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The US legacy imperial system is inefficient and shouldn't be used

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/21/2013 Category: Technology
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,174 times Debate No: 34948
Debate Rounds (3)
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I'd like to start a debate on the benefits, well, lack thereof, of the imperial system of units as used in the United States, how it is a backward inefficient system.

Let's reserve the first round for acceptance.


I accept this debate and look forward to a good one.
Debate Round No. 1


So let's begin by presenting some arguments about the US legacy system.

Its "organicity" is its undoing, efficiency-wise

One of the arguments commonly presented for supporting the use of imperial units is that they are "organic", i.e. they are borne out of everyday measures that we can "easily" relate to. A feet is about the length of a foot, a yard about the the length of a short stride, one inch is about the length from a thumb's tip to the knuckle, etc. That's just for measuring length though. A system of measure that only concerns itself with length measurements is deeply myopic. A system of measure needs to deal with volume, surface, mass, forces, electric measures such as current and potential, temperature. Well, what is the "organic" way to measure volume ? Another set of approximate measures, from cups (a small glass), to pints (a big glass) to gallons (kinda small bucket). What about surface ? Another set of measure, acres, square rods, square feet, square yard. Even dealing with just these three instances, length/surface/volume, we can see that there is little common grounds, with units that were "organically" designed separately, and ratios between these units that are all over the place. This is a huge factor of inefficiency.

Some examples:
- You measure the sides of your room in feet n' inches. You need to buy carpet, which is sold by the square yard, you need A LOT of conversions before arriving to the correct value that you need before you buy. Any error and you'll buy too much or not enough.
- You have an aquarium, you measure the sides, and you need to know the number of gallons it can contain. You can't without using A LOT of conversions again. Any error and you might buy a too small or too big volume for your fishes, which might die because of it, or the pump will be over- or under-dimensioned.
OBVIOUSLY these examples are not things you do everyday, they represent just the most easily evidenced examples of that kind of efficiencies. Anything that involves going from length to surface or volume or back or any combination thereof is done only with a large amount of arithmetics, while there is no need for this arithmetics if the units had been thought out and not let to run havoc "organically".

The insistance on frational units

The US legacy imperial system is based on fractions. Each unit is fraction of the one above it, e.g. an inch is 1/12 of a foot, which is 1/3 of a yard, which is 1/1760 of a mile or 1/220 of a furlong or 2/11 of a rod. Therefore it seems logical to continue and use those fractions when dealing with measurements that are below a "major unit". e.g. an inch is quite large compared to a lot of engineering/technical needs, where therefore the 1/16, 1/64 or 1/32 inch and its multiples are used widely. But this does not go without a price. Using fractions is probably just fine when all you are doing is multiplying or dividing. But when you need to compare two numbers or add them or substract them, then you face inefficiences. You need to calculate common denominators, do the operation, maybe find another denominator for reducing the fraction, etc etc. Not hard, probably no one faces difficulty there. But it's an uneeded inefficiency, there's no obligation to use fractions. We invented a perfectly good system of counting to do that kind of thing, using a decimal basis, and decimal points.... With a decimal number system, you face the same amount of difficulty when multiplying,dividing,aring,substracting, there's no "hard point", no operation easier than another or harder than another. By insisting on fractions, the US legacy imperial system wastes time (which is money) when doing the "hard point" operations, while not gaining any time in the supposed "easy" operations. Let's face it, anyone who thinks it's easy to take 1/16, divide by 2 and get 1/32 will not face harder difficulty when taking 0.06, divide by 2 and get 0.03 .

It's not adapted to the modern world

When dealing with technology, the world we live in, we need to measure other things, things that are neither lengths nor surfaces or volume. We need to measure a current, an amount of electrons passing a surface in a given time. How would we do that in US legacy imperial units ? We don't. The unit for current, voltage, measurement are amperes and volt, which are SI units. These units were defined more than a century ago by the IEC, which included the British Institution of Electrical Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. These two representants, users of the imperial system, could have lobbied to define at the time "imperial" measures of electricity, but they didn't. Maybe they recognised that introducing the kind of inefficiencies seen in length/surface/volume measures into technology would not help. One area where imperial units stuck is in energy, where the BTU is widely use in some areas, you can buy the fuel for heating in BTUs. But if you want to know the equivalent electrical power you need for that kind of energy you need to do conversions between volts*amperes and BTU. How much BTU/h can a given wind turbine give knowing its electrical output ? Conversions. How high would you need to move water up a dam to get X BTU of electrical energy back ? Conversions. What's the resistance of a one foot long cable with a given wire gauge cross section and resistivity? Conversions. The US legacy system went ahead and accepted SI units for electricity, but this means all the other non electric units that should be linked to the electric units (energy, mainly) in a simple way, are not, in the current US legacy system. There are conversions all over the place.

Its disparate nature is unecessarily confusing

What's a pound ? Should be an easy answer, right ? Wrong. There are two, the troy pouand the avoirdupois pound. They are not equal. If you buy an avoirdupois ounce of gold and expect to sell it at x$/ounce, you'll feel bad when seeing gold is sold in troy ounces, there's a few gram difference which can mean a few hundred dollars difference. You might be scammed because of it, and for no reason other than people who insist on using the US legcay imperial system, as it is designed. What's an ounce anyway ? You FIRST have to precise what you're measuring, if you're measuring a volume, then it's fluid ounces, which is 1/20 of a pint. If it's a mass, then it's not that. Does a fluid ounce of liquid weighs one ounce ? Almost but not quite, and the 4% difference might be enough for some bad design decisions. How much weighs a gallon ? You might know the answer by heart because you're familiar with it. But shouldn't measurements be NOT known by hearts, isn't it the point of the system to be an abstraction to do stuff, and not something that you have to learn by heart ?

I'll let these points stand, good luck to my opponent.



Organic Measurements

My opponent claims that a system which concerns itself with length measurements is myopic, and needs to also deal with things such as volume, surface, mass, etc. However, I disagree. Length is important because it is an everyday measurement. How many people, who aren't scientists, will ever measure something's mass? or need to measure current if they aren't an electrician? The point is many of the measurements my opponent claims are also needed in a system of measurements, most people will never use. So I ask you voters, what is more useful TO YOU? A measurement system built and centered around your everyday needs, making most things you will have to measure in your lifetime simple? Or a system built around science, and a measurement system that makes things easier for scientists?

Let's take an every-day example such as cooking a meal. Why do we measuring things in tablespoons and teaspoons instead of base 10? Easy - because it's simpler and you have it on hand already. If you need 1/4 of a tablespoon, you take your tablespoon, dump it's contents onto a cutting board, and chop roughly a fourth of it with your knife. This is how home cooking operated for centuries. And which is why in the recipe you'll see below, Alyn Williams, who is known as one of the UK's top chefs, in fact uses imperial measurements for his recipes[1].

Fractional Units

My opponent claims that an inch is quite large compares to many engineering needs, which is do not dispute, but once again, that is a very specified occupation. As I said in my previous statement, imperial system is built out of everyday usage. The base 10 qualities of the metric system certainly come in handy when having to deal with large numbers. Which is why scientists have things like scientific notation which allows them to deal with these large figures more simply. However, most people will never need to deal with numbers that large or ever use scientific notation. So what good does it do to make everyone convert to a system built for scientists? What my opponent seems to miss is that most things in the real world aren't base 10. The calendar isn't built into 400 days comprised of 40 10 days-per-week periods. And a day isn't comprised me 1000 minutes. No, a year is 365.25 days. Even our most basic "measurement" system, the calendar, is made up of odd numbers and fractions! A year is 365 and 1/4 days, which is why we need leap years. Likewise, a day is comprised of 24 hours comprised of 60 minutes per hour, comprised of 60 seconds per minute.

My opponent's claims that fractions are inefficient ignore the intrinsic quality they have in the real world. When time and the calendar are converted to metric units, then my opponent can claim they have real-world value. Also, my opponent's claims that decimals are no harder than fractions, however, I disagree. Using the number's my opponent provided himself, I'd like to continue the operation. I agree, dividing 1/16 by 2 to get 1/32 is no harder than dividing .06 by 2 to get .03, but what if we kept dividing? I'm sure most people can multiply by 2, getting 1/64, 1/128, 1/256, etc. But it is not so "intrinsic" to keep diving .03, .015, then what? Decimal answers are much less easy to deal with than fractions. Additionally, in the math world, fractions are preferred because they are exact answers while decimals are just estimates and approximations! So to insist that fractions are somehow more "messy" than decimals is simply outrageous!

Not adapted to the "modern world"

This is by far the most unfounded point my opponent has made thus far. For this to be true would infer that the way we measure things have changed - which they have not. In actuality, the imperial system is MORE adapted to the real world, because it gets rid of measurements once they are no longer useful, which is why we no longer measure by things such as the "hogshead"[2]. Again, a tablespoon is still a tablespoon and an inch is still an inch. And again, something "measuring electrical output" isn't something most people will find useful! Unlike my opponent, I am not arguing against the metric system. I think it has it's place in usefulness - in the world of science. However, in the everyday world, the everyday measurements that the imperial system was founded upon have more usefulness. I'm sure as you're cooking breakfast, you'd much rather pour your battered eggs into a standard cup (which you didn't have to buy because it's something you already own- again, an intrinsic measurement), instead of having to pour it into a graduated cylinder (which you probably had to go buy unless you're a scientist) to get the decimals right.

It's confusing

My opponent's last claim was that it is confusing because there are two "pounds", and you might be scammed because of it. Admittedly, this is something that I did not know, and I thank my opponent for the useful information. However, what my opponent seems to overlook is that the same thing can be said about the metric system! Example - say you'll be starting school in the fall, and need a new flash drive to store your documents. The guy at the store is willing to offer you a 1 gigabyte flash drive for $6. Sounds like a good deal, right? Wrong. $6 is the going price for an actual gigabyte, which is 1,073,741,824 bytes. What he is selling you is an imperial gigabyte, which is 1,000,000,000 bytes. So in actuality, you are getting 73,741,824 less bytes for the same price! My opponent claims that the imperial system is confusing while overlooking the fact that the metric system is just as confusing!


My opponent's claims that the imperial system is inefficient are unfounded, and simply, untrue. Let's be honest here, voters. The metric system is "clean", which is why it's used in science, but is has no place in the real world. If we were measuring carpet for the house, my opponent would have you believe that the metric system is better, but I ask you this. What is you need to divide by thirds, or fourths? Base 10 of the metric system only works when diving by 2, 5, or 10, because that's all you can divide 10 by. But takes something like the "12" inches that are in a foot. 12 can be divided by 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12, therefore it has many more uses. I ask that you really take a look at the "inefficiencies" that my opponent has brought up and see which of those measurements you have ever used before, outside of the classroom.

I ask that you vote con and against the motion put forward thus far.

Debate Round No. 2


I'd like to point out that my opponent has moved off topic a lot. The topic is the imperial system, nowhere have I advocated for the metric system. The US legacy imperial system does not need any "contender" to fall flat on inefficiences. One could remove these inefficiencies without going metric.

My opponent is myopic and is proud of it?
" a system [...] needs to also ideal with things such as volume, surface, mass, etc. However, I disagree" That must be the most bizarre argument ever. In which world do you live in ? A 1D world ? No. We live in a 3D world, where surface and volume are very important. If your units of measurements of volume and surface don't easily relate to the units of measurements of lengths, that's deeply inefficient, and you don't address that. Everyone measures surfaces and volumes, all the time.
"How many people, who aren't scientists, will ever measure something's mass?" Everyone, all the time. You buy stuff by its mass. If you don't care that the supermarket sells you 16 ounces while claiming it's 20 ounces, then you're among the minority. Without standards of mass and volume, trade can't function globally like it does nowwdays.

"cooking a meal". If you don't see how INEFFICIENT it is to measure something, dump its contents and then cut it approximately, I can't do anything. In that scenario, you just wasted 3/4 tablespoon of whatever you wanted to measure, for no reason other than insisting on using the system of measures you chose. That's the textbook definition of inefficient. It's quite funny because by definition the teaspoon is 1/3 of a tablespoon. To divide your tablespoon by 4 you would take 3/4 of a teaspoon, not difficult to do, which is less wasteful than "dumping and cutting" why didn't you think of that with your "superb system" ?

Alyn Williams DOESN'T use imperial measurements in this recipe. There are almost only grams, and milliliters. The tablespoon in that recipe is not meant to mean the tablespoon unit in the imperial system (which is defined as 14.79 milliliter), but a rough unit of measurement. If I defined, tomorrow, a system of measurement that defines the "tablespoon" and other, but with different definitions than the imperial system (say, 12 milliliter), by your logic, I could also claim that my system is also good for cooking because it's used in this recipe. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

Scientific Notation and arithmetics
I don't talk either about the metric system nor about scientific notation, so the next argument is moot and irrelevant. We count things using base 10, that is a fact that don't changer whatever the number of days in a year (which does not determine our counting system, but by how earth moves around the Sun....). By his logic, maybe we should count in base 365 ?

If you have problems dividing 0.015 by 2, I can't help your basic arithmetics. Talk to your basic math professor. Let me see, how would you go about measuring the 1/256 inches anyway ? You wouldn't. Engineering work in decimal inches, working with e.g. 0.004 inches instead of 1/256. What I mean is that fractions being "exact" is moot: You CAN'T measure a fraction. You measure an absolute value with a certain uncertainty given in your basis unit. Measuring is MUCH easier in base 10, talk to any engineer or mechanic or whatever profession that measures things smaller than an inch. One other thing, insisting that division is easy with fractions is a bit circular. Of course, becaue fractions are defined by divisions.... What if you don't use divisions when designing or measuring ? Then you see that you don't need fractions, at all. Don't insist on dividing stuff, you don't need to usually.

Unit consistency?
"a tablespoon is a tablespoon and an inch is still an inch". Nope, the definition of those units have changed drastically since a few centuries, going all over the place. You can claim that in a very rough sense. But why would you base a whole system of measurement (on which trade and the economy depends) on rough approximations ? If everyone is potentially scammed of a few tenth of percents at each trade transaction, that's a lot of inefficiencies. That's why the units are standardised and "an inch is an inch and a pound is a pound" since 1959.

When making breakfast I don't need to measure my battered eggs, what kind of recipe is that ? Anyway... For cooking: Cooking is chemistry. It DOES NOT work by volume. A given volume of flour can vary by a lot given the "tightness" of the flour, and this has HUGE implications. Try replicating a given recipe, using only the information that it is "a cup" of something that is dry, in different kitchens, and you'll see what I mean : You'll get different results. This is why cooking seems like dark magic for people in the US, because even if they follow a recipe to the letter they will have differences due ONLY to insisting on using imperial legacy system. It's bizarre.

Again, talking about the metric system is off-topic. 1024 simplified to kilo by computer scientists a few decades ago does not mean that it is in the metric system anyway. For your information, this "error" can be said to be as much in the imperial system, because the imperial system has no unit for that, so uses the "metric system way". Plus, in a sense, there is no scam. The 1 gigabyte drive does contain 1,000,000,000 bytes, 1 gigabyte. You feel scammed because YOU use the WRONG way to measure the number of bytes (using kilo=1024). It's like buying a pound of butter and claiming you're scammed when you measure the pound with a faulty scale (that you know is faulty) and find "less than a pound".

My opponent's conclusion tries to make this debate about the metric system. It's not. It's about the US imperial legacy system. Its fractional system does not make any sense (an inch is 1/12 of a foot, which is 1/3 of a yard, which is 1/1760 of a mile or 1/220 of a furlong or 2/11 of a rod) and my opponent didn't address that. He reiterates the fallacy of the "divide by 2,3,4,6" which I addressed: It is consistently as easy to divide in base 10 by any number, while in another unit you can divide easily only by certain numbers, while it's MORE complicated to divide by the other numbers.

Well, it's my last round so I'l let my opponent the last word. But be wary voters, any appeal to vote against the motion on the basis of being against the metric system is very wrong because that debate is NOT about the metric system....


I apologize, I assumed my opponent was pro-metric. However, I do contend that it is difficult to label something as inefficient and advocate to get rid of it without comparing it to another system, unless you're advocating for a perfect system without faults, which can't exist. Any system will have it's share of inefficiencies, it is merely our job to find the system that is least inefficient, which isn't really possible without drawing a comparison. Let it be noted that the comparisons stand as far as this debate is concerned.


My opponent is trying to twist my words here. I do not disagree that things like surface, volume, and electric current are important in today's world. I simply do not believe that everything that ever needs to be measured has to necessarily be included in one system of measurements. We currently have two system of measurements today don't we? As I stated and provided evidence for earlier, the imperial system is much more suited for everyday needs and common measurements whereas the metric system is more suited for the world of science. What my opponent claims as myopic I claim as convenience. The imperial system is well-suited for everyday measurements that people use often, but admittedly, not well-suited for measurements that we don't often use. However, I contend that there are many units of measurement that most people will never use in their lives, why do they need to concern themselves with them? As for the point about supermarkets selling you 16 ounces and claiming 20 ounces, my opponent has provided no proof or evidence to show that that scenario is something that happens, and even if it does, as I showed last round with gigabytes vs metric gigabytes, is not something unique to the imperial system and therefore is not an accurate strike against it.


I'll begin by detailing what exactly it means to be inefficient. According to the Oxford Dictionary, inefficient means not achieving maximum productivity; wasting or failing to make the best use of time or resources[1]. How my opponent can claim that the imperial system if inefficient simply baffles me. When cooking, what exactly do you have in your kitchen? Teaspoons? Tablespoons? Standard cups? To claim that using the contents already found in most kitchens (ie, making the best use of resources) is inefficient, not only doesn't make sense, but goes against the actual definition of inefficiency! Now, my opponent claims that Alyn Williams doesn't use imperial measurements in the recipe I provided, but I would like for you all to look again at the BBC link I provided in my last round. You will see everything from Chardonnay vinegar to flaked almonds measured in fluid ounces or ounces. Frankly speaking, my opponent's arguments have no legs to stand on. Furthermore, my opponent has also provided no evidence whatsoever to back up his claim that the tablespoon Alyn Williams uses in his recipe differs from the tablespoon in the imperial system. In actuality, my opponent's naivety ignores the fact that the imperial system was one of the earlier universal systems of measurements, so EVERYTHING, including tablespoons were art of the imperial system. They have not changed over time. As my opponent said, a tablespoon is defined as 14.79 of a milliliter, which I'm sure you would agree, is not a very "efficient" or "clean" measurement. However, in the imperial system, a tablespoon is defined as 1/2 of a fluid ounce.[2] Since Alyn Williams uses fluid ounces in his recipe, it makes much more sense to conclude that the tablespoon being used is in actuality, the tablespoon of the imperial system, since it converts much more cleanly.

It is obvious here that the imperial system when used in the kitchen is extremely efficient. Now I ask, what do you or your spouse do more regularly? Cook? Or measure current and surface area? My opponent's claims at inefficiency simply do not add up.

Scientific Notation

Since my opponent is not arguing in favor of the metric system, I'll move on.

Unit Consistency

Not sure what my opponent was arguing here, as he said the units in the imperial system are standardized. Seems to me that he was just arguing for the sake of arguing here.


I already provided evidence on how the imperial system is used while cooking, so I won't go as in-depth for this section. However, my opponent's arguments here make little sense. Yes, volume of flour can vary by the "tightness" of the flour, but again, that is not a strike against the imperial system. And further still, going back to the definition of inefficiency that I provided earlier, you will see that by using things that are already in most kitchens, it is by definition, efficient. I am aware it is not perfect, but surely you will agree that varying flour tightness will not throw off a measurement enough that the end result will be drastically different. When cooking and using things like flour, very rarely is there a need for a pin-point exact measurement.

And for my opponent's last point "in a sense, there is no scam...You feel scammed because YOU use the WRONG way to measure the number" can be equally applied to pounds when he tried to state that because there is another type of "pound" supermarkets can scam you. I'll let that point stand as his own words are undermining the arguments that he is making. My opponent is trying to have it both ways and failing at doing so.


My opponent claims that because the imperial system wasn't built to convert between 1,000 different units like say, a chemist might do, that it is inefficient (he maintains that he is not advocating for the metric system even though this point obviously represents the essence of the metric system). However, I contend that doing so is even more inefficient. As I stated earlier, things like time and days of the week are not broken down into "easy" base 10 numbers. Why is that? Simple. Things aren't always "clean" in the real world. Time is the way it is because it works and is useful for dividing up the rotation of the Earth, even if it doesn't include the easiest numbers to work with. Likewise, the imperial system is the way it is because it works and is useful, even if it doesn't include the easiest numbers to work with. Now I know that my opponent is not pro-metric (lol), but let's take a look at an imperial ruler. 12 inches, inches broken down into fourths, eights, and 16ths, sometimes even 32ths. Now let's look at a base 10 ruler. How do you accomplish the same feat? How do you break 10 down into 3 parts? You certainly can't do so on a ruler. While the imperial system is admittedly ineffective when converting between many different units, for everyday applications and simple measurements, claims at inefficiency fall short. So I ask you voters, is a system inefficient when it doesn't factor in abilities that most people will never need, or will very rarely need? I do not think so. I think a system is more inefficient when it doesn't factor in abilities that people will need everyday. With this, I contend that the imperial system is efficient as-is, and ask that you vote against the motion.

Debate Round No. 3
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Reasons for voting decision: It's hard to determine who is the winner in terms of convincing arguments, but it is very clear that Con used sources.