Metric Esperanto

By The Metric Maven

When I first began work as an Engineer, much measured data was still read from instruments, and then written by hand onto paper. What I noticed when presenting numbers to other engineers was that there would be a constant questioning. Had the number after the decimal point been switched, or  was the number written down wrong? Did my technician or myself actually write down 5 whereas the number was 2. A very talented older engineer with whom I worked, told me he had figured out how to deal with that problem. It was the early days of computers, so he would take the handwritten numbers, type them into his computer, and make a lovely table. This poetic license has no effect on the accuracy of the numbers. It only changed the technical reviewer’s perception of them. Only within the mind of those evaluating the numbers would it produce a modification.

Hand Taken Laboratory Data (circa 1982)

When the numbers were put into computer typefaces, even with dot matrix output, there was an immediate assumption by others that the numbers had to be right. Every time my friend did this, he was able to sit down and talk about the data without the constant questioning about the accuracy of the numbers–yet nothing material about them had changed.

Reflecting on this made me wonder about the seeming desire to use excessive decimal points. Pat Naughtin pointed out that the use of integers, or simple numbers, as he often called them in his lectures, increased the ease with which a person’s mind could compare numbers. Why is simplicity often unnecessarily sacrificed for complexity when creating tables of numbers? This is often done by persons who are in vocations that are heavily number based. Chemistry Professor Jeffrey H. Williams has written a monograph called Defining and Measuring, subtitled The Make Of All Things. It was published in 2014.

For instance, if you look at a table he presents of ancient Mesopotamian measurement units, the comparisons are in my view rather muddled:

For instance the Grain seed is 2.7 mm, but the next size is 1.65 cm?–rather than 16.5 mm? Why switch to centimeters in this case (or in my view ever)? I believe this table is for comparison purposes, and a more meaningful presentation could have been accomplished by attempting to invoke Naughtin’s Laws. Do we really know these ancient units to micrometer precision? The value 2.7 mm looks authoritative, and 16.5 mm also looks very authoritative. It says Modern Metric Equivalent, but wouldn’t these numbers, in their contemporary times, that is ancient Mesopotamia, have had uncertainties that were larger than 700 to 500 micrometers? One could actually use millimeters and meters up to the kilometer equivalent and separate them by prefixes:

Do we believe numbers are more accurate if we see decimal points? When comparisons are made, simple numbers are the easiest for the mind to readily compare, but sometimes large dynamic ranges can make it difficult to use pure integers, and maintain a single unit.

Williams makes this assertion in his text:

The Ancient Chinese used (and modern Chinese still use) a foot as their fundamental measure of length.

Then he goes on to state:

“…that the length of the ancient Chinese unit of measurement, the foot, increased from 0.195 m to 0.308 m over the last three millennia.”

Beyond my surprise at Williams’ assertion that the foot is still used as a fundamental length in China (I would like to see some documentation) I could not see why he didn’t say: “the foot, increased from 195 mm to 308 mm over the last three millennia” rather than introducing a decimal point with a leading zero. Does 0.195 meters seem more precise and accurate than 195 mm? Why did he introduce the decimal version? Was there a psychological reason more than a measurement presentation reason? I have no idea, but I’ve noticed this manner of numerical change in many other contexts.

Williams appears to gush at the succinct nature of the metric system, but does cause me a moment of concern when he uses the phrase “language of science”:

In fact, today we have seven base units which may be combined to explain every known scientific phenomenon, and which would be used to comprehend scientific discoveries that have yet to be made. That is, it is through these seven base units that the true universal language, the language of science is formed.

Later Williams discusses the oft-cited Mars Climate Orbiter metric/Ye Olde English disaster under the heading: The consequences of mixing units.

In Chapter 8 Williams finally sets off some real alarm bells of concern in my mind:

Systems of units and the ability to convert between different systems of units; for example, to convert from units in the British Imperial System of units to SI units is something that is no longer taught to science students. This is a great shame, as the different systems of units are only dialects of the single universal language of science, and an inability to communicate with people speaking these different dialects can limit
a scientist’s world view.

The lack of a proliferation of measurement units could limit a scientist’s world view??? What a strangely “new age” type of statement for a scientist to make.

Williams goes on to argue that the cgs system of units is still: “…needed so as to facilitate reading of the vast and important literature published in this area of science since the early-19th century.”

I will not go into technical details, but the lack of uniformity in electromagnetism, has caused nothing but headaches, and I would far rather see the “vast and important literature” from the nineteenth century either rewritten with modern notation and units, or left for historians to puzzle upon the gaping incompatibility between cgs and SI electromagnetic units.

The final chapter of the monograph, Chapter 13, is entitled: Dialects of the Single Language of Science. This is where the professor seriously jumps the shark in my view. He states that the metric unit of pressure, the pascal, is just too small, which precipitates large numbers:

For example, the pressure in your car tire would be about 340 000 Pa…

Well, how about 340 kilopascals? Is this really a problem? Just use an appropriate metric prefix. This number seems large.  In the U.S., most people set the pressure in their tires, to about 220 kilopascals (32 PSI). Perhaps there is a difference between a tire and a tyre?

Williams then details scientific and engineering “rules of thumb” that have been developed which are not SI and how their loss would be undesirable.

These are all expressions of the same piece of information, but expressed in the various dialects of the single language of science. In dialects which are useful for particular groups of technicians and scientists.

This is pure and simply an apologist’s rationalization for a proliferation of archaic units, without any good reason. It is an untenable argument for unit proliferation. Unit proliferation and poor definition were some of the reasons the metric system was developed in the first place. Then a flood of rationalization is offered by the author:

Such varieties of units exist for sound technical reasons: convenience in specialist branches of science, or convenience or facility of use in certain ranges of pressure, or because one profession refuses to change to another system of units, or because there is such an investment in technology that any change would be too expensive. The medical profession will, for example, not move away from using mmHg for blood pressure measurement, which is convenient for them and a sufficiently precise measurement for their patients, but this is not the case for the vast majority of physicists who gave up using mmHg as a unit for pressure early in the last century.

However, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether there is anything to be gained by attempting to force a large body of professionals to give up a system of units with which they have become familiar over many generations? There is certainly the possibility of serious adverse consequences arising from such a move. It would be far better to encourage the ability to use and convert between many of these systems of units—to celebrate the diversity of the dialects of the single language of science. A scientist or a technician who can convert between these units will be someone who will truly understand the science underlying the phenomenon, and will be less likely to make foolish errors; one dreads to imagine the consequences of the medical profession or drilling engineers getting their mmHg, their pascals and psis [sic] muddled up.

Comprehending these various means of expressing pressure, and being able to convert or translate between them is a great way of learning some basic science. Indeed, this was the reason that the Emperor Napoléon I mocked the decimal Metric System and re-introduced the old familiar, non-decimal units. The Emperor correctly thought that thinking only in factors of ten limits one’s perception of nature. There is more to science than being able to divide or multiply by ten.

Celebrate the diversity of the dialects of the single language of science‽‽‽ Where have I heard such tortured prose before?  Oh yes, the absolutely indefensible reply offered by the head of NIST, when he rejected the We The People metrication petition. Dr. Gallagher argued that if measurement units are a language, we are bi-lingual and we should celebrate this measurement diversity.

Then Williams appeals to technical Darwinism, and some strange idea of heirloom units to further his rationalization:

The present SI is based on a beautifully coherent model of fundamental physics, but that does not mean that every measurement made everywhere on Earth should be made using only this system of units. There is merit to be found in the various nonmetric systems of units—otherwise they would not have evolved and would not have lasted as long as they have.

So, in Dr. Williams chosen field of Chemistry, would it make sense to also make certain that students know all the alchemical names for chemical compounds?—and if they don’t exist—create some? After all, the names must have utility, they’ve been around along time and also evolved. Flower of Antimony, Liver of Silver, Sugar of Lead, Lunar Caustic, how can one truly understand chemistry without knowing how to convert these names to and from the modern ones?

By now you may be asking yourself, why on earth is the Metric Maven getting so worked up about some small monograph written by a Chemistry Professor. Well, this is a fairly special Chemistry Professor. In the author’s bio of Jeffrey Huw Williams, which accompanies the monograph, it states:

Most recently, 2003–2008, he was the head of publications at the Bureau international des poids et mesures (BIPM), Sèvres. The BIPM is charged by the Metre Convention of 1875 with ensuring world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI). It was during these years at the BIPM that he became interested in, and familiar with the origin of the Metric System, its subsequent evolution into the SI, and the coming transformation into the Quantum-SI.

Yes, he was in a more influential position than the head of NIST, Dr. Gallagher. Williams was with BIPM, and is now seemingly arguing against the complete and unique adoption of SI. He was also the head of publications at BIPM, and almost certainly had input on style. In his monograph Williams is making the same poetic, as opposed to scientific arguments for “units as a language” which the head of NIST did. Here is Dr. Gallagher of NIST’s words:

if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.

We measure distance in miles, but fiber optic cable diameter in millimeters. We weigh deli products in pounds, but medicine in milligrams. We buy gasoline by the gallon, but soda comes in liter-size bottles. We parcel property in acres, but remote sensing satellites map the Earth in square meters.

Metrology as language is the most inappropriate simile I can imagine. The length of a meter is not a poetic interpretation—no other base unit of length is needed. If SI is not flexible enough, then it should be augmented, but I’ve never encountered a situation where the seven base units which Williams celebrated earlier in his monograph have not been sufficient, when paired with the metric prefixes.  The metric system is already beautiful, expressive and mostly succinct. The introduction of barleycorn lengths and poetry will only undermine the reason SI was developed originally. Please, leave the poetry and the endless interpretation of same to poets, and leave measurement as a unique set of seven singular and immutable base units, appropriately scaled with metric prefixes, to be used by all of engineering and science, along with the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, as their one and only description of the world.

Metric Isolation and “Our System”

Metric Countries in Green

By The Metric Maven

Second Year Anniversary

I have been asked over and over by people: “why is the US the only country which does not have the metric system?” It seemed like a rather innocuous question when I first encountered it, and seemed only to be asking why we had not adopted the metric system. The implicit assumption was that the structure of our government is little different than others, so how could this government have sat on it’s hands for over 150 years and not adopt the metric system. The first argument is that it is the fault of the American public, they didn’t want it so our democratic government bowed to their will. In fact, the argument goes further, the government tried to force the citizens to use metric and there was a popular revolt. The political system responded to the demands of the citizens and so we have no metric.

What I’ve discovered in my reading is that none of this is true. The US government never actually attempted metrication—ever. When the entire world was converting to the metric system, faux-legislation was passed, which it was known would have zero impact on the weights and measures of the country. It was but a sop. The American Bar Association in the 1975 metric hearings said so.  How is it that John Kasson in 1866 could not get the metric system adopted, and then again in 1906 John Shafroth was scotched by a committee stacked with anti-metric persons, and metric failed again in 1921, and in 1975 and in 1996?

The number of times that the metric system has been discussed by congress is amazing. In the 1921 metric hearings (pg 378-379) it states that Congressional committees looked in to metric “…in 1879, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1901 and 1902.”  The issue was discussed again in 1921, and according to Ronald Zupko in Revolution in Measurement “Additional Congressional hearings followed in 1926, 1937, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963, and 1965.”  Of course congressional non-action also occurred in 1975, 1988, and 1996.  So for well over 100 years congress has actively done nothing.

One can point to many villains in the saga. The objection to metric by Charles Davies in 1866, the objections to metric by Fredric Halsey in 1906 and 1921, the objections by Organized Labor and Small Business in the 1975 hearings, and finally the objections by Nofzinger and Mankiwentz in the early 1980s which lead to Ronald Reagan’s disbanding of the anemic and powerless metric board around that time—leaving us with nothing. Now, as I write this, the metric system’s heartbeat has been flat-lined for another 33 years in the US. How can it be that 95% of the worlds population lives in countries where their governments were able to legislate metrication and make it work, and ours cannot? The Australians have a “representative democracy,” they speak English, and they have the metric system. India also does, and was able to legislate and implement metric. What is different about the United States, and the other metric procrastinators? There are only two, and here they can be dealt with summarily:

Liberia: settled by ex-patriot former slaves from the US. Many Liberians apparently still think of themselves as tied to America, so it’s not shocking they are also not metric.
Myanmar: long regarded as a brutal dictatorship frozen in time, it now appears to be at least making overtures for metrication. (See postscript.)
All the other nations of the globe use the metric system.

President Washington implored Congress to quickly address the issue of Weights and measures in his annual message to Congress. On October 25, 1791 he stated:

A uniformity in the weights and measures of the country is among the important measures submitted to you by the Constitution; and, if it can be derived from a standard at once invariable and universal, must be no less honorable to the public councils than conductive to the public convenience.

There seems to be a strange foreseeing of something like the development of the metric system in Washington’s words. They hang in the air and reverberate across time: “if it can be derived from a standard at once invariable and universal.” That describes the current definition of the meter in my view, and is the goal for all SI units.

In 1816 President Madison sent a message to congress about the situation:

Congress will call to mind that no adequate provision has yet been made for the uniformity of weights and measures contemplated by the Constitution. The great utility of a standard fixed in its nature, and founded on the easy rule of decimal proportions, is sufficiently obvious. It lead the Government at an early stage  to preparatory steps for introducing it, and a completion of the work will be a just title to the public gratitude.

In response, Congress tasked John Quincy Adams with undertaking an analysis. While some historians and others might find his final report to Congress something to celebrate,
I’ve made it clear that in my view it’s an internally contradictory, schizophrenic document that appears to celebrate metric then trashes it and then finally resolves that Congress should do nothing—which they are very efficient at accomplishing.

The Yard Standard Sent By the British to the US

Congress continued working hard at accomplishing nothing for many years after that, until technological change produced  an acute need for  political action. The standard yard and pound which the British had provided were not remaining stable. The metric standards which we had received because of our signature of the Treaty of the Meter were stable. The technical choice was simple, but Congress continued its epic inattention, and finally T.C. Mendenhall found he had no choice but to issue an order on April 5th 1893. Here is what he said:

In view of these facts, and the absence of any material normal standards of customary weights and measures, the Office of Weights and Measures, … will in the future regard the International Prototype Metre and Kilogramme as fundamental standards, and the customary units – the yard and the pound – will be derived therefrom in accordance with the Act of July 28, 1866. Indeed, this course has been practically forced upon this Office for several years, …..

It proclaimed that the non-metric weights and measurements units of the US were now to be based on the metric standards, because that is the only viable technical option. This statement became known as the Mendenhall Order. Mendehall had a technical problem that had to be addressed for the weights and measures of the US to be stable. Congress remained comatose and unresponsive.

Conversion to the metric system was discussed in Congress around the turn of the 20th Century, but each time it looked like it might have a chance, it was squashed. We find in the monograph The Evolution of Weights and Measures and The Metric System, published in 1906,  that the authors are baffled by the incredible amount of inaction in the US:

It is somewhat curious that the fixing of the standards of weights and measures is almost the only power expressedly and specifically conferred upon Congress which that body has refrained from exercising down to the present time, notwithstanding its constant and most active interest in the coinage of money, as evinced by a vast amount of discussion and legislation.

This would include the close attention Congress payed to getting a proper troy pound for the coinage of currency, even as they let other common weights and measures atrophy.

In the 1921 metric hearings, the Anti-metric lobbying group American Institute for Weights and Measures argued that the Mendenhall Order was illegal. They claimed the meter is not the fundamental unit, it is only a comparison bar used for reference to the actual lengths, and has to be compared to the British yard standard first, and as such the meter has no standing. They stated:

This [Mendenhall] order had no effect whatsoever on the legal length of the inch or yard. As pointed out previously, standards of weights and measures can not be changed in the slightest degree except by an act of congress. (page 175)

Because the AIWM views the tail as wagging the dog, they even go on to argue that under the law there are now two meters, an international one and a US meter which have different lengths. All this legal puffery did not change the reality based fact that technically, the yard standard was unusable, was changing in length, and could not be used as a standard in any rational sense, let alone be used as primary standard only to be compared secondarily with the meter. To be able to continue accurate measurement in the US, the National Bureau of Standards had to continue using the meter as the standard, whether the “legal standard” was the British yard or not. The meter was the de facto standard whether the AIWM wanted to acknowledge the fact or not.

Hector Vera from his 2011 dissertation "The Social Life of Measures: Metrication in the United States and Mexico, 1789-2004"

Congress ignored metric, until the rest of the world was suddenly changing to metric. One can see in the above graph that the final spike of world wide metrication was from 1960 to 1980. The legislation passed in 1975 by Congress, was not meant to implement the metric system in the US, but to act as a tactic to prevent it in the face of world wide metric adoption. Social norm in the 1970s was creating international “peer pressure” to change to metric. The meaningless legislation would distract the public into thinking we were going metric, like the rest of the world, but create “no change in existing law.” These are the words of the American Bar Association at the 1975 hearings, not mine. The system worked as the ABA predicted—nothing happened. The pace of metrication around the world has approached zero because metrication has saturated the planet, and very, very few places remain without the metric system.

There are two ways to view what happened in 1975 1) The system failed 2) The system worked as designed.    In a recent op-ed, retired UCLA professor Bob Williams might have an important point about “our system” when he states:

Americans have always welcomed innovation in technology. And this has been central to much of our economic success. This is not so true of innovation in social institutions.

…social institutions [in the US] have displayed an amazing rigidity and resistance to change even when economically maladaptive. The U.S. adopted a metric currency and Thomas Jefferson argued for a thoroughgoing metric system but, curiously, the U.S. maintained a mix of non-metric weights and measures.

Our long-time back and forth over the metric system is a simple model, a paradigm, of what happens in other institutions that become rigid and unresponsive to the needs of people.

Is it possible there is something about our government structure that inherently does not allow for innovation in social institutions? Was the Constitution designed that way? William Howard Taft seemed to think it was so. He stated that America “…is the most conservative country in the world.” What Taft appears to be asserting is that socially we are an arrested people, and that’s just fine, even desirable. As Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a postscript to his term as US President, Taft did everything possible to enshrine this arrested development in law.

The existence of this rigid social structure, embodied in law, and derived from the Constitution, may be a clue to the lack of metric adoption in the US. In the US, metrication is clearly viewed as a social change and not as a technical one. The Australians appear to have viewed the introduction of the metric system in their country as a technical change with some social implications. Americans seem to see implementing the metric system as a social change—period! That appears to be what is implied by Bob Williams in his comments about metric.  When I’ve mentioned the metric system to those who are not simply apathetic about it, I often get a reaction that includes statements like: “What the hells wrong with you?—are you some kind of cheese eating surrender monkey!?” or “Are you some kind of misplaced European or something?” I feel safe interpreting these reactions as a social viewpoint about the metric system, and not in any way a commentary on the technical merits of the metric system. When George Washington, over 200 years ago, even after pleading, could not get Congress to act upon weights and measures, and they still have not been addressed to this day, the hypothesis that metric is solely viewed as a social change, and social change has been arrested in the US by “our system” is a plausible viewpoint. If this hypothesis is true, it is also deeply depressing for this metric advocate. It means unless our political system is modified, we will never have metric in this nation.


It appears that Myanmar’s government is trying to become more integrated with the rest of the world. An article entitled Metrication in Myanmar, first published on 2014-02-24 describes the use of different sized baskets (a local quantity like a bushel as I understand it) and other “local quantities” to constantly cheat in commerce, which is described as “rampant.” This was rampant in the pre-metric world. Unfortunately, Myanmar may opt to adopt the US “method” of metrication:

But U Sai Ba Nyan says its efforts have been stymied somewhat by a lack of government will.

“The government has announced its intentions to convert, but they give no support for the change,” he says. “We can educate farmers and traders, but we need the government.”

also U Win Khaing Moe, director general of the Myanmar Scientific and Technological Research Department, under the Ministry of Science and Technology states:

“Changing is going to be very difficult for our country, and will cost a lot,” he says. “That’s why we would like to change gradually—an evolution, rather than a revolution.”


….[metric] conversion remains crucial to the country’s re-integration with the rest of the world.

“We’ve been left behind by other countries all over the world,” U Win Khaing Moe says. “That’s why we’re trying to catch up.”

The monograph Metrication in Australia was cited in the article. If they choose to follow the Australian path, they may achieve metrication in the near future. Should they follow the “think happy thoughts and it will happen” method, as implemented in the US, they will remain one of the final three officially non-metric countries in the world for a very, very long time. One of three unique countries with antique frozen governments, which will resist metrication—until hell freezes over?