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 expatriate 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.

Postscript:

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.”

Finally:

….[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?