Longhairs

My_Brothers_BarjpgBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Not long ago I recall reading a dismissive internet comment which was something on the order of: “the metric system is for scientists and not for regular people.” Clearly, if one understands the simplicity of a metric upgrade for the average person, this statement is completely born of ignorance. If a person uses milliliters, grams, millimeters and so on, then much of everyday life becomes elegant, and the displaced medieval measures are as unwelcome as trying to figure out which number Superbowl XXXVIII was. It was Superbowl 38.

The assertion that “metric is only for scientists” clearly was not a technical statement, so what kind of statement is it? When I read the statement, my mind when back to when I first lived in Los Angeles. The music on the radio was no longer likely to be The Beatles, but was instead The Beach Boys. When an old surf music oldies hour was introduced, the introductory line, (as best as I can recall) was “Remember when boys with buzz cuts were surfers and long hairs listened to classical music?” Indeed, “long hair” was at one time a proverbial phrase. Isaac Asimov in his 1957 essay Victory on Paper,{1]  when discussing the importance of paper chromatography states:

Nor is this ‘impossible’ problem just a matter of idle curiosity on the part of long-haired biochemists who have nothing better to do.

Surfers and long-hairs are viewed quite differently in American culture. Surfing is an athletic, sun-bathed, manly activity, and happens out in the fresh air. Listening to classical music is thought to be a square, intellectual non-activity that men who have a delicate constitution engage in.

This seeming comparison of surf music and classical music actually also contains a succinct statement about American anti-intellectualism. Richard Hofstadter in his work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes this point about how teachers are viewed in the US:

The boys grow up thinking of men teachers as somewhat effeminate and treat them with a curious mixture of genteel deference (of the sort due to women) and hearty male condescension. In a certain constricted sense, the male teacher may be respected, but he is not “one of the boys.” pg 320.

I’ve found it a curious truth that US scientists generally use more metric than not, but engineers use almost no metric. Engineering is also a profession that builds bridges, bends steel into aircraft and developed muscle cars of the 1970s. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but when a statement like “metric is only for scientists” is forwarded, it seems to be directed somewhere other than at a comparison of the utility of medieval measures and modern metric ones. It becomes a “feeling” about what metric is, and it’s not manly. One can almost hear a more modern version “those latte sipping pro-metric guys can have their system, no one’s stopping them. It’s a free country” with the implied attack on their manhood and inveighing against comfort that these sissies would embrace inside of a coffeehouse while discussing impractical literature.

Another aspect of American anti-intellectualism is the idea that practical is always better than theoretical. John Kasson (1822-1910) saw metric as practical and said so much after he lost his 1866 bid to make metric mandatory in the US:

The interests of trade among a people so quick as ours to receive and adopt a useful novelty, will soon acquaint practical men with its convenience. When this is attained–a period, it is hoped not distant–a further Act of Congress can fix the date for its exclusive adoption as a legal system. At an earlier period it may be safely introduced into all public offices, and for government service. [emphasis mine]

In the US, then and now, metric is seen as an effete system created by a bunch of scientific dandys from France, despite its English origins. When discussing The Practical Culture of the US, Richard Hofstadter states: “With all this there went a persistent hostility to formal education and a countervailing cult of experience.” (pg 257). When I was growing up, I often heard these phrases: “I’m a person who works with his hands.”, “You can’t learn this from a book” or “They don’t teach people this in college.”

When metric hearings were held in Congress in 1905 a Mr Gaines asserted the usefulness of the foot for farmers estimating how much volume would be needed to store grain. This exchange took place between Mr George Wetmore Colles a consulting mechanical and electrical engineer which was used to make a point about impractical people:

Mr. Gaines. Now, you yourself do not use the peck or the quart, or the pint. Then you are not an expert in this. Then you are a professor in this.

Mr. Colles. No; I am an engineer.

Mr Gaines. Rainbow people want this metric system, and the practical people do not want it. And when you want to change the bushel into something else you become yourself one of these rainbow chasers. [Laughter] (pg 153)

Mr. Gaines was clearly not pleased that an engineer might side with impractical scientific longhairs and wanted to press the point. This testimony may have been in 1905, but in the late 20th century a supervisor at a company where I previously worked summoned a group of engineers to present a talk he had prepared. His presentation began with a question: “Who has done more for humankind? Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison?” The engineers (mostly electrical engineers) looked at each other, and when polled, unanimously stated that the answer was clearly Albert Einstein. The supervisor had a negative visceral reaction, he was sure it was Thomas Edison, and was furious the group had given “the wrong answer.” What kind of people were they?! Edison is a focal point for the “cult of the practical man” and the supervisor was dealing with a room filled with apostates.

To the less-than-studious engineering supervisor, Albert Einstein was probably the archetypal impractical and effete “long-hair.” Thomas Edison was a “practical” git ‘r done person who had “invented” many practical devices. Today, very few of those devices are of any great importance. The invention of the electric light bulb was an act of brute force and Joseph Swan is certainly its inventor. Edison simply won a blind brute force trial and error race to produce a commercially viable inefficient version. Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, which is part of what would become quantum mechanics and in turn led to the development of highly efficient LED (light emitting diode) “light bulbs” that are rapidly replacing Edison’s “practical design.” Edison ignored the “Edison effect” as he saw no “practical” use for it although it was the key to vacuum tubes that would revolutionize electronics. When cathode ray tubes were developed for television screens, engineers needed to use relativity theory to predict the path of the electrons inside which paint the images. The “impractical” Einstein also invented a new type of refrigerator with his former student Leo Szilard.

The year 1905 was the “miracle year” when Einstein published three amazing papers that changed engineering and physics forever. It was a less than miraculous year for metric testimony in the United States:

Mr. Lanning. Is there any theoretical or practical relation between the electrical unit and other metrical units, or the unit which we use in all ordinary standards of weights and measures?

Mr. Colles. There is a theoretical relation, but no practical relation. It relates in words, I may say, to the velocity of light, and, as I say, it is very abstruse that it does not concern anyone outside of a laboratory, and even then only those engaged in investigations like those of X-rays and other scientific inventions, which have no practical constructive value, and probably never will have. (pg 151)  [emphasis mine]

1905 is a year for great intellectual irony in the US, where a false dichotomy of meaningless “scientific inventions” and useful “actual inventions” is delineated by a “practical person.”

I ran across a letter to the editor in the May 19, 1920 Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer that railed against current legislation which would make the metric system mandatory in the US. Here is the section that is pertinent:

The meter was never designed by manufacturers for manufacturing. A meter was sort of conjured up by a bunch of purely theoretical scientists. In practical use, the divisions of the metric system are either too great or too small to be of practical value.

Go through any buyer’s guide from A to Z and see if you see any products whose sale or manufacture would be improved by metricalizing their measurements. Manufacturers are the immediate butt of the metrical joke. (It’s a theoretical joke but a practical calamity)

The epistle is reprinted from a company newsletter called “Drill Chips” originally published by The Cleveland Twist Drill Company. This name still exists as a brand in the US.

It is the fate of the metric reformer in the US to be viewed through the lens of American anti-intellectualism. These metric ideas are seen as abstract; they are not “practical” or we would have known about them already and adopted them in the US. The reformer is not a “git ‘r done” guy, but is instead a mamby pamby complainer with impractical “ideas.”

There are many factors that contributed to the lack of metric adoption in the US over the last 150 years. Our lack of a strong central government is cited by Hector Vera as an essential roadblock, but even if it wasn’t, other contributing factors could be America’s inward looking attitude and a belief that if an idea was worthy, a practical American would have thought of it, and the rest of practical America would have already adopted it. The assertion that metric is for scientists and not for regular people is not a technical statement, it’s just a prejudicial one.

[1] Isaac Asimov Only A Trillion Abelard – Shuman 1957 pg 57

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The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

Metric Hosers

Bob-and-Doug-RelaxingBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

When I decided I would change my engineering lab over to metric, I immediately and unknowingly encountered the limits imposed by the Invisible Metric Embargo. I was mantled in American ignorance about what I needed for tools. Finding them would become an odyssey. “Where could I get a decent “meter stick?” was my first question. Clearly Canada is a metric country. I will get online and purchase rulers from there I thought. I spent a lot of time and found only wooden meter sticks. They were all in centimeters, and within the confines of my blissful ignorance that seemed fine. At that point I was only disappointed with the poor quality of the rulers I obtained. I use a milling machine to create printed circuit boards (PCB) with millimeters and wanted a fairly large sized scale. I measured the board dimensions with the Canadian metric ruler in centimeters, shifted the decimal point in my head and then would check against my millimeter drawing.

About that time I wrote a pro-metric editorial for a local paper, and in response received emails from Pat Naughtin and Mike Joy, both from Australia. Pat congratulated me on the editorial; Mike wanted to provide help. When I described my current work, Mike offered to send me a millimeter only ruler. I did not want him to go to the expense, and I really could not see the need. Mike insisted. He told me that he had used centimeters, and they had caused mistakes. He assured me I would see the light after he sent me “real metric rulers.” When the 300 mm and 600 mm rulers arrived at my door, I was engaged with milling a PCB. I removed the rulers from the shipping container even as the mill was running. When I started to check dimensions, I was truly shocked by the amount of eliminated mental effort produced by this simple change. I immediately planned on banishing my centimeter “yardstick” from Canada to an uncomfortable place in my garage.

Sven counseled me about centimeters a fortnight or so before, and I really didn’t see why they were a problem. I began watching Naughtin’s videos, read his metric epistles and the light went on—centimeters really are a bad idea. I had already purchased a centimeter tape measure and now I really did not want to use it. Naughtin pointed out that Canadians, despite their official metric status, did not adopt metric in their housing construction. I went online and looked for millimeter only metric tape measures in Canada. I looked and looked but all the hardware stores offered mostly inches, centimeters, or combinations thereof.

Not long after this, Mike Joy visited the US and brought along a very nice Australian millimeter-only tape measure. I offered to purchase it from him, but he had a person in Vancouver Canada to whom it was promised. I was really jonesing for the tape measure. This was yet another confirmation that Canada was not the place to find millimeter-only metric tools and is part of the Invisible Metric Embargo.

I wanted to put together some type of metric cookbook, and I figured Canada might have some I could purchase. I contacted a number of persons in Canada who had Canadian cook books for sale. They informed me they all used Ye Olde English measures. One woman was clearly confused why someone from the US would want a cook book in metric. Peter Goodyear (another Australian) later offered useful links to some useful Australian cooking websites.

I have only spent about three hours in Canada, and most of those were in a restaurant. I had come to the conclusion that Canada was not nearly as metric as it would appear. I wondered about England, and based on my Canadian experience began to doubt how metric it might be. Derek Pollard of the UK Metric Association convinced me that the UK is about 80%-90% metric. England is not Canada, It is very close to being a completely metric country.

I began to see both Canada and the UK as inverse metric m&m’s. Canada has a thin outer metric coating and looks metric on first glance, but hidden inside its slim shell is an unappetizing center of Ye Olde English/Imperial usage. England’s m&m outer shell makes it look like an Imperial nation. Roadways have miles, pints are sold in pubs, metric martyrs are in the news, but when you get past the outer shell, the interior of the English m&m is all metric.

Lufkin-Vertical-mm-Tapemeasure

Courtesy of Peter Goodyear

In Early February of 2016 a small engineering company in Ohio contacted me. They found the Metric Maven website and wanted to know if there was any place, other than Australia, where they could purchase millimeter only tape measures. I told them that the Fastcap 32 was the only one I knew of available in the US, and it is not nearly as high a quality as my Australian ones. The Fastcap 32 was not good enough for this engineering company’s needs. I finally directed them to a number of Australian sites. They had the same concern I did when I first ordered some from Australia, that the tapes which arrived would be in centimeters and not millimeters. I had to tell them that I’d never found a millimeter only tape measure in Canada (not even an inch/mm tape) and there would be little hope other than Australia to purchase one.

Less than a week later an email arrived from a recently retired woodworker in Canada. He had been thinking about switching to metric in his work, and it came to him that a millimeter only measuring tape would be a very simple way to dimension his work all in integers. He stated that he had come to this conclusion independently and then did a web search to see if a mm only tape measure existed and where he could obtain one. The search directed him to this US based website, where he found images of millimeter only tape measures. The woodworker was quite surprised to find that an Invisible Metric Embargo exists in both the US and Canada. He could not find a mm only tape measure in Canada, nor in the US.

On 2016-03-05 a carpenter from Western Australia had an “ask me anything” thread on Reddit. Here was a bit of the exchange:

Mr Gupples: always wondered about stud placement in metric countries. maybe you guys dont use the metric system, i dont know. do you do 16 on center there? are plywood sheets 4 x 8?

Australian Carpenter:  Stud placement is typically 600 center to center. That’s basically 2 foot. It gets tighter in cyclone prone areas. 450 centers. That’s 1 and a half foot. All measurements in millimeters.

We still use feet and inches but not for anything precise. Some older blokes will still call a sheet of ply an 8 by 4 rather than a two four by twelve.

Samz0rpt1: weird. canada uses 16 oc and 4 by 8 sheets. so do you guys have metric tape measures or do you use metric imperial ones like what you would get in home depot (hardware store)

Australian Carpenter: Meteic [Metric] both sides.

The use of millimeters is seen by Samz0rpt1 as “weird.” He wants to know how on Earth millimeter tape measures can be obtained. I’m assuming he is probably Canadian and is as surprised as the retired Canadian woodworker about the Invisible Metric Embargo. I see this shock on the faces of US engineers every time I tell them about metric construction. Provincial, thy name is American.

I won’t chastise Canada too much for their non-metric ways in housing construction. They clearly know better, but they have the overwhelming negative influence of an ill-tempered Olde English bully to their south with which to contend. This antique non-metric country to Canada’s south still constructs all their houses in inches, with all other compliment of irrational Ye Olde English measures for plumbing and such. The best way to help make the US more metric might be if Canada would take the lead with metric construction, because I see no way the Frozen Republic in the US will ever mandate metric. Canadians, please try to muster up as much outrage as was found when the beaver was to be taken off the nickel, and implement millimeter metric construction in Canada. It only took the Australians about 18 months to complete. Perhaps this will help the backward neighbor to your south to finally see the advantages of metric they currently cannot even contemplate.

When John Shafroth was introducing metric legislation in the US at the end of the 19th century, Canada was on board. Here is an article from the December 30, 1900 issue of The Times of Washington:

Washington-Times-1900-12-30-Metric-CanadaCanada began its metrication 70 years later, but has stalled out with a metric system implementation that is but a veneer. It’s been 115 years, it’s time to ignore the US and complete your metrication. If you did, this American would thank you for it.

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The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.