The Metric Fallacy?

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The Notable Names Database (NNDB) is supposedly a Who’s Who for the 21st Century. When I input metric system reformer John Shafroth (1854-1922) into it, there was no entry. However, when I input Frederick A. Halsey (1856-1935), an entry immediately presented itself. What was Halsey’s seminal achivement? According to NNDB he: “Kept America safe from the metric system.”

Here is what the NNDB has to say:

Frederick A. Halsey was a well-known mechanical engineer and served as long-time editor of American Machinist,….

Halsey also represented the National Association of Manufacturers in its successful fight against adoption of the metric system in America in 1902. Fifteen years later he was a founding member of the American Institute of Weights and Measures, an industry group established to fight the next attempt to block (sic i.e. implement) metrics.

The entry does not mention the publication of his work The Metric Fallacy in 1904. This monograph was produced as a rebuttal to the assertions made by John Shafroth and other metric advocates of the time. A main thesis of this work appears to be: “Despite what all the metric countries assert, none of them have gone metric. They simply continue to use their old systems, and claim to be metric.” Even the French have not made the change to the metric system he asserts. Halsey lists 43 countries that claimed to have embraced the metric system, all of them are apparently delusional, and closet Imperial system users. None is metric. The metric system does not exist in these countries, it’s all a big cover-up. The evidence offered by Halsey is a number of letters he received from residents of those countries.

The assertion that none of these 43 metric countries were actually using metric, made me think about the Apollo program, and our landing on the moon. It was one of the great achievements of humankind. The entire world watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon. Yet, there are a number of people who have become obsessed with the idea that the moon landing never happened. This idea is prevalent enough that Mythbusters had an episode where they tackled the Moon Landing Hoax, yet for the people who believe the moon landing never happened, no amount of evidence will suffice. For them, no human has set foot on the lunar surface, and for Halsey, 46 metric countries are not metric—not a single one.

During the metric hearings of the early 1900s, this exchange between John F. Shafroth and Frederick Halsey occurred:

Mr Shafroth: Has any other country adopted our system?

Mr Halsey: It is spreading all over the world.

The history of the twentieth century demonstrates the “fallacy” of Frederick Halsey’s assertion. No metric country, has introduced, or passed, legislation to embrace Imperial measurement and abandon metric. It was the case in Halsey’s time, and is true to this day. By the end of 20th century, only the US, and two small countries would be non-metric. Of the 195 countries in the world, 192 use the metric system today.

Halsey didn’t just assert that metric countries were not metric, he attacked the notion that decimal arithmetic is superior to fractions! Modern usage of the metric system has nearly eliminated the use of decimal points for almost all everyday work. Housing construction is done all in millimeters, therefore decimal points are almost completely eliminated. When I cook, I measure in grams and milliliters, and almost never have the need for a decimal point. If, as I’ve proposed, we changed temperature from Celsius (centigrade) to milligrade, the decimal point would be eliminated for everyday temperature measurement. I’m curious what Halsey would say to the ability of the modern metric system (SI) to eschew the decimal point entirely.

In an echo of the absurd, obtuse, and duplicitous contemporary claims made by NASA and Government contractors, Halsey claims the metric countries cannot get metric fasteners and have to turn to English speaking countries as there is no alternative!

Halsey uses the tried and true polemical method of converting inch standards to metric values, then pointing with horror that they are unusual numbers that no one could memorize. He does not mention the obvious, that metric standards would be in whole numbers, because they would be created using that system. For instance M5, M6 and M7 screws each have 5, 6, and 7 mm diameter respectively, not some strange English size converted into metric. No decimals, no fractions, just whole numbers.

Halsey attacks the simplicity of using millimeters and offers a mm rule as an example:

This is not a mm rule, it is a centimeter rule, with millimeter graduations between. Halsey, the editor of American Machinist, can’t tell this difference? If it were a mm ruler (which is all I recommend—no centimeters–ever!) each of the values would be multiplied by ten. The 100 mm ruler of the illustration should read 10, 20, 30 …to 90. Paraphrasing a famous Australian celebrity: “That’s not a millimeter scale, this is a millimeter scale:”

Australian Millimeter Ruler

                                                        Australian Millimeter Ruler — Click to enlarge

One might legitimately question both Halsey’s expertise with metric and his credibility as a detractor when observing his mm ruler example.

As those who read this blog know, I would do away with centimeters. The ruler presented by Halsey is the reddest of red herrings. It is far simpler than a common American ruler which has multiple fractional scales, but it has two scales, which is an unnecessary complication. We only need one scale, in millimeters.

The meter is asserted to be an inaccurate standard by Halsey, even thought the Mendenhall Order, occurred in 1893, about ten years before the metric hearings took place. This order stated that the accuracy and utility of imperial  standards were so bad, they were essentially unusable.  Imperial units would instead have to be defined in terms of metric standards. The metric standards were provided to us because the US had signed the Treaty of the Meter in 1878.

Halsey further claims that there is no confusion in imperial weights and measures. Really? I’ve blogged about this so much, my fingers hurt. The tangled prose of this book are an example of circular confusion. Halsey offers up the fact that dozens and dozens of units are used in imperial, and that can be confusing, but the answer is to keep all the “correct” imperial units, and abolish the old ones–somehow–without any laws. If we add metric units, Halsey claims, we will have metric units and all the old ones, which will be even more units in total. This would be even more confusing! He does not seem to realize that metric is designed to replace all the old measurements—and perhaps we could use the same magical method Halsey would employ to get rid of the archaic imperial units, which would leave us with metric alone. It is sad to think that the confused, circular, and obtuse “reasoning” found in this ossified polemic, was able to quash metrication in the US in 1904. We all pay for his “victory” over metric every day. Many just don’t know it.

There is a strange reverberation, of modern day metric denialists in Halsey’s prose. In The Metric Fallacy he gushes over a new computational device:

It performs all the ordinary calculations of life, except addition and subtraction, so quickly that there is nothing left for the metric system to save.

This new hi-tech device of 1904 is of course, the  slide rule, about which Halsey also wrote a book in 1899. Halsey’s claim has a historical resonance with current  US anti-metric arguments I hear. It is claimed that because we have computers to convert back and forth, that changing to the metric system in the US  is of no value.

This misses the point. Metric is easier and more accurate to visualize and use. It’s the disadvantages of the current set of imperial intellectual “tools,” when compared to those of metric, which is the problem, not the conversion between them. They are not equal systems. Imperial is not even a system! Using computers to convert between Roman Numerals and Arabic ones, does not negate that fact that the former are cumbersome and inefficient and the latter are streamline and efficient. Roman Numerals–forget them! Who in their right mind would do computations with them?—even with the aid of a computer!

Halsey also seems to conveniently forget that slide rules use decimal numbers–which he railed against. It is a strange omission for a man who wrote a book on slide rules.

John Shafroth lost the metric conversion battle of the early twentieth century. The victor, Frederick Halsey, has “kept America safe from the metric system,” for over 100 years and counting. I guess I can only be thankful that he didn’t also decide to save us from Arabic Numerals or flush toilets.

3 thoughts on “The Metric Fallacy?

  1. One has to be aware that standards are often used as a form of protectionism. Keeping metric based producers from bidding on particular items,

    Just today, I was unable to quote on some meters that had a requirement for some obscure European standard – obviously used to keep outsiders from bidding.

    The long term cost of these protectionist measures is huge – not converting to metric has cost the USA untold Billions in the long term.

    It reminds me of the no-lead solder story. The motive was protectionism. The science was fake – the lead leeching from landfills was from crushed CRT tubes – not solder. The cost to man kind is again in $100s of billions so far and loss of life due to less reliable devices.

    Protectionism is at it’s root a form of racism – where it takes the rights of people away based on their out group status. It is a double edged sword that hurts all of us.

  2. MM,

    Dr. Strangelove, my favorite cold war movie!
    (‘Red Dawn’ being the second, in the 1980’s I was very concerned the Soviets were going to attack our high school!). …I’m curious, do they use the metric system in the war room?

    -Ernst…

  3. Pingback: How Did We Get Here? | The Metric Maven

Comments are closed.