John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

John Franklin Shafroth

By The Metric Maven

June 9th is the birthday of John Franklin Shafroth (1854-1922). When I began researching the history of metrication initiatives in the US, John Shafroth’s name appeared over and over. I had never heard of him. It was ironic to discover he was a resident of “The Mile High City”—Denver Colorado.  Shafroth attempted to legislate the metric system as the standard of weights and measures for the United States. He is on record as supporting mandatory metric conversion bills from at least 1896 to his death in 1922. For twenty six years he did what he could to finally unify the “hammer to fit, paint to match” weights and measures still used in the United States to this day.

Shafroth was a US Representative, Governor and Senator from Colorado. He was able to usher in The National Bureau of Standards, now known as NIST. which earned praise from the President of MIT.

I contacted the three Authors of Honest John Shafroth — A Colorado Reformer. None of them were aware of his work on weights and measurement reform, nor were they surprised he had been involved. Shafroth was immersed in many issues of his day.

Shafroth managed to maintain his reputation at time when his political contemporaries were shown to be as corrupt as the Colorado River is long. When in 1904 Shafroth believed his opponent had won the election, he resigned. This earned him the name “Honest John.” John Shafroth was elected and held office as both a Republican and a Democrat, but could not get the country to adopt the metric system. The Denver Colorado resident was clearly not concerned about the city losing its Mile High prestige. It may be pointed out that the state of Colorado is the only one in which every square millimeter of land is above a kilometer. It is the Kilometer High State. We can replace 5280 by 1000 meters should they need a marketing replacement.

His bill to adopt the metric system was favorably reported by unanimous vote of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures on December 6, 1900. The effective date of when the metric system was to take effect was however moved to January 1, 1903.  Representative Shafroth asserted that “…all the civilized nations except Great Britain and the United States had adopted the metric system, Russia being the last to do so a few weeks ago.”  The New York Times  quoted the wording of the metrication bill on December 7, 1900 in their article, Favor The Metric System:


That on and after Jan. 1, 1903, all the departments of the Government of the United States in the transaction of all business requiring the use of weight and measurement, except in completing the survey of public lands, shall employ and use only the weights and measures of the metric system, and on and after Jan. 1, 1903, the weights and measurements of the metric system shall be the legal standard weights and measures of and in the United States.

The proposed bill never made it to The House floor, and vanished with the adjournment of the 56th Congress. Shafroth would introduce the bill again in the 57th Congress, and again on the first day of the 58th Congress.

Shafroth’s opponents labeled it The Metric “Force'” Bill. The Friday, May 16, 1902 issue of The San Francisco Call offered its view of the metric bill:

…it has become known among the opponents of the system as the “metric force bill,” and a good deal of opposition has been arrayed against it.

It is quite probable that an attempt to bring about the general use of the metric system in this country by a drastic measure of compulsion would be unpopular and would rouse a discontent that would go far to defeat the desired object, but still it is not easy to see how the improvement  can be brought about by any other means. The way to adopt the system is to adopt it, and that can be effected only by governmental action, for it is only through the Government that there can be brought about that wide-spread simultaneous acceptance of the change which is essential to its success. It required legislative act to reform the calendar, to establish a decimal system of currency and to make other improvements of a similar kind. The objection to the so called “force bill” on this subject is therefore invalid. If the metric system be good enough to be adopted at all it should be adopted by law.

While visiting Washington, Lord Kelvin appeared before the house committee and gave a strong endorsement to the bill ...

…when attention is given to the fact that there are in different countries and localities sixty different “inches,” 135 different lengths of the “foot,” 235 different different weights for the “pound,” it will be evident that it would be better for industry and commerce, as well as for science, to have a common uniform system of weights and measurements arranged on the decimal plan and based upon scientific principles….

1902 was the last year metric would be discussed by Congress until the 1920s. Had the Honorable John Shafroth been successful in passing his metric bill, this blog would never have become necessary. The prediction found in The San Fransisco Call proved accurate. Without mandatory legislation—metric conversion would not happen in the United States. It has been 110 years after Rep. Shafroth’s mandatory legislation was submitted, and we still use grains, carats, troy pounds and ounces, as well as avoirdupois pounds and ounces, three different miles: nautical, statute and survey, along with teaspoons and tablespoons much to the detriment of our economic and public health.

In 1902, during metric system hearings, Shafroth initiated this exchange:

Mr. Shafroth. How do you account for the fact, though, that there is not a single country that has adopted the metric system that contemplates adopting the English system?

Mr. Towne. Why should they?

Mr. Shafroth. Does not that show the superiority of the metric system?

Mr. Towne. No, sir; it shows the superiority of an established standard, and no country
in the world has ever had what America has to-day in this respect.

Certainly no other country does—they have more sense. Shafroth’s observation is still correct. No country which has adopted the metric system has ever regretted the change, and switched back. We are still the country who never tried. We are “The Little Engine that Couldn’t.”

The authors of the book Honest John Shafroth had this to say about the hurdles he faced:

“Shafroth’s failure to produce a speedy resolution on the Philippines demonstrated something he already knew: It was much easier for Congress to do nothing than to take action” …..

“Shafroth wanted the the United States to adopt the metric system. The idea died.” (page 102)

When Shafroth was up for reelection in 1918, he had a number of negatives haunting his campaign, and some that the public just didn’t care about. The authors of Honest John Shafroth relate:

 “Nor did most voters take an interest in adoption of the metric system or changing the date of the president’s inauguration, two of the senators pet projects.” (Page 129)

Shafroth would narrowly lose the 1918 election, which ended his political career.

In the map below are the 192 countries who have embraced the metric system as of 2012 in green and the three who have not in grey:

Antarctica is populated with scientists. It is essentially metric

All I can say on this occasion is: “Thank you Mr. Shafroth, thank you for trying so hard not to let your country waste money and lives by not adopting the metric system.”

There is not a Senator or Representative in the US Congress, for whom a change to the metric system is currently an issue.  The late Metrication Enthusiast Pat Naughtin sent letters to every member of the US Congress about the importance of Metric System adoption in 2011. In his newsletter Metrication matters – Number 95 – 2011-04-10, Pat states: “The result: nil, nix, nothing, zero, zilch. Not even a courteous, “We thank you for your letter … ” This has also been my experience when I contacted both my US Senators, my US Representative, and both my State Senator and Representative. . indicates that no metric legislation of any kind has been proposed since the 105th Congress (1997-1999). That legislation, like all since 1988 is anti-metric. The only solace I can find is that all the proposed bills died. It’s been at least 13 years of political silence since the last anti-metric intitiative, with no end in sight. It has been over 100 years since John Shafroth did his best to convert the US to the metric system. I suspect that if he knew, Senator Shafroth would find this years’  birthday anything but happy.

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

The Metric Hearings of 1975 — The Limits of Social Norm in Metrication

A Tale of Two Iowans

Australian Metrication & US Procrastination

John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

Making The Milligrade

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition (Extra)

I have to admit that there is only one measurement identified with the metric system that gives me pause.  It’s temperature. Most of the world uses Celsius, and seems fine with it. US detractors surround me, and with boney fingers, point out with derision how compressed the Celsius scale is when compared with Fahrenheit. I object, and defend Celsius, but my heart is not exactly in tune with my defense. Fahrenheit has almost twice the number of graduations over the same temperature interval as does Celsius. My mind wants to embrace Celsius, but pines for some undefined metric mistress of temperature, with whom it would prefer to spend its time.

About a year ago, I started trying to expose myself to mostly Celsius thermometers to see how familiar and comfortable I could become with the scale. In the Winter I find it rather informative to have zero at the freezing point of water. Most of the meteorologists in the US may not say zero degrees Celsius, but almost always describe the number of days above or below freezing. The freezing point is of course assumed to be that of water. I put a Weatherbug on my computer desktop set for Celsius only, and Mike Joy was kind enough to send me an outdoor thermometer from Australia in Celsius only. I really like the way the temperature ranges for human comfort are designated with colors. I mounted the Celsius only thermometer just outside my back door. Below is an image of this thermometer:

Australian Metric Only Thermometer - Click to Enlarge

I’ve slowly become accustomed to temperature in Celsius, and if there was a total switchover to SI, I would be comfortable in a fairly short time I suspect. I seem able to keep C and F separate in my mind. All I would have to do now is drop the F from my world.

An Engineer from the UK, with whom I had worked in the past, visited with his fiancee in December sometime back. It was with pride I pointed out the thermometer Mike had sent me, and in return I received an impish smile. My British friend informed me that his soon-to-be wife could only think in terms of Celsius in Winter and Fahrenheit in Summer. This information hit my mind with the same reaction a cat might have as a stream of water unexpectedly impacts its face. I looked at her in astonishment, with my countenance frozen and contorted. Words failed me. All I could say was: “Really?” I decided this was a very, very unusual data point, and pushed it to the back of my mind—until recently. It resurfaced when Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Howe called for the UK to finish the metrication it had started years ago, but had been halted by the Thatcher Government around 1980. I was amazed in this time of deafening silence about the metric system in the US, that any politician, anywhere would mention it. I read comments by the UK Metric Association members, and one suddenly jumped out. Because the UK made it about half-way in its metrication effort, the weather reports could be in metric or imperial. The British Tabloids, who are not noted for their calm, objective approach to the news, often report Summer temperatures in Fahrenheit and Winter temperatures in Celsius. Thankfully, the UK people explained why. The Fahrenheit temperatures sound really large and give the impression of exaggerated high heat in the Summer. Great copy! The earth’s crust is in danger of melting!  In the Winter, because 0 C starts at 32 F, Celsius exaggerates how how cold Winter temperatures are. Fimbulwinter is upon us! Ragnarök cannot be far behind! Repent!

Ray Bradbury's Celsius 451 or Milligrade 4510

This is a somewhat, benign example of what happened before worldwide adoption of the metric system. One could use multiple measurement units to fool customers (marks?) into making purchases that favor the merchant when he sells, and also when he buys. The option of a choice between two similar sets of units can easily lead to confusion. For instance, perhaps the most famous novel in the English language with temperature in its title, is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. This is the temperature at which paper spontaneously bursts into flame—except it doesn’t. The actual temperature from the technical literature of the time is Celsius 451. Yes, the person who decided upon the title of this book made a Celsius/Fahrenheit mix-up.

If one is old enough, they may recall when Celsius was called Centigrade. The idea was that the temperature from the freezing point (triple point) of water to the boiling point would be divided into 100 parts. Zero Centigrade is the freezing point, and 100 Centigrade is the boiling point of water. If we follow the reasoning of the metric prefixing scheme, it would imply that this scale is obtained by dividing up a temperature interval called the “grade” into 100 parts. The grade would be a normalized range from 0 to 1, which makes a lot of sense.

It has been argued many times on this blog, that the “prefix cluster around unity” is a cluster. Naughtin’s Laws explicitly eschew centi-anything, and use milli instead. After much thought, I believe that the common temperature range which should have been used instead of Celsius, would be the milligrade scale. It would be from 0 to 1000. Like the use of millimeters for Australian building construction, decimal points would never be needed. Only Engineers and scientists might ever need temperatures with a precision smaller than those given by the milligrade scale. There would be no confusing Fahrenheit and Milligrade values. When it’s 100 degrees F, then it’s 378 milligrade—take that British Tabloids! If the reference book Ray Bradbury’s publisher consulted to find the self-ignition temperature of paper had been in Milligrade, there would be no confusing a temperature of 4150 with Fahrenheit or Celsius.  My fellow Engineer Lapin has told me that much of the temperature data on the web, which is meant for professionals, has the temperature in Celsius generally given to a tenth of a degree. All we need to do is move the decimal point, invoke Naughtin’s Laws and presto, a much more usable integer temperature scale for humans exists without decimal points.

If one is a strict adherent to SI definitions, then the actual temperature standard is in Kelvin. Celsius is a derived scale.  The definition of zero Milligrade or Celsius was the triple point of water. It turns out that if you have ice, water and water vapor all present in a sealed triple point of water cell, and then wait for a while, the temperature will stabilize at a very precise value (0.01 C or 0.1 milligrade), which may then be used as a standard. It is called the triple point because you have all three states of matter: liquid, solid, and gas present, and in temperature equilibrium. Celsius is actually derived from the Kelvin scale and the two points of definition are absolute zero and the triple point of water, so the 100 degree boiling point of water is no longer part of the temperature definition.

Farhenheit in a Centegrade World -- Click to Enlarge

But imagine the plight of poor Fahrenheit, it is only derived from Kelvin by way of Celsius. When you are a Metric Maven in the United States, you know what it feels like to be Fahrenheit in a Centigrade World, but my new metric temperature mistress, milligrade, would fix that problem for temperature, and provide much needed comfort to my psyche.