It’s a Sign of the Times

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My friend Sven takes daily walks. He sometimes discovers unusual sights, which he generously shares with me, by using the camera on his cell phone. Sven is also interested in metrication, and often uncovers engaging topics for conversation on his journeys. One day Sven came across an empty flattened box in the middle of a walking trail. This box had once contained bell peppers There is a grocery store nearby, which may have been its source. Generally I have little interest in vegetables, but green bell peppers are an ingredient in my father’s tuna salad recipe—a perennial favorite of mine. As you can see in Sven’s photograph below, the quantity stated on the box is 1 1/9 bushels. My mind froze-up when it tried to make rational sense of this quantity. “One and one ninth bushels?” I kept thinking, how on earth did this come to be.

I then mistakenly did what many of my fellow Americans do when confronted with this type of measurement irrationality. I assumed there is a  “good reason” this volume was chosen for bell peppers. I emailed people that sold bell peppers, and looked online for an answer. It was easy to find manufacturers who would sell farmers 1 1/9 bushel boxes for their  bell peppers. There appeared to be no other quantity offered. People who sold  bell peppers told me they had no idea why this quantity was chosen. Apparently the reason was the same one I have had heard many times: “it’s because we’ve always done it this way.”

I found a  US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Handbook Number 697 entitled: Weights, Measures, and Conversion Factors for Agricultural Commodities and Their Products from 1992. The only volume it lists for packaging bell peppers is 1 1/9 bushel. It also gives approximate mass in kilograms and weight in pounds:

I did not find the answer to my question about the origin of “standard” 1 1/9 bushel boxes in this work, nor have I found it anywhere else. What I did find was a mind-numbing set of quantities that defy rational explanation. I did also find other produce sold in 1 1/9 bushel quantities, they are,  Chinese Cabbage, Cucumbers, Eggplant and Escarole.

When 1 1/9 bushels is converted to liters, it’s 39.15. A single bushel is 35.23 liters, for a 3.92 liter difference. Why not just sell a bushel? I tried finding a logical relationship that might make sense, but failed. The choice of this quantity, 1 1/9 bushels for bell peppers, appears to be one of the mysteries of imperial weights and measures I will never unlock.

Sven was not slacking off and continued his treks across the metro area. I next received a photograph he had taken of a local speed limit sign. I had no idea what to make of it:

What on earth? A  speed limit sign which demands a precision of 1/2 mile per hour? Its whole number is seventeen?—an odd number? Perhaps the city council liked using prime numbers for speed limits?—so why the 1/2? This sign made little sense to me, but then a long time metric advocate suggested that perhaps someone had decided that the speed limit should be half of 35 mph. I can see someone in authority saying: “people are driving too fast through that area, let’s make the speed limit half of what it is now.” Others thought it was a staged joke—no, this is a real sign. My speedometer has 5 mph graduations. I guess to be certain I remain legal, I would have to drive at 15 mph. It is my understanding that the best police radars have an uncertainty of one mile per hour, and handheld radar guns have a two mile per hour resolution. The absurdities cascade. Law enforcement can’t even measure to this level of precision—yet signs exist demanding it.

Sven had taken the photograph above some time ago, and went back to make certain the 17 1/2 mph sign was still extant—it was. As important, was the fact that he encountered a new 12 1/2 mph sign shown below:

12 1/2 mph Speed Limit Sign (click to enlarge)

This sign might be some compromise between a 10 and 15 mph sign, but Sven had a more subtle hypothesis. Perhaps the addition of the 1/2 to the signs was to get people to actually read them. It may be the case that drivers simply “tune out” all the ubiquitous speed limit signs and just drive without any notion of the actual speed limit. By adding the strange speeds, with odd numbers and fractions, drivers might actually take note of what speed they should not exceed. Like anything else, this novelty will only work until it becomes common and people no longer notice.

One of the weird, and in my view frivolous, historical objections to the US becoming essentially the last country on the planet to convert to metric, is that the conversion would create odd and strange numbers, that would appear on signs with decimals behind them. First this is simply not true. The nearest metric value would be used. The rest of the world has been just fine for many many decades. Odd numbers are  just not an issue. Second, we don’t need the metric system to create absurd values for our road signs, produce, and other commodities. As the signs demonstrate, we clearly do this to ourselves already, without hesitation. It’s long past time we gave up bushels, pecks and barrels, for liters, as well as inches, feet, yards, and miles, for meters. Americans constantly claim they want to “simplify their lives,” the metric system would help them do that—but there is little evidence they are sincerely interested.

Update:  A longtime metric advocate emailed me with an interesting hypothesis about the choice of 1 1/9 bushel boxes. It is possible that pallets with 9 boxes form a unit for “standard” stacking. This would make each unit 10 bushels. One could count up the number of stacked units and easily figure out how many bushels are on the pallet. Three levels would be 30 bushels, four would of course be 40 bushels.

The Metric Populist Revolt That Didn’t Happen

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

On February 12, 2012 CBS News Sunday Morning discussed, in their Almanac segment, the appearance of the first metric road signs in the US, which had occurred thirty years earlier. Charles Osgood states: “Americans content with measuring the old way, were opposed to a conversion, dia-metrically  opposed, you might say.” Then a video clip from the 1970s is shown to validate the assertion. An antagonized man professes: “It’s too damn confusing for a person brought up on the English system.” The formation and later dissolution of the US Metric board is related to the viewer. It is also authoritatively proclaimed that the metric system is based on ten.

The anti-metric Wall Street Journal’s “Numbers Guy” Declared in his blog on March 9, 2012:

Americans foiled 1970s-era predictions of a national shift to metric, the collection of
units such as kilograms and meters designed to be easily computed and scaled by factors of 10.

Reading and listening to American Journalists talk about the metric system demonstrates one certainty, they have never used what they are talking about, and have no working knowledge of metric. They sound as knowledgeable an average American citizen lecturing an Englishman about cricket. The everyday metric units generally used are separated by a factor of 1000, not ten. In everyday life you will almost never encounter anything more than millimeters, meters and kilometers. No, no centimeters—don’t get me started, that’s another blog.

The other notion which has become a proverbial American myth, is that there was a “Metric Populist Revolt” in the 1970s. In order for a populist revolt to occur, one assumes there was mandatory metric legislation, a plan with funding, and the entire society was then compelled to use metric. As this metric mandate was implemented in the 1970s, public spirited citizens gathered with their torches and pitchforks, and fought back the metric invader. Democracy was restored to the Republic and we now live in a metric-free land.

There is just one problem with this narrative, it’s completely fictitious. It’s the sort of narrative Joe Isuzu might have employed. In the 1970s, all of the metric legislation was entirely voluntary. The 1970s legislation had all the impact of a symbolic declaration it was National Macaroni and Cheese day. Without a mandate for change, or availability of metric tools and products, human inertia resists any deviation from our eleventh century Anglo-Saxon barleycorn definitions of weights and measures. We defined a pound as the weight of 7000 barleycorns, and an inch as three barleycorns in a row. Our plastic rulers have fractions instead of decimals and so on. It was all very high tech in the sixteenth century.

There was a US metric board created in the 1970s that had no official power to compel metric usage in the US. But the board’s very existence was deemed unacceptable to a pair of bi-partisan Washington political insiders, and it was disbanded during the Reagan Administration.

Since I first encountered the metric system in my youth, I liked it, and wanted it to become the standard in the United States. Many years passed, and when I found a renewed personal interest in metrication, I wanted to know what happened, or more correctly, why metric didn’t happen. It has been very hard to find out. The complete story is still obscure and difficult to research. This much I do know:

George Washington in his inaugural address asserted that uniform weights and measures were of paramount importance to the United States and would be addressed as quickly as possible. Washington’s aides, and congress let him down through inaction. Bills were offered, tabled, ignored, and met with the indifference. The weights and measures of the US became unwelcome orphans in political discourse.

John Quincy Adams famously examined the US weights and measures question, and like his predecessors deferred the question indefinitely.

Finally, because new imperial replacement standards sent to us by the UK were so flawed we could not use them, Thomas Mendehall had to make a decision the US congress has refused to do for well over a century now. The only standards that were technically acceptable for use, were those provided when the US signed The Treaty of the Meter. In 1878,  The Mendenhall Order of April 5, 1893, became the de facto, un-legislated law which defined all the imperial units in terms of metric ones. John F. Shafroth, of Colorado, began introducing metric system legislation into the House of Representatives around 1895. His bill would have made the metric system the mandatory system of weights and measures for the US. The legislation was not passed, despite a number of attempts. Shafroth continued to urge metric legislation until his death in 1922.

I have thus far found very little history from 1922 until the metric study act of 1968. In 1975 the completely voluntary Metric Conversion Act was signed. There was no plan, no funding, and no vision. Apparently the metric system was expected to organically spring forth, without any effort required. The Metric Conversion Act was amended in 1988 and only punctuated the fact that metric adoption was voluntary—just in case the 1975 Act didn’t make this clear enough. The year 1988 appears to be where the trail goes cold again. Almost no metric legislation appears after that date. One wonders if perhaps the US should apply to the Guinness Book of World Records for a procrastination world record. It’s been 236 years after George Washington’s address on the subject of standardizing weights and measures. After this long without inaction It seems we should be in the running for some kind of record.

While ninety five percent of the worlds population converted to metric long ago, The United States only offered non-binding, vacuous legislation. It is easy to have a successful revolt against non-existent, feckless metric system legislation. You can do it from your living room while asleep in an easy chair. The absence of public leadership by congress and the executive branch, means we all now pay an invisible “Imperial System” tax, of around $16.00 per day per person. Because US citizens don’t realize the costs of the current non-system, it neuters public objection, and encourages the status quo. The most successful parasite, is one who’s existence is not perceived by its host. Taxation without metrication is tyranny!

The myth of the metric populist revolt, is used by people who didn’t even want to try changing over to metric, to explain why there is no use bothering to try now. We tried mightily! they assert, there was a metric revolt! It was horrible!, the nation was torn apart, we can’t even talk about it again! Democracy prevailed. We the people decided, and we are not doing it! This pernicious myth continues to reverberate in our newspapers, magazines, television and blogs. It short circuits discussion, and provides a convenient and illegitimate cover for why we are different, and can never become metric, like the rest of the world did long ago. Other countries of the world reap the financial and intellectual benefits of metrication. We just keep adding the collective cost to our tab–no worries–it will never come due—and so far we haven’t been forced to sober up—and face our metric hangover.. Will we ever?