Marveling At The Historical

Math Oldies But Goodies

  • About This Blog

    This blog is mostly about math procedures in textbooks dated from about 1825-1900. I’m writing about them because some of the procedures are exquisite and much more powerful, and simpler, than some of the procedures in current text books. Really!

    I update this blog as frequently as possible ... every 2-3 days. And, if you are a lover of old texts and unique procedures, you might want to talk to me about them, at I’m not an antiquarian; the books I have are dusty, musty, brown-paged scribbled-in texts written by authors with insights into how math works. Unfortunately, most of their procedures have vanished. They’ve been overcome by more traditional perspectives, but you have to realize that at that time, they were teaching the traditional methods.

Metric to Metric Conversion: Ultimately, it’s a Proportion!

Posted by mark schwartz on July 27, 2016


This discussion came about because one student in one class simply asked “Why does this work”? He was referring to the procedure for converting metric units to other metric units, for example, “how many centimeters are there in 10 kilometers?” He could see that the “moving the decimal point” procedure worked but he kept insisting that there must be more to it; that somehow someone had figured this out and he wanted to know how it had been figured out. I had no clear answer to this and told him (and the class) that I would think about it. What I came up with isn’t necessarily the reality of the derivation of that procedure, but it did start with something that we had already discussed in class – proportions – and he was willing to accept this as a demonstration of why it works but wasn’t about to consider it a true explanation. Loved this guy!

The Story

In Colaw and Ellwood’s 1900 School Arithmetic: Advanced Book (page 252) is a discussion of the metric system. Among other interesting things, they note that kilo hecta and deka are Greek, while deci, centi, milli are Latin. In reading through their discussion, I got to thinking about how they, as we do today, convert one metric unit to another: a 7-point scale and simply “move the decimal point” … but some of their commentary made me think about how and why this 7-point scale works.

If asked how many decimeters are in .04 kilometers, one has a variety of strategies to use. If the 7-point scale (kilo hecta, deka, unit, deci, centi, milli) is known, one can write .04 at the kilo point on the scale and then visualize moving from kilo to deci, which would give a move of 4 places to the right. If the decimal point is moved four places to the right, this shows that .04 kilos is 400 decis. Typically, students are accepting of this ‘shortcut’ because it is much more manageable than other systems. But, the question was “why does it work?”

I believe the underpinning for the move-the-decimal method is to do the problem by first converting all the units to the amount at each point on the scale that equals one unit. This by no means is a rigid mathematical derivation but rather a way of demonstrating the relationships using a previously studied math relationship, namely proportions.

The traditional 7-point scale looks like this:

Kilo                 hecta                deka                unit                  deci                 centi                milli

1000             100                  10                    1                      1/10                 1/100               1/1000

This scale shows the number of units in a named place-value. “Kilo” means 1000 units; “deci” means 1/10 of a unit, etc.. But let’s ask the question from the point of view of the unit: how many kilos would it take to make a unit? How many decis would it take to make a unit, etc.?

Here’s how the “unitized” 7-point scale would look:

Kilo                 hecta                deka                unit                  deci                 centi                milli

1/1000          1/100                 1/10                 1                      10                    100                  1000

It appears as though the scale has been reversed, and it has because we are viewing the information from the perspective of what it takes to make one unit. For example, it can be read as “1/1000 of a kilo equals 1 unit” or “10 decis equals 1 unit”, etc. The point of this is that all of the place-value names are now on the same scale and having them on the same scale permits one to establish proportions.

For example, on this scale 1/1000 of a kilo equals 10 decis because they both equal 1 unit. Another way of stating this relationship is to state that “1/1000 kilos is to 10 decis”, which is a phrase describing the first rate of two rates that would make up a proportion. What would be the second rate? The original problem was “how many decimeters are in .04 kilometers?”

In this case, being consistent with the idea in proportions that the numerators are all the same type of units and the denominators are all the same type of units, what is seen is the relationship of kilos to decis, is:

kilo  1/1000  =  .04  = 400 decis
deci    10        x

It is this proportional relationship which provides the basis for conversions from one metric unit to another, as long as the units used are those that “equate” them to 1. Students must be comfortable knowing how many ‘dekas’ it takes to make one unit (since a ‘deka’ is 10 units, it takes 1/10 of a ‘deka’ to equal a unit). This may seem counterintuitive since we typically say, for example, that a kilo is a thousand units, which is true but the focus here is with how many kilos it takes to make a unit.

Given this discussion of the two methods, it seems most likely that students would tend toward the ‘move the decimal point’ system. It doesn’t require any computation. But the point of presenting both of these it to bring out the reality that the ‘easier’ system is based on a proportional system. Just another example of the power of proportions based on an interested student’s insightful inquiry.


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