The Imperial units are an irregularly standardized system of units that have been used in the United Kingdom and its former colonies, including the United States and Commonwealth countries. The Imperial system is also called the English system, the British system or, perhaps more correctly, the Avoirdupois System. It is the primary alternative to the metric system.
Current use of Imperial units
Today the Imperial units are widely used only in the United States, under the name of the U.S. customary units (and in some cases with different definitions, as discussed below) and in a few Caribbean countries. They have been replaced elsewhere by the SI (metric) system. Most Commonwealth countries have switched entirely to the SI system of units. The United Kingdom completed its legal transition to SI units in 1995, but a few such units are still in official use: for example, draught beer must still be sold in pints; most roadsign distances are still in yards and miles, and speed limits are in miles per hour, and even though the troy pound was outlawed in Great Britain in the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, today in the 21st century the troy ounce still enjoys a specific exception from the metrication laws of the U.K. The use of SI units is increasingly mandated by law for the retail sale of food and other commodities, but most British people still use Imperial units in colloquial discussion of distance (miles and yards), speed (miles per hour), weight (stones and pounds), liquid (pints and gallons) and height (feet and inches). British law requires all cars to use miles.
In the United States, the adjective imperial is only used with those new units of volume introduced in 1824, the imperial gallon and its subdivisions (pints, fluid ounces) and multiples (bushels, barrels). Even where "imperial" is used more broadly, in strict usage it should not be applied to English units that were outlawed in Weights and Measures Act of 1824 or earlier, or which had fallen out of use by that time, nor to post-imperial inventions such as the slug.
Relation to other systems
Most Imperial units had the same names as the units that are still predominantly used in the United States (see U.S. customary units). Unfortunately, the detailed definitions differed, and in some cases the differences are substantial. A further difference between the systems in use in the two countries is that in cooking weights and measures, much more use is made of volume measures (cups and spoons) in the US, whereas in the UK quantities of dry ingredients are usually specified by weight; cup and spoon measurements are sometimes given, but these are not the same as the US standard cups and spoons, and in traditional recipes probably just reflect a favourite cup that the cook had on hand. In addition, although most of the units were defined in both systems, some subsidiary units were used to a much greater extent, or for different purposes, in one system rather than the other.
Measures of length
After the July 1, 1959 deadline, agreed upon in 1958, the U.S. and the British yard were defined identically (0.9144 m) (however, the U.S. retained the slightly different survey foot for specialized surveying purposes).
The main parts of the tables of length (inch, foot, yard and international mile) were the same in both countries, though some of the intermediate units such as the chain (22 yards) and the furlong (220 yards) were more used in Britain and the Commonwealth than in the U.S.
The full table is as follows:
- 1 poppy seed = 1/4 barley corn = 2.11 mm
- 1 barleycorn = 1/3 inch ~= 8.467 mm
- 1 inch = 25.4 mm = 2.54 cm
- 1 foot = 12 inches = 304.8 mm = 3.048 dm
- 1 yard = 3 feet = 0.9144 m = 9.144 dm
- 1 rod, pole or perch = 5 1/2 yards = 5.0292 m
- 1 chain = 4 poles = 20.1168 m
- 1 furlong = 10 chains = 201.168 m
- 1 mile = 8 furlongs = 1.609 344 km
- 1 league = 3 miles = 4.828 032 km
However, the nautical mile equalled 6080 feet (1.85318 km) in the U.K. and 6080.2 ft (1.853249 km) in the U.S., not readily expressible in terms of any of the intermediate units (because it was defined in terms of the circumference of the earth). Depth of water at sea was expressed in fathoms (6 feet = 1.8288 m).
The barleycorn is rarely, if ever, used under this name as a unit of measure; its appearance in tables like this comes from an early definition of the inch as the length of three kernels of barley, plump and from the middle of the row. The poppy seed is even rarer.
Measures of area
- 1 acre = 1 furlong * 1 chain = 160 square rods = 1/640 square mile = 0.40468564224 ha = 4046.8564224 m²
Measures of volume
The present British gallon (4.546 09 L) and bushel (36.368 72 L) —known as the "Imperial gallon" and "Imperial bushel"— are, respectively, about 20 per cent and 3 per cent larger than the United States liquid gallon (3.785 411 784 L) and bushel (35.239 070 166 88 L). The Imperial gallon was originally defined as the volume of 10 avoirdupois pounds of water under specified conditions, and the Imperial bushel was defined as 8 Imperial gallons. Also, the subdivision of the Imperial gallon as presented in the table of British apothecaries' fluid measure differed in two important respects from the corresponding United States subdivision, in that the Imperial gallon was divided into 160 fluid ounces (whereas the United States gallon is divided into 128 fluid ounces), and a "fluid scruple" is included.
The full table of British measures of capacity (which are used alike for liquid and for dry commodities) is as follows:
- 1 fluid ounce = 28.413 062 5 mL
- 1 gill = 5 fluid ounces = 142.065 312 5 mL
- 1 pint = 4 gills = 568.261 25 mL
- 1 quart = 2 pints = 1.136 522 5 L
- 1 wine gallon = 231 cu in = 3.785 411 784 L
- 1 gallon = 4 quarts = 4.546 09 L
- 1 peck = 2 gallons = 9.092 18 L
- 1 kenning = 2 pecks = 18.184 36 L
- 1 bushel = 8 gallons (4 pecks or 2 kennings) = 36.368 72 L
- 1 firkin = 9 gallons = 40.914 81 L
- 1 kilderkin = 18 gallons = 81.829 62 L
- 1 barrel = 36 gallons = 163.659 24 L
- 1 hogshead (of beer) = 54 gallons = 245.488 86 L
- 1 quarter = 8 bushels = 290.949 76 L
- 1 puncheon = 84 wine gallons = 317.974 589 856 L
- 1 hogshead = 2 barrels = 72 gallons = 327.318 48 L
- 1 butt = 126 wine gallons = 476.961 884 784 L
- 1 tun = 3 puncheons = 252 wine gallons = 953.923 769 568 L
- 1 chaldron = 32 bushels = 256 gallons = 1163.799 04 L
- 1 last = 80 bushels = 640 gallons = 2909.497 6 L
The full table of British apothecaries' measure is as follows:
- 1 minim = 0.059 193 880 208¯3 mL
- 1 fluid scruple = 20 minims = 1.183 877 604 1¯6 mL
- 1 fluid dram or fluidram = 3 fluid scruples = 60 minims = 3.551 632 812 5 mL
- 1 fluid ounce = 8 fluid drachms = 28.413 062 5 mL
- 1 pint = 20 fluid ounces = 568.261 25 mL
- 1 gallon = 8 pints = 160 fluid ounces = 4.546 09 L
The origins of these differences lie in the variety of systems that were in use in Britain at the time of the establishment of the first colonies in North America. The American colonists adopted the English wine gallon of 231 cubic inches, and used it for all fluid purposes. The English of that period used this wine gallon, but they also had another gallon, the ale gallon of 282 cubic inches. In 1824, the British abandoned these two gallons when they adopted the British Imperial gallon, which they defined as the volume of 10 pounds of water, at a temperature of 62 °F, which, by calculation, is equivalent to about 277.42 cubic inches (4,546 cm³)—much closer to the ale gallon than the wine gallon. At the same time, they redefined the bushel as 8 gallons.
As noted above, in the customary British system the units of dry measure are the same as those of liquid measure. In the United States these two are not the same, the gallon and its subdivisions are used in the measurement of liquids; the bushel, with its subdivisions, is used in the measurement of certain dry commodities. The U.S. gallon (3.785 411 784 L) is divided into four liquid quarts (946.352 946 mL each) and the U.S. bushel (35.239 070 166 88 L) into 32 dry quarts (1.101 220 942 715 L each) or 4 pecks (8.809 767 541 72 L each). All the units of capacity or volume mentioned thus far are larger in the customary British system than in the U.S. system. But the British fluid ounce is smaller than (about 96% of) the U.S. fluid ounce, because the British quart is divided into 40 fluid ounces whereas the U.S. quart is divided into 32 fluid ounces.
From this we see that, in the Imperial system, an avoirdupois ounce of water at 62 °F has a volume of one fluid ounce, because 10 pounds is equivalent to 160 avoirdupois ounces, and 1 Imperial gallon is equivalent to 4 Imperial quarts, or 160 fluid ounces. This convenient relation does not exist in the U.S. system because a U.S. gallon of water at 62 °F weighs about 8 1/3 pounds, or 133 1/3 avoirdupois ounces, and the U.S. gallon is equivalent to 4 * 32, or 128 fluid ounces.
- 1 U.S. fluid ounce (≈ 1.041 British fluid ounces) = 29.573 529 562 5 mL
- 1 British fluid ounce (≈ 0.961 U.S. fluid ounce) = 28.413 062 5 mL
- 1 U.S. gallon (≈ 0.833 British Imperial gallon) = 3.785 411 784 L
- 1 British Imperial gallon (≈ 1.201 U.S. gallons) = 4.546 09 L
In the apothecary system of liquid measure the British add a unit, the fluid scruple, equal to one third of a fluid drachm (spelled dram in the United States) between their minim and their fluid drachm.
In both Britain and America, in addition to perch as a measure of length, there is also the perch which refers to the volume measurement of stone; one perch is equal to 16.5 ft × 1.5 ft × 1 ft = 24.75 cu. ft. of dry stone. The relationship to the unit of length (one perch = 16.5 feet) should be obvious.
Measures of weight and mass
A discussion of differences between countries is complicated by the fact that both Britain and the U.S. have made some use of three different weight systems, troy weight, used for precious metals, avoirdupois weight, used for most other purposes, and apothecaries' weight, now virtually unused since the metric system is used for all scientific purposes.
Among other differences between the customary British and the United States measurement systems, we should note that the use of the troy pound (373.241 721 6 g) was abolished in Britain on January 6, 1879, with only the troy ounce (31.103 476 8 g) and its decimal subdivisions retained, whereas the troy pound (of 12 troy ounces) and pennyweight are still legal in the United States, although they are not now greatly used. Another important difference is the universal use in Britain, for body weight, of the stone of 14 pounds (6.350 293 18 kg), this being a unit now unused in the United States, although its influence was shown in the practice until World War II of selling flour by the barrel of 196 pounds (14 stone).
In all the systems, the fundamental unit is the pound, and all other units are defined as fractions or multiples of it. The tables of Imperial troy mass and apothecaries' mass are the same as the corresponding United States tables, except for the British spelling "drachm" in the table of apothecaries' mass. The table of Imperial avoirdupois mass is the same as the United States table up to 1 pound, above that point the table differs:
- 1 grain = 64.798 91 mg
- 1 drachm = 1/16 ounce = 1.771 845 195 312 5 g
- 1 ounce = 1/16 pound = 28.349 523 125 g
- 1 pound = 7000 grains = 453.592 37 g
- 1 stone = 14 pounds = 6.350 293 18 kg
- 1 quarter = 2 stones = 28 pounds = 12.700 586 36 kg
- 1 short hundredweight = 100 pounds = 45.359 237 kg
- 1 long hundredweight = 4 quarters = 112 pounds = 50.802 345 44 kg
- 1 short ton = 20 short hundredweight = 2000 pounds = 907.184 74 kg
- 1 long ton = 20 long hundredweight = 2240 pounds = 1016.046 908 8 kg
Note that the British ton is 2240 pounds (the "long ton"), which is very close to a metric tonne, whereas the ton generally used in the United States is the "short ton" of 2000 pounds (907.184 74 kg).
British law now defines each Imperial unit entirely in terms of the metric equivalent. See the Units of Measurement Regulations 1995. This regulation effectively outlaws their usage in retail and trading except in previously established exceptions. This has now been proved by in court against the so called 'Metric Martyrs', a small group of market traders. Despite this, many small market traders still use the customary measures, citing customer preference especially among the older population.
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Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12