Institutional Myths About The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

We were reminded on December 23, 2016 by Elizabeth Gentry, coordinator of NIST’s Metric Program, that on that same date in 1975 (1975-12-23) Gerald Ford signed The Metric Conversion Act. In an essay titled Busting Myths about the Metric System, Ms Gentry indicates that the CIA map of countries that use the metric system is “simply untrue!” and further states:

While it’s true that metric use is mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others, all countries have recognized and adopted the SI, including the United States.

Indeed, the US recognized the metric system in the 19th century, and allowed its use, but did not mandate it. The use of the word adopted by Ms. Gentry is curious, to most people this word means that a person has taken an idea for their own use, usually abandoning the old method.

The only change in our relationship with the metric system, that I’m aware of, was when John Kasson made the metric system legal for people in the US in the 19th century. From that moment on, our association with the metric system, from a legal point of view, remains unchanged. This was pointed out by a member of the American Bar Association in the 1975 metric hearings.

Ms. Gentry goes on to state:

Dr. Russ Rowlett at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill emphasizes on his website that becoming metric is not a one-time event but a process that happens over time. Every international economy is positioned somewhere along a continuum moving toward increased SI use. There are still countries that are amending their national laws to adopt mandatory metric policy and others pursuing voluntary metrication.”

Dr. Rowlett is a retired professor of Mathematics.

The statement that no country is 100% metric, is the sort of argument that anti-metric crusader Fredrick Halsey trotted out in the early twentieth century, as proof that no country has adopted the metric system. This assertion is a version of the continuum fallacy. Suppose you are broke, and I give you a penny, are you rich?, how about a second penny? at what point can I give you one more penny, and you are now “rich?” It is also cast in the form of at what point do you remove a hair from a persons head that he is now “bald?” If one adopts this view, then no country on Earth is metric, and Halsey is right. One can only offer a defined partition that has no firm basis. Should the drinking age be 18? 19? 21?, when does a person become an adult?

A graphic called “The Metric Continuum” is offered for the US, which appears to be an attempt to normalize the fact that the US is not even close to a metric country. The measures in the US are nothing but a farrago of medieval units, and sorting them into a Metric Continuum Fallacy changes that not one yoctometer.

While no one-time event will make a country 100% metric, but it might get it to more than 90% metric very quickly. I recommend Dr. Rowlett read Metrication In Australia. Without that one-time event (if I can use event to mean a decade) Australia might be in the situation that Britain finds itself, stuck about halfway or so–but it’s hard to say how metric Britain actually is. It is difficult to know how metric the US, UK or Australia are as there has never been a professional audit and study to find out. The figure often trotted out, that the US is 50% metric, appears to have its basis in proctology.

Ms Gentry also invokes the idea of mandatory and voluntary “metrication” in her statement. This really obscures the situation in the US. We’ve had voluntary metrication
since 1866. John Shafroth realized that we needed mandatory metric in 1905 or so, but it was soundly defeated. In 1921 it was argued that voluntary metric was the way to go, and again in 1975, people like Clayborn Pell deluded themselves into the idea that voluntary metrication was fast bringing the the metric system to the US.

But wait! Wasn’t the metrication of Australia voluntary! What was voluntary in Australia, was how each industry would become metric, not if industry was going to become metric. There were fines and encouragement to become metric. There were deadlines called M-days for different sectors of their economy to become fully metric. US politicians willfully allowed the public to believe that Australia’s metrication was spontaneous, and quickly appeared without any government intervention or guidance. Alan Harper who directed Australian metrication wrote to Congress and told them so:

It is, of course, not possible to mount a wholly voluntary metric change in the sense that every individual has a free choice. Consider the conversion of statutory speed limits and other changes calling for embodiment in legislation. “Voluntary” in this
context has to be taken to mean that the choice of a program and plan for conversion in a sector is made voluntarily by national leaders in that sector but thereafter it is supported by all the pressures that can be marshalled, through procurement, legislation, appropriate amendment of technical standards, adherence to the program by government and large organizations and so on.

Unless your Metric Board can enlist such support for the programs developed voluntarily, the agreement accorded many of these programs may in the event prove too fragile to ensure their implementation and aspects of your metric operation which provide their own incentives will get out of kilter with those needing some additional stimulus for their accomplishment.

Harper would later tell the Metric Board in person that he could not have made Australia metric with the US laws as they exist.

Voluntary metrication is a myth, and an institutional one embraced within the US government. Another myth is “we tried in the 1970s and it just didn’t work.” Another version of this myth is that the US government tried to impose the horrible metric system on its citizens who then revolted and cowered their representatives into repealing the legislation, showing a true example of democracy in action! That is a common myth and completely false.

Later we are told by Ms. Gentry that:

It’s been legal to use the metric system since 1866, and metric became the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce in 1988.

Well, let’s talk about the legislation of 1988. First the Reagan administration and Congress wants everyone to know that metric is Voluntary, Voluntary, Voluntary:

6) The Federal Government has a responsibility to develop procedures and techniques to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement.

and not in the Australian sense of the word voluntary when dealing with metrication. One can see from the design of everyday objects that the US, in practice, “prefers Ye Olde English.”

Non-Preferred US Packaging (click to enlarge)

There is some fear that metric countries around the world might suddenly adopt our measures, and put us at a competitive disadvantage if we fully adopt metric. The legislation addresses this imaginary concern:

(b) POLICY. Section 3 of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is amended to read as

SEC. 3. It is therefore the declared policy of the United States

(1) to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce;

(2) to require that each Federal agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurement, grants, and other business-related activities, Except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units;

(3) to seek out ways to increase understanding of the metric system of measurement through educational information and guidance and in Government Publications; and

(4) to permit the continued use of traditional systems of weights and measures in
nonbusiness activities

By nonbusiness, it is fairly clear that the business defined above is government business. Private industry is completely off-the-hook. So what does preferred mean? Most people would see it as a primary choice with a second acceptable choice in case the first is not available. One might prefer beef to chicken, but chicken is fine.

The very word prefer does not enforce metric in the US, it is just more of a statement of almost equivalent substitution. Two options that are almost on an equal par in the general vernacular. Often the design of our everyday objects reveals that metric is not preferred. Ms Gentry goes on:

It’s impossible to avoid using the metric system in the United States. …..  I envision U.S. metric practice like a huge iceberg. Above the water’s surface, U.S. customary units appear to still be in full effect. In actuality, below the water’s surface we find that all measurements are dependent on the SI, linked through an unbroken chain of traceable measurements.

It is also impossible to avoid Roman numerals in the United States, but I’m not sure what that would exactly mean. Envisioning “metric practice” as an iceberg, which seems to imply that 90% of US usage is metric and 10% is what we see? This is not what I’ve experienced in my visits to US engineering and production facilities that still exist. People can’t even purchase millimeter only tape measures, or rulers, or drill bits, at any US hardware store.

I realize that Ms. Gentry’s position is a difficult one. She operates under a law that has no teeth, and essentially sees metric and Ye Olde English as more-or-less equivalent, and states that one is “preferred” like buffalo over beef in a sandwich. When the public signed a We The People petition requesting that the US Government make the metric system mandatory in the US, her former boss was tasked with the required reply, and told us all how great it is to live in a measurement country which is “bilingual.” This metaphorical assertion is an absurd non-sequitur. I had much to say about his anemic response here.

I realize that given the situation in the US, one would do their best to keep a positive tone, but one of the first things a person must do to remedy a problem is to
recognize its existence. The US has a weights and measurements problem, it is non-metric to the extreme, which makes it complex and prone to error, which in turn wastes resources. There is no everyday usage in the US that compels a person to use metric. Not at the post office, not at the DMV, not on our roadways, not when using our airlines, not when watching a weather forecast, not when buying paper, not when buying a television, not when making purchases at a grocery store, not when cooking with a recipe, not when buying natural gas or electricity (no Kilowatt-hours are not metric), not when at a cafe, not when purchasing gasoline, or a car—even though all the parts of a car are of metric sizes, not when purchasing furniture,  and not when buying parts for home improvement. The metric exceptions in our nation are minor, and examples difficult to come by. Prescription medicine may be metric, but patent medicines are notoriously Ye Olde English. I would wager a majority of Americans could not estimate how much a gram is, despite milligrams and microgram dosages existing on medicines. Metrication in the US is an almost complete failure. Presenting myths that it is otherwise, is, in my view, counterproductive and serves to propagate the current inaction.


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.


The Stars Like Dust

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

By The Metric Maven

Arthur C. Clarke, when discussing the solar system in his pre-Apollo book The Promise of Space stated: “(Dr. Isaac Asimov once remarked that the Solar System Consists of Jupiter plus debris.)” (pg 262). Clarke knew and conversed with Isaac Asimov and so it is possible he said it. What one finds in print is a lot of misquotes of this assertion. One university website discussing Jupiter also uses parenthesis: “(Isaac Asimov once said, accurately, that the solar system consists of the Sun and Jupiter and a little debris.)” What Isaac actually said is in his book View From a Height is “4 planets plus debris” When expressed in terms of planetary volume, one can see Dr. Asimov’s point:

Planetary_VolumeThe Earth has 58 times less volume than Neptune, the smallest of the outer gas giants. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars combined are but 2239 Zettaliters and so possess 28 times less volume than Neptune. Neptune is the runt of the outer planets as the table makes clear. When the four outer planets are added together, the total of the inner planets have about 1000 times less volume, a full metric triad. Asimov’s assertion is on solid ground in my view.

When I saw the original The Outer Limits Series as a boy, the ending credits showed black and white photographs of galaxies. It made me feel like this tiny vulnerable insignificant speck of nothing floating out in interstellar space viewing the image. People of the 19th century might have called it sublime. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Many years later, thanks to Astronomy Picture of The Day, I learned to recognize some of those galaxies when watching reruns of The Outer Limits. I very much like the look of the Sombrero Galaxy. It was in those same years that a grade school teacher of mine pondered out loud “I sometimes wonder if we are not just a speck of dust floating around in someone’s living room.” The notion seemed absurd, but it made me wonder, just how small we really are when cosmic dimensions are involved. A spec of cosmic dust is about 100 nanometers in extent. This is essentially an invisible item from our standpoint. We are three metric prefixes larger (three triads) or 1 000 000 000 times as large as a particle of cosmic dust.

The Earth has a diameter of about 12.8 Megameters and is two metric prefixes larger than ourselves. We are not quite dust, but are compatible to dust when one more triad is breached. Gigameters are useful for describing the size of the solar system, so we become dust sized when compared with the dimensions of our solar system. The Earth is in the Megameter range and so becomes a dust sized particle when compared with Petameter distances. The distance to our nearest star is about 41 Petameters from Earth.

The Milky Way Galaxy is about 1 Zettameter in extent. The observable Universe is about 880 Yottameters and so we are only about one triad down from this figure. If the universe is thought of as meters, our galactic dimensions are millimeters. When do stars become dust? The diameter of our sun is about 1.39 Gigameters, so when we reach the distances that describe “far away” stars within our galaxy, or Exameters, our star becomes a dust mote.

The metric system allows one to tame the dimensions of the Universe. When a single measurement “unit” called a light-year is used, no context may immediately be obtained. A light year is shorter than the distance to our nearest star. Isaac Asimov knew this, and used it to promote the idea of using the metric system in Astronomy. Unfortunately, So many years after his death, Dr. Asimov’s thoughts on this subject have themselves been reduced to dust.

Isaac Asimov’s birthday was on January 2nd.

Related essays:

Long Distance Voyager

The “Best Possible Unit Bar None”


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.