There is a proverbial belief among my friends that metrication in the United States began and ended in the 1970s. Prior to the era of mint green leisure suits, and platform shoes, there was a metrication vacuum it is thought. This assumption demonstrates how easily we in the US succumb to collective historical amnesia. The 1970s was the period in which country after country was embracing metric. There was a metric tsunami and it seemed embarrassing if we didn’t at least pretend to go along and become metric—which is all we did.
An interesting prose fossil, from the beginning of the 1970s non-metrication period, is A History of the Metric System Controversy in the United States. It was written by Charles F. Treat for The National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) and published in 1971. It reveals we have taken a long and sorted road to nowhere when it comes to metric adoption.
In his work Treat discusses Thomas Jefferson’s efforts with weights and measures, and the well known report given by John Quincy Adams. Adams essentially said it’s ok to do nothing for a while.
The metric system was made legal for use in the United States in 1866. This apparently occurred, because at an international meeting of postmasters, the attendeees declared the gram as the international standard for postal rates. In order to even accept any foreign mail, we had to make it legal to accept mail with metric mass values (i.e. grams). 1866 was when the first overly optimistic pronouncement of an expected rapid metric adoption in the US was made, by the authors of the legislation:
The interests of trade among a people so quick as ours to receive and adopt a useful novelty [the metric system], will soon acquaint practical men with its convenience. When this is attained—a period, it is hoped, not distant—a further Act of Congress can fix the date for its exclusive adoption as a legal system. At an earlier period it may be safely introduced into all public offices, and for government service.
A blue ribbon committee was appointed the same year, and it was believed that metric adoption would be a forgone conclusion. Charles Davies, who was the committee chairman, and member Frederick A.P. Barnard, were both from Columbia University. To the stunned surprise of those involved, Davies attacked the metric system with alacrity, rather than promoting it as expected. This disagreement became known to history as the Davies-Barnard schism. In response, metric legislation in 1866 stalled—and then died.
Metric advocates began to organize after this unexpected defeat. Three organizations were created, two for metric adoption, and one opposed. The two in favor were, the American Metrological Society (1873), created by Frederick A.P. Barnard, and the American Metric Bureau (1876) which asserted it was an educational organization. In 1875 the US signed the Treaty of the Meter.
Following the Davies-Barnard schism, and with the renewed momentum from the signing of the Treaty of the Meter, things looked like they were going well and were back on track for metric adoption. The American Society of Civil Engineers endorsed metric. Congress began discussing metric bills. But, then anti-metric forces reappeared. The name of their organization was the International Institute. The group’s objections to metric had their basis in “pyramidology.” Charles Piazzi Smyth revealed that he had discovered numerous
numerical relationships in the Pyramid at Giza, from which he derived the “pyramid inch.”
Smyth was convinced this length was the base measurement unit that should be used by everyone. The Institute composed a song in 1883 entitled A Pint’s a Pound the World Around. Here are a sampling of the lyrics:
For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule
The earth from shore to shore
Then down with every “metric” scheme
Taught by the foreign school
A perfect inch, a perfect pint.
The Anglo’s honest pound
Shall hold their place upon the earth
Till Time’s last trump shall sound!
Now if they would just explain what a Philadelphia Pint of ice cream was, it would settle one more American measurement mystery for me. This unit of volume is described in a promotional short called The Selling Wizard. (see 5:21 of this link). A product is described as holding 930 Philadelphia Pints of ice cream. Are they perfect pints? Another strange irony in the song is that the metric system is “Taught by the foreign school.” The metric system was conceived by an Englishman, Bishop John Wilkins in 1668, so its origin is from the same country as the Anglo-Saxon barleycorn inch, the yard and the mile. I guess they also need to explain what they mean by foreign so I can better understand their point of view..
Charles Treat then observes:
“The Institute also left a written record of one of the most unusual approaches to the
question of weights and measures of any day or age. And yet, considering the spirit of
contemporary America , proud and belligerent, the Institutes philosophy may not have been as strange as it now seems.”
In 1896 the US House of Representatives passed a bill which would have finally implemented the metric system, but then immediately voted to reconsider. A second vote was taken, and the bill was then “unpassed.” According to Treat: “This was as close to achieving legislative endorsement as the metric system was to come in this country.” … “Congress came within an eyelash of approving a measure to adopt the metric system.”
The Mendenhall Order of 1893 was needed to patch-up the considerable lack of legislative action by congress, so the country would have some policy on weights and measures that worked. The standards offered by the British were unusable. Mendenhall had no practical option. The metric system standards would be used to define our imperial weights and measures. The definition of the “Anglo’s honest pound” would now be with respect to prototype kilogram number 20, which is still the mass reference used by the US to this day. (K20 is the standard and K4 is the check).
In the 56th Congress, adopting the metric system was again raised as an issue. Three Congressmen came forward: James H. Southard of Ohio, Lucius N. Littaure of New York and John F. Shafroth of Colorado. John Shafroth would become one of the most fervent advocates for the metric system in Congress. Mr. Shafroth’s metric bill was recommended for passage with some small changes. The bill stated “…the weights and measurements of the metric system shall be the legal standard weights and measures of and in the United States.” This would be enforced as of January 1, 1903. From that date forward the metric system would be required for all Government business, and two years later business was to follow. The House didn’t see any urgent reason to adopt the metric system, so the legislation never made it to the floor, and with the adjournment of Congress, became extinct.
From 1888 to 1902 it was believed the metric system was inevitable and superior as a system. But in 1902 there began a backlash against it, which became more pronounced as time passed.
One of those dissenting voices was Mr. Fredrick A. Halsey, the associate editor of The American Machinist magazine. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers also weighted in against metric. Mr Halsey went further and published a book entitled The Metric Fallacy which was published in 1904. Historian Treat describes Halsey’s prose thus: “His writings and correspondence reveal a broad hostile streak in his personality.” Halsey would testify before the committee using The Metric Fallacy as a framework. The book claimed that of the 43 countries that legislated metric, none had adopted it—it was all a ruse. He attacked the idea of the superiority of decimal arithmetic. Unfortunately, this Don Quixote-like figure, managed to bag his windmill. The metric system was again derailed.
Mr. Shafroth presented a metric bill on the first day of the 58th Congress in 1903. It was identical to those of the previous sessions, but with effective dates of January 1, 1905 for the government to adopt metric, and January 1, 1906 for the entire nation. New Hearings were scheduled to allow more anti-metric testimony. Unfortunately John Shafroth resigned from the Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures in 1904. As Treat put it: “Others on the Committee did appear to favor the metric bill, but none of them was as ardent or knowledgeable an advocate as Mr. Shafroth had been.” The Shafroth bill died.
Charles Treat refers to the period between 1914 and 1933 as “The Great Metric Crusade.” Treat summarizes at the beginning of his Chapter on the era:
“Consequently, the movement again went “underground” for awhile, surfacing on the eve of America’s entry into World War I. The next campaign was launched in 1916, blossomed after the armistice, reached peaks of furious activity in 1921-22 and 1925-26, and burned itself out in the early years of the great depression. During these years the metric issue became a full-fledged public controversy. Nurtured by an entirely different sort of campaign than any that had gone before., the metric movement and the opposition to it became almost totally “institutionalized” in that the battles were fought by organizations and interest groups rather than by individuals alone.”
In 1916 The Metric Association was formed, to promote the metric system and educate the public. The World Trade Club was created in 1919 to also advocate for the adoption of the metric system.
The anti-metric American Institute of Weights and Measures, was pragmatic, and effective. It was fathered by Frederick A. Halsey and Samuel S. Dale in 1916. They had been quiescent since the collapse of the 1906-07 pro-metric campaign. The pair were reawakened when pro-metric discussions for a new drive to adopt the metric system came to their attention. The metric advocates did their best, but in the end, as Historian Treat would put it: “…the American Institute of Weights and Measures had accomplished what it had set out to do in 1916. As a consequence, the metric issue was again laid to rest for over 25 years.”
The metric advocates tried to compromise with bills that would gradually introduce the metric system. This was referred to as gradual compulsion by detractors. Treat points to one publication that acted as the guiding light for the successful anti-metric campaign:
“Without question however, the American Machinist was the outstanding anti-metric publication of this era. The magazine’s policy over the years had been dictated largely by the preferences of its editors-in-chief, as indicated by the fact that it had sometimes been silent on the matter when the debate was at its hottest. But under Fredrick Halsey from 1907 until 1911 the magazine had been officially anti-metric, and under Ethan Viall from about 1916 to 1925 the American Machinist would again be a leading anti-metric spokesman. Between January, 1920 and December 1922, for example, no less than 50 anti-metric articles were featured in the pages of American Machinist, the majority of these (35) occurring from January-June 1920.”
There were attempts from 1923-1933 to legislate the metric system, but they were all swan songs. An Associated Press report in 1929 stated: “the legislatures of California, Illinois, Tennessee, North Dakota and Utah have asked congress to enact legislation providing for the adoption of the metric system.” The issue was quashed and then ignored. From 1933 to 1958 the metric question remained dormant.
In late 1957 America suffered collective shock from the launching of Sputnik into orbit. In May of 1959 the question of US adoption of the metric system emerged again. The newly appointed Secretary of Commerce Admiral Lawrence L. Strauss took an interest in promoting metric system adoption. The adoption of metric by many large American industries was hard to ignore. The Admiral saw “the uniformity of measurement systems between Russia and most of the world, including Western Europe, is an enormous advantage to the Soviets and a handicap to us.” In 1964 The American Society of Mechanical Engineers again voiced its opposition to metric adoption.
Never a country to rush when the metric system is involved, it was in 1968 that a comprehensive study was authorized to look into the matter. Senator Clayborn Pell became a leading advocate for metric. His experience in the Foreign Service, where he had directly experienced its use on a daily basis, had convinced him that metric adoption would be of great utility to the US. Charles F. Treat’s history ends at this point–in 1971. The study A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come was released in 1971. During the 1970s, non-binding voluntary metric legislation was discussed and passed during the Ford administration. Discussion continued during the Carter administration. The politicians agreed that metric should be voluntary. There was the formation of a small poorly funded Metric Board in the 1970s to aid the voluntary transition, and its termination in 1980 by Ronald Reagan—for cost savings.
Treat refers to the period from 1933 to 1958 as “The Doldrums.” This was a period of 25 years. I guess we can call the current 32 year period from 1980 to 2012, “The Doldrums II.” Yes, the use of roman numerals is meant to be symbolic.
About three years ago I was sternly lectured about metric adoption by an aid to my Congresswoman. I was told to “forget it, that ship sailed in the 70s and it’s never coming back.” So far, she’s proven correct. The last time I checked, there is no legislation before congress concerning metric system adoption, and hasn’t been for decades. Only on the television series The Big Bang Theory, do I see the metric system toasted by Sheldon Cooper. Only in a fictional comedy series, is the serious issue of US metrication mentioned in 2012. Unfortunately, Sheldon assigns the blame for the lack of the metric system in the US, to President Carter. As you can see after reading my historical summary, the problem started just after the American Civil War in the 19th Century, and continues to this day in the 21st Century. There are many to blame, over many years, for this egregious situation in the US. President Carter was but a minor player in this tragedy.
As David Byrne of the Talking Heads said in the song Once in a Lifetime: “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…..” And so it is.