everywhere.

    Brexit and de-metrication is a win-win for the EU and the world and a lose-lose for every citizen of the England.


  10. On a lighter note here is a short YouTube video about the origin of the meter (or metre):

    A bit of whimsy (and information) during this time of the COVID-19 virus.


  11. The negative economic effects of the Covid-19 Corona Virus will definitely prevent any effort by the Luddites to reverse metrication in the UK.


  12. This is David & Sally’s explanation of how the corona virus took hold of them. The symptoms and dealing with the disease on a daily basis. 30 days in a Japanese hospital – and still counting !

    Three signs of having the Corona Virus:

    1.) A Temperature in excess of 37.5°C

    2.) Excessive Coughing

    3.) Shortness of Breath

    Watch yourself for these symptoms.

    Pass this video on!!


  13. So, how about a bit of good news?

    I have been watching a lot of documentary videos on my smart phone (Android) and have noticed that many of them are narrated by Brits and I assume they also are produced by companies that are British. What I find striking is that all of them are using metric units exclusively or sometimes using metric with Imperial added in the narration in a way that sounds parenthetical or perhaps by showing on screen the Imperial equivalent but still using only metric in the audio narration.

    This is a huge change from a couple of decades ago and shows that we (outside the USA!) are on the cusp of a complete change over to metric in the English-speaking world.

    All it would take in the UK is to convert road signs to metric and the whole business of abandoning the metric muddle would quickly become done and dusted.

    Perhaps a new government will finally see the light after it witnesses the consequences of leaving the transition period post-Brexit and the likely disruptions that will ensue to then finally decide that harmony with the rest of the world when it comes to trade (and measurement) is the most sensible path forward.


  14. I’m always struck (and gratified) when I see how naturally Canadians (other than maybe the truly old?) use kilometers and degrees Celsius without the slightest thought or self-reflection.
    Just now I was watching another update from Dr John Campbell of the UK talking to a Canadian health expert about COVID-19. She had no problem describing her distance from the US border using kilometers and would no doubt be equally relaxed and natural using degrees Celsius to describe a temperature. (As an aside, Canadians seem to be doing better at ditching “Centigrade” in favor of “Celsius” than many Brits still do even today.)
    What did the Canadians do right? They converted road signs to just metric back in the 1970’s and they replaced Fahrenheit with Celsius in all media outlets, newspapers, manufacturer’s instructions, brochures, appliances, and thermostats. For hardware devices I presume that was done under force of law since I doubt businesses would have done that entirely on their own.
    Here again we see where a modest amount of government enforcement of consistent and modern policy produces great results for metrication!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Ezra,
    American brand appliances such as ovens sold in Canada default to foreignheat units. If I’m not mistaken so do most home thermostats. If Canadians want these in metric units they have to do the research to convert them over or purchase one that is preset to degrees Celsius.


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