My Measurements Can Beat Up Your Measurement System

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

One day while discussing architecture and engineering with Sven, the subject gravitated to Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), and his iconic tower in Paris. Sven pointed out that The Eiffel Tower is generally called by that name here in the US, but elsewhere was originally known as the 300 Meter Tower. I had no idea. The tower itself was so reviled by the art establishment of the time in Paris that they created “The Committee of Three Hundred,” which symbolically had one member for each meter of the egregious tower’s height. Like any good committee they created a petition which asserted (Wikipedia):

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”

One had no trouble detecting their displeasure at this creation. It is strangely ironic that the tower had not yet been constructed, and so the artists were all judging from drawings. Eiffel responded by comparing his work with that of the Egyptian pyramids. There was more irony to be found with other people who did more than compare their ideas to the pyramid, but asserted it was the basis for a sacred measure. Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was not one to settle for mere similarity. He traveled to Egypt and took measurements of the pyramid, from which he derived the pyramid inch. The pyramid also allowed for the derivation of the pyramid pint and a pyramid temperature scale. The pyramid inch was in C.P. Smyth’s view handed down to us by God himself. The introduction of the metric system in to Britain would therefore be unthinkable. C.P. Smyth continued his anti-metric activities throughout much of his life. He was also one of the Vice Presidents of the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Anglo-Saxon Weights and Measures.

The President of this organization was American engineer Charles Latimer (1827-1888). He also had a problem with Gustave Eiffel, and did not like one of his creations: The Statue of Liberty. In a bimonthly publication called the International Standard  they state: “There is only one thing we do not like about the statue: We prefer a statue of liberty measured in good earth-commensurable Anglo-Saxon inches, not in French millimeters, the result of caprice…” This statement was quoted in part five of the newspaper series Everyday Guide to the Metric System published in the late 1970s.

Eiffel’s works were criticized using the metric system in France (The Committee of Three Hundred) and in the US because they were built with the metric system. The more things change the more they remain the same. The World Trade Center twin towers were described by Norman Mailer as two fangs rising up into the New York skyline. They did not fit, he argued, within the wondrous architecture and beautiful skyline which surrounded them. They were a blight on Manhattan. Building One had an antenna which protruded 526 meters from the ground, and building two was 415 meters in height. Very long fangs indeed. The criticisms of the past were long forgotten following September 11, 2001 when they were both destroyed by terrorists.

One World Trade Center -- Wikipedia Commons

The discussion of a replacement for the World Trade Center buildings has been politically heated, and took considerable time to begin. The replacement is called One World Trade Center and is scheduled to open in 2014. I was chagrined when I found out its architectural height is 1776 feet. It was like the Eiffel Tower (excuse me the 300 meter tower) and The Statue of Liberty all over again. Measurement units tied to cultural identity, which enforce cultural intransigence concerning the metric system. Denver cannot help being The Mile High City (it was originally the Queen City), nor Colorado being The Kilometer High State, but we could have chosen a different architectural manner to express our “Americaness” other than something as anachronistic as a height in feet, tied to a year associated with the birth of the US. We had a choice, and once again we chose to memorialize the past with anachronistic measure. Will we ever again choose the future?

10 thoughts on “My Measurements Can Beat Up Your Measurement System

  1. I will never begrudge the legacy of legacy units of measurement. As supporters of U.S. metrication, we must let the 1776-foot tower and the Mile High City reign on the record. To metricate that kind of poetry is to play right into the hands of our detractors. But remember, we have the Kilometer High City at Boone, North Carolina, and track-and-field events are very frequently set out in meters. One day, the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston to Cambridge will be formally laid out in meters as well as the home-brewed “smoots.”

    One thing really bugs me,though, Maven–of the men among them writing about the Eiffel Tower, what kind of men would protest an erection?

  2. BTW, do international, worldwide architects still make projects in USC when building in/for the US…? Quite absurd, indeed, if that were the case…!

    In other words, besides Libeskind… when, for example, Piano, Von Gerkan or Sir Foster build in the US, are they required to use USC in their projects, or do they make them normally in metric and then in some way adapt to the local (ir)reality?

    Maybe not so trivial, as a question…

    Anyway, when we’ll have a really global society, possibly based on something better and more evolved than today’s rather desperate situation (etc. etc.), then also the US will finally (be positively forced to) evolve, together with the rest of the world.

    • … Ah, and we also have today’s Windows *10* revelation: perhaps a good sign for a globally decimal (see SI-based) future (together with OS *X*, of course)…? Who knows – but let’s hope, anyway…

    • You are taking the word United as in the United States of America far too literally — as though our federal and state governments formed a rational hierarchy, as they do in European democracies, where a federal entity exists, at least ideally, to rationalize the interactions of regional governments. This was how American schoolchildren were taught to view the work of their country’s founding fathers, during the first two decades or so after World War II. In fact, WWII was one of the brief episodes in US history when something like this seems to have operated, at least some of the time. For most of our history, however, the ancient Greek City States are probably a much better model.

      Actually, I wish the language of feudalism were better known today, because it would make civics classes for US kids a breeze. US states are really fiefdoms, whose overlords (satraps is probably the best word here) may owe nominal fealty to a federal overlord, but they spend most of their time resenting this, and defending their privileges as vassals, to the detriment of the villeins. Vassal vs overlord intrigues further metastasize at the county, local, and civic levels, making the Wars of the Roses comparatively simple to explain.

      The result is that where Europeans seem to see progress as something linear, even if it may be one step back for every two forward, the American ideal of progress is more like n-dimensional Brownian Motion: not only chaotic, but you can never get so far from the starting point that you won’t find yourself back there someday. No, US states won’t metricate individually, because the first to try would be instantly set upon by the others. (However, it was possible for one reactionary senator, from a single state, to shut down the metrication of US roadways at the national level by a mere parliamentary threat. The accepted term for this sort of thing is “Checks and Balances.”)

      Your other question is also good. Yes, any foreign help with the so-called Freedom Tower would almost certainly have had to go through a crash course in ancient measurements. US building codes are generally the purview of city and local governments, although there are supposedly national codes as well. But whether national or local, rest assured these are written in archaic units. This is not a purely internal US issue. A few years ago, the UK (officially metric) contracted with Westinghouse (the last remnant of a US company) to build a nuclear reactor. The Brits were somewhat chagrined to learn they might have stuck themselves with an Imperial White Elephant. (The link may be old, but it still seems to work.)

      • Hehehe: good analysis, indeed! 🙂

        But probably it is more or less so also in Europe (and elsewhere, too), albeit perhaps in other ways; for example, the EU is certainly not what it could be: ideally, it should be a federation of (euro-)regions, while in practice it is still only a little more (or less) than a collection of previously existing nation-states, each with their own historical ballast, so to speak; and bureaucracy reigns, with a far too economical/financial mindset.

        (We don’t even have a common standard of zip codes, telephone numbering or electrical plugs, just to make some examples.)

        Looking towards the future, an eventually worldwide network of free (and responsible) citizens, towns, cities and regions would prevent the concentration of power which generates political corruption (and social corruption, too, for the power subtracted from citizens, who essentially have almost nothing to say in today’s context): but this is certainly not something that we can achieve immediately, sadly…

        … So, if US states won’t metricate, neither individually nor at a national level (i.e., the government doesn’t care, etc. etc.), what, then, can “force” the US to finally metricate? That’s the question, probably…

        • “… So, if US states won’t metricate, neither individually nor at a national level (i.e., the government doesn’t care, etc. etc.), what, then, can “force” the US to finally metricate? That’s the question, probably…”

          As the US declines economically, its remaining industry and economic structure can be sold cheaply to outside companies, who in turn take over American companies and in harmonising them with their overseas operation, metricate them.

          Metrication has always come from the whims of business with the government as the aiding force. So, increasing the foreign presence in the US is the catalyst to further or complete metrication.

    • Interesting link…

      Clearly, nation-states have been obsolete for quite some time, even if they still continue to exist, also lacking any proposed alternatives, especially from below, from the people (too busy to survive, perhaps?).

      IMHO, we should evolve towards a planetary federation of regions, from the small to the large: and a worldwide “government” should be federal, too, and not monolithic (also in order to prevent a dictature).

      What should definitely be shared, besides strong human values (liberty, solidarity, etc. etc.), should be a common measurement system, which of course must be some future evolution of the SI, once adopted everywhere.

      BTW, in the US, couldn’t individual states begin to metricate by themselves, instead of improductively waiting for the national government (too busy with “other” things)? If one or more states adopt the SI, then the others would probably follow them soon…

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