The U.S. government has been toying with the idea of converting to the metric system for decades, but so far the impact appears to be limited to random usage on pricey bottled waters and dual-dimensioned highway signs and car speedometers. Thanks to our obvious lack of commitment and funding, we now have things like truck height reported in feet, but bridge height is in meters. It's now possible to purchase 5 mm-diameter wire by the foot. What kind of logic is this?
I recently completed an engineering assignment that involved frequent travel and work with a company in England. The work was quite interesting and educational, exposing me to such new cultural experiences as British office politics and overcooked vegetables. But while overseas, I encountered two challenging problems: The first was driving on the wrong side of the road, but that's for another story. The second challenge (actually a pleasure) was learning to work in English units for all of the technical calculations required on our project. I found it extremely interesting that while various technical organizations and governments have attempted to switch to the metric system, it clearly isn't a requirement for getting the job done.
Overall, I found the more primitive units for measure more entertaining and enjoyable—after all, what engineer couldn't appreciate the entertainment (and resulting manufacturing frustration) by dimensioning critical parts in yards and furlongs?
While working in strict metric units gets the job completed, it has lost some of the mystique associated with historically obscure dimensions that were used in the founding days of the engineer's art. Given the recent problems with units conversion (English to metric—or was it the other way around?) encountered by some people at NASA, and the resulting crash of a Mars probe, I propose that the engineering community revert back to the "standard units" used in the early 1800s. After all, if those units were good enough to foster an industrial revolution, they should be good enough for us.
Due to the obscure units associated with the various standards and the inability to specifically and repeatedly determine the exact length of your thumb, some new definitions will be required. For clarification, I have drafted some explanations of what these old/new units will be:
Slug: unit of force used by an engineer to resist converting to the metric system
Peck: unit of dry volume consumed by a (U.S.) Bald Eagle in one minute
Acre: Area of land that can be walked when a blister (or ache'r) forms
(Fig) Newton: unit used to measure weight/volume of agricultural products
Hogshead: a unit to measure the density of materials (and unpopular decisions by upper management)
While conversion to historical engineering units may be resisted, a new technical lingo is definitely required for engineering. Review of most recent news stories shows that engineering is losing its mystique, with more and more people professing to understand the technical art. We need to observe and learn from other professions and organizations. For example, lawyers are notorious for their "legalese." Politicians and accountants each have their own professional terminology. So do computer professionals like IT staffs. It's time for the engineering community to resurrect a professional language that an undisciplined practitioner won't be able to fathom.
Hey! That's another dimensional unit (the fathom) that desperately needs to be interwoven into the new millennium. Its definition? "The length of time that it takes for a non-engineer to accept as fact everything that the engineer has told him.
This report is one of a series of occasional columns exploring the not-altogether serious side of engineering by Ken Foote, a mechanical engineer at GDLS. You can reach Ken at email@example.com or email your comments to us at firstname.lastname@example.org .