Measuring America

By The Metric Maven

I have read a number of books which deal with the metric system. I’ve never written about them because I have not found them very satisfactory. Recently I read the book Measuring America  by Andro Linklater. The work is not directly about the metric system, but instead about the surveying of land in the US. However, the sections which discuss the metric system are very interesting. In his introduction Linklater states:

“Without the conscious decision to agree on a way of measuring, cooperative activity could hardly take place. With it, marketplaces and increasingly sophisticated economies can develop, matching barter, cash, or credit to whatever is owned by one person and desired by another.” page 4

Linklater details many of the problems with measurement in this age. Many people used “the profit of the measuring stick” as an accepted way of doing business. There were weights used for purchasing and different weights for selling, with the difference pocketed by the merchant.

Linklater then details how enlightenment thinking began to consider the situation:

[Thomas] Jefferson’s most frequent guest at the Hotel Langeac was convinced he had the answer to their complaints. Dismayed by the seeming impossibility of establishing a uniform system on France’s chaotic weights and measures, the marquis de Condorcet, permanent secretary to the Academie, believed that the science and technology developed by the Academie made it possible to  to devise a system of measurement that would remove all the injustices occasioned by the old arbitrary units. For the first time since human society began, measurement could be based on units derived from scientific inquiry rather than parts of the body or human activity.

Condorcet would propose that the length of a seconds pendulum be the base unit for a new scientific system of measurement. Jefferson thought the situation over and became an advocate of using a seconds pendulum as a length standard. He convinced James Madison, who in turn lobbied James Monroe in 1785. There was a proposal in Britain to use the seconds pendulum as a standard length.

The need for measurement reform was in the air. George Washington in his Inaugural Address in 1790 listed the three most important subjects which the US needed to address. The first two were defense and the economy. The third was to establish uniform weights and measures in the country. In New York, traders were purchasing cloth by the English Ell (nearly a yard), and selling the same cloth in lengths of the Flemish Ell which was about half the length. Disputes occurred in the grain trade where the purchasers would use a 1/2 bushel measure which was larger than 1/2 bushel to purchase bushels, refusing to change the per bushel price.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

This manner of injustice incensed Thomas Jefferson’s sense of democracy. He felt there should be a single, uniform set of weights and measures which were simple enough for anyone to understand. One Summer, “he [Jefferson] had set himself a Herculean task: to invent from scratch an entire system of measures.” page 107  “In less than 1000 words, he then outlined the first scientifically based, fully integrated, decimal system of weights and measures in the world. Its basic measure was the length was derived from the second’s rod, was a foot, which would be divided into 10 inches. A cube of rainwater, whose sides were on decimal inch long, was to weight 1 decimal ounce, and 10 of these ounces would make 1 pound.The basic unit of capacity would be the bushel, which was to measure 1 cubic foot. that is to say 1,000 cubic inches.”

One can clearly see the echos of the metric system in this scheme. Jefferson even used square containers which could be easily replicated by any citizen in case of dispute. There is no mention, by Linklater, of John Wilkin’s creation of the metric system in 1668 in Britain. It is easy to overlook this oversight as the book was written in 2003. This was before Pat Naughtin tracked down Wilkin’s book and began to disseminate this information to a wider audience.

Alexander Hamilton viewed Jefferson’s proposal for a system of weights and measures favorably. Jefferson was concerned that if his weights and measures proposal was not acted upon quickly by congress, Americans would establish a habit of measurements, and no matter how awkward and inconvenient they might prove, resist any change to them. The constitution may have given the explicit authority to regulate and determine the weights and measures of the United States, but as we see in 2013, they have shown no ability to act. They did not then either, and Jefferson’s proposal was never adopted.

As Jefferson had noted in his report, the French and the English were both considering the creation of a scientifically based, universal set of weights and measures. Jefferson’s arguments for a measurement system which was simple and accessible to all people, independent of their educational level, were also embraced by the creators of the metric system. The question was how would one determine the base length. The seconds pendulum, or the length of two different earth measurements were proposed by the French. Over and over the report emphasized the utility of a seconds pendulum. Then like a plot twist in an Ed Wood movie, they suddenly proposed that a measurement of the earth be used. A quadrant of the earths meridian would be the basis. Linklater cannot contain his displeasure:

This then, was to be the basis of the metric system, and it could hardly have been chosen in a more capricious manner. There was no scientific or rational basis to the argument against the seconds pendulum. page 123

The fact that the French chose the length of a meridian for a “standard” always puzzled me. The ability of instrument makers to overcome calibration difficulties and develop accurate instruments is legendary. For those who have never read it, I recommend the book Longitude by Dava Sobel. The lengths to which John Harrison went to create an accurate time piece, are astonishing. Some of the greatest scientific minds of all time were collaborating on this new measurement system, and a meridian was chosen as its calibration base? The actual length proposed had already been surveyed twice. It took some persuasion but King Louis XVI agreed to the endeavor. But why?

Linklater then offers an explanation that seems to fit:

The strange argument about the “heterogeneous element” of time was evidently supplied by Monge, who had his own radical agenda. In 1793 he became the driving force in the committee responsible for decimalizing the number of months in the year and days in the week, and for proposals to decimalize the hours in the day and, naturally, the number of seconds in the minute. Clearly, if the new measurement of distance were based on a pendulum ticking to the old second, it would have to be torn up when the new decimalized second was introduced. For Monge, the meridian meter was only the first step in a world made up entirely of 10s.

Joseph Dombey (1742-1794)

The abandonment of the seconds pendulum was unacceptable for Thomas Jefferson. The core idea that the metric system was to be a universal measure available to all nations was a humbug in his eyes. It was an act of French nationalism. The French then dubbed this new length derived from a measurement of the earth to be the meter. In order that the use of the new unit not be delayed, a provisional meter would be established. It was decided it would be in France’s best interest to share the metric system with the Americans. The messenger chosen to convey copper replicas of a provisional meter and kilogram to the US was Joseph Dombey.

Joseph Dombey, it would seem, had a perpetual rain cloud above his head like the jinxed fictional character Joe Btfsplk from Li’l Abner. In 1794 Dombey sailed for Philadelphia with his metric prototypes. It was a perfect time to offer the metric system to Americans. Linklater states: “France remained almost universally popular in the United States. It was still the ally whose ships, soldiers, and money had helped win the new nation its independence.” Dombey’s Botanical expertise would have persuaded Jefferson to make him welcome. Almost certainly Jefferson would have introduced him to other influential American scientists and statesmen. The two copper standards would be easy to copy and could have been sent to every state in the Union. As Linklater laments “And today the United States might not be the last country in the world to resist the metric system.”

During his voyage a storm drove his ship the Soon southward. The Captain stopped in the French Colony of Guadeloupe to repair the ship. The population was divided almost exactly into two camps, royalist and revolutionary. Dombey’s presence inflamed the division and during the unrest he was threatened with arrest by the royalist governor. The revolutionaries in turn threatened to take action over the arrest order. Dombey tried to stop the revolutionaries from attacking the royalists and was forced by the crowd into falling over the bank into the Salt River, where waves pulled him away from the bank. He was unconscious and had almost drowned when rescued. He was able to recuperate after a few days.

Dombey assured the authorities he would leave voluntarily. He was compelled to travel to Basse-Terre where the Governor would decide what would be done. The Captain of the Soon was summoned to pick up Dombey and complied. There were pirates and privateers everywhere. Dombey realized this and tried to dress as a Spanish seaman. A Swedish ship was ordered to leave first, and when in open water strangely headed toward two privateers that had appeared on the horizon. A conversation occurred and then the Swedish ship continued onward. When the Soon sailed out of the harbor, they did not even lose site of land before the two privateers engaged them.

Dombey was turned over to the British and imprisoned. The British would negotiate with France for his release, but he died in prison. The Soon and all its cargo, including the provisional copper meter and kilogram were taken to an American port. There all of it was sold as booty. At the sale Joseph Fauchet purchased the meter and kilogram. He later presented the items to Edmund Randolph who was then Secretary of State. Linklater explains:

Neither man was a scientist, and without Dombey to explain, they failed to appreciate the significance of the two standards. Indeed, the prototypes of the meter and the kilogram were never shown to Congress at all.

Jefferson’s weights and measurement system died in Congress, and the prototype meter and kilogram were never debated. The first US unit of measurement sanctioned by law became Gunter’s Chain. It would be used by everyone in the nation. Linklater observes: “On the frontier and elsewhere, decimals were dead.”

John Quincy Adams gave his report on measures and recommend no changes. He was not impressed with decimals.

Ferdinand Hassler was tasked with producing a uniform set of weights and measures for the US. He had used the metric system to survey part of the US, but would not adopt it for the US. In Linklater’s words:

Although he had introduced the metric system into the Coastal Survey, Hassler recognized that it had become impossible to do the same for the United States as a whole. ….. the great increase in the population and consequent great active intercourse had created and increased the difficulty of attacking old habits.  page 200

A standard yard and pound were created. A set of measures were made the legal standard of the land and became known as the American Customary System of Weights and Measures ACSOWM.

Time would begin to erode at the relevance of ACSOWM. As the industrial age dawned, so did electrical engineering. Incredibly small values of current could be measured. Values as small as 100 nanoamperes and as large as 3000 amperes were within the reach of metrology. The unit used to measure electrical current, was metric. There is no ACSOWM equivalent—and there never has been. When the French turned the administration of the metric system over to an international body, it began to slowly grow. Country after country began adopting it to tame their weights and measures and promote trade. Important measurements at scales humans can barely fathom, which would affect everyday life were being undertaken in laboratories. There is no easy way to express 1/10,000,000 of an ampere in ACSOWM. Measurement had become larger than everyday use—which the metric system was designed to make easier. It was flexible, and ACSOWM was (and is) frozen in time. It is an anachronistic relic of a pre-scientific age, and only serves to act as a firewall between the public and scientific knowledge, as well as efficient building practices and other important economic virtues it offers.

Soon Americans would use light, as James Clerk Maxwell had suggested, to finally define the meter with a scientific phenomenon. 1,650,793.73 wavelengths of light emitted by Krypton 86 would become the meter. Today it is defined in terms of the distance light travels over a defined time interval (the second). In an odd way it’s returned to a shadow form of the seconds pendulum.

The ACSOWM was not in harmony with the other countries that used similar measures. In 1959 the metric system was used as a surrogate to harmonize them.

Then Linklater appears to assert that the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act has major effects. He states:

Under the act’s impetus, large sections of industry that depended on government contracts went metric, and defense procurement in particular abandoned traditional measures.

There is only one response I can offer. This statement was not true in 2003 when the book was written and ten years later in 2013 it is still not true. The drawings, fasteners, and everything in Aerospace and Defense are designed to ACSOWM. The units on technical drawings may generally be decimal, but they are inches, mils, 4-40 and 1/4-20 fasteners, American Wire Gauge sized wire and so on. There has not been a picometer’s movement in the direction of adopting metric by Aerospace. It is too bad the book ends on a sour note of ignorance for me. But It is well worth reading. I recommend it.

The book Measuring America is much more than a book about the metric system It is also a very interesting read concerning the invention of land ownership, how it was measured, and the consequences this invention has for the modern world. Linklater’s metric information is very interesting and much more complete and thoughtful than I’ve found in other works on the subject.


About a year ago I was contacted by a moderator of Reddit. Their metric page was nearly dead and I was asked to post my blogs to help revive it: it could bring us both traffic. I began posting and, for whatever reason, over the months the number of Reddit metric page users grew from a few hundred to over four thousand. I was pleased: it gave me some hope. I participated in the comments now and then, and also posted articles I found which related to metric. But recently, I began to notice strange delays in my posts. They did not appear immediately. My post of Linda Anderman’s recent metric poll seemed to hang in limbo for a day or so. The recent Metric Maven blog by Sven, And now for something completely different…. languished for 5 days. Sven kept looking at Reddit’s metric page and could not see that I had posted. I looked on my computer and the post was there. It didn’t make sense. The next day I was at a remote location with my laptop.  When I looked at reddit’s metric page I could not see the five-day-old post.  When I got back home and to my desktop, there were the posts on my screen again. I then commented on my own post that I could not believe that I had not received a single up-vote in five days. The blog was offering a free PDF of a hard-to-find book: Metrication in Australia. How could that not be of interest?

Then the post magically appeared, but I might as well have been a ghost at my own funeral: people were talking about me, but nothing I could do would make them aware of me. I learned indirectly, from the comments of those still among the cyberliving, that I had been shadowbanned. I had no idea what this meant. Wikipedia indicates the practice is better known as hellbanning. Pages on Reddit appear to the targeted person as though everything is normal, but his own posts and comments are invisible to all others. The shadowbanned person is not informed of this, or told why, and there is no appeal. He is a non-person. This is a cowardly passive-aggressive way to deal with people, and speaks volumes about Reddit.

I do not participate in Facebook, Twitter and other “social media.” This is partially for privacy reasons, but also because one ends up working as a volunteer content provider for a for-profit organization. The Metric Maven is a citizen’s blog, and remains non-commercial.  I posted on Reddit only after I was invited, and now regret making this exception. Apparently even after acting as a free content provider for their site for almost a year, I was now unmutual. I had thought Reddit to be a fairly open forum, but now I find it hard to distinguish them from an anti-metric site, like ACWM, which consigns pro-metric views, particularly those favoring government coordination and mandates, to the memory hole:

I have one open question for the gatekeepers at Reddit: How can we possibly convert to the metric system when we’re not even allowed to have open discourse about the topic? Should readers wish to post my blogs to Reddit’s metric page, I have no objection, but keep in mind this may make you a target for shadowbanning too. Reddit has given me no option but to discontinue participating. I’m quite content to comply.