A Tale of Two Iowans

Iowa Representative John Kasson

By The Metric Maven

Double Bulldog Dare Edition

A primary motivation for my metric research has been to understand why the metric system was not implemented by the US in the late 1970s. Beyond the fact that the metric legislation was at best symbolic, and at worst a political joke, there has been almost no forward movement in our government for metrication in over 32 years. Why is this? Recently I ran across a tale of two Iowans which fits into this larger puzzle.

The first Iowan is John Adam Kasson (1822-1910). He was a Republican Member of the US House of Representatives from approximately 1863 to 1884. He lived in Des Moines and was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. In 1866 Kasson penned The Metric Act of 1866. Kasson became a leading advocate for the metric system, and was made the Chairman of the Committee on a Uniform System of Coinage, Weights and Measures. He advocated for metric adoption his entire lengthy life. Historian Charles F. Treat states: “To him belongs most of the credit for the enactment of the 1866 Act legalizing the use of the metric system.” The metric system was made legal, but no date for mandatory adoption was set. There was great optimism for the future of the metric system in the US:

The interests of trade among a people so quick as ours to receive and adopt a useful novelty, 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.

Senator Sumner, who was on the Senate side of the legislation in 1866, was very optimistic about mandatory adoption of the metric system in the US.

The metric battle in the early years of the twentieth century came and went without metric adoption. As the century progressed, country after country adopted the metric system as it’s exclusive system of weights and measures. By the 1970s, The US felt the global metric tidal wave, but only introduced voluntary conversion. There was enough international peer pressure however, to convince many members of the public, that US metrication was going to occur. In the mid 1970s newspapers had listings for local social meetings to learn the new system. Many people were certain we were serious about metric adoption. One newspaper column on collecting, recommended that people go out and buy old measurement vessels and such, because they would become antiques with more value after every thing became metric.

On September 7, 1975 The Sunday Des Moines Register looked back at Iowa’s contribution in advocating the metric system (page 4C). The paper related that it was Kasson’s legislation that provided metric standards to all the states of the union. The paper was optimistic that a bill authorizing metric conversion of the US had a good chance of passage in the next Session of Congress.

The Sunday Des Moines Register reported on January 11, 1976 that a majority of Iowa’s manufacturers (62%) were for metric adoption by the US (Page 14Y).

click to enlarge

On October 31, 1976 The Cedar Rapids Gazette had a full page devoted to metric which showed a photograph of a dual unit road sign (Page 4A).

The plan to change over the nations roadsigns, as reported by the Associated Press, went like this:

A highway administration official said there is no plan to print both metric and mileage figures on the highway signs to ease familiarization.

The official said the action is in line with the national switch to the metric system outlined in the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

The changeover will apply to every highway, road and city street in the country. Under the Metric Conversion Act, the highway administration can order the conversion even on roadways that receive no federal aid.

During the 90 days ending September 30, 1978, vertical clearance signs for over passes also will be changed to metric figures. Truck drivers accustomed to looking out for 10 foot warnings will have to learn to hit the brakes when they see a three meter sign.

Some American cars already contain markings for kilometers as well as miles, and automakers already are planning to install metric speedometers and odometers in all cars.

Motorists with old cars will not be required to buy new speedometers. They will be able to go metric simply by pasting a label over their speedometer.

Senator from Iowa Charles Grassley

I suspect that if we had converted all the road signs to metric in the late 1970s, it might have broken a considerable psychological obstacle  to conversion. But then another Iowan enters the tale. Representative Charles Grassley (1933- )  waged political war against metric road signs and single-handedly killed them on June 8, 1977. The Thursday June 9th Des Moines Register reported that:

“The Iowa Republican told his House colleagues that Federal Highway Administrator Willam Cox will withdraw proposed regulations that would have forced the conversion of highway signs to the metric system”

The Des Moines paper further related Grassley as:

“Denouncing kilometers as a “foreign system of measurement,” Grassley said that “forcing the American people to convert to the metric system goes against our democratic principles.”

The metric system was conceived and articulated by an Englishman, Bishop John Wilkins in 1668. Apparently because the French initiated its international stewardship and adoption, it is forever foreign. I suspect that—Now Senator Grassley—never bothered to research his forgone conclusion. He just didn’t like metric and had a Senatorial sized tantrum to stop it.

By October 1977, the US Weather Service announced it was indefinitely postponing its change to metric.

One wonders if Charles Grassley had not single-mindedly stopped metric highway signs in the 1970s–and who knows what else he has done behind the scenes to thwart metric since then,  we might at least have started metrication. Senator Grassley served as a Representative from (1975-1981), and from 1981 until the present day, he is the Senior US Senator from Iowa. One can only speculate how much the Senator has done to squelch all metric road sign legislation to this day, and the metric system in general. Currently, there is no metric legislation before congress, and has not been since at least 2008, and that legislation is anti-metric. For at least 32 years, the Senator has increased all the costs associated with physical creativity in this country, by opposing the metric system—single-handedly.

It seems very sad, ironic, and odd that a state which encourages education with great fervor, would elect the man who would stop the reform that could have saved each Iowan $16.00 per day–for decades.

When it was Iowa’s turn to have an image on the back of a quarter celebrating its acceptance as a state, they chose the one room school house where Grant Wood had gone to school. Why they continue to choose Charles “Chuck” Grassley to represent them, decade after decade, is a mystery to me.

The largest segment of Iowa’s Gross State Product is Manufacturing. On January 11, 1976 The Sunday Des Moines Register revealed that the majority of Iowa’s manufacturers wanted the change. So why didn’t Representative Grassley defer to that democratic majority?—where were his “democratic principles” then?

Senator Grassley’s polices continue to waste at least one year of instruction in our public schools because we have not switched over to the metric system.

Senator Grassley, passing laws against the future will not bring back, or preserve the world depicted by Grant Wood, nor should this be a goal. It is a false nostalgia, apparently personally motivated and saturated with emotion by you, that harms the manufacturing businesses that form the backbone of Iowa’s economy. It’s sad an Iowa Republican Representative, John Kasson, in 1866 was more far sighted and technically knowledgeable, than Republican Senator Grassley is in 2012.

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

The Metric Hearings of 1975 — The Limits of Social Norm in Metrication

Australian Metrication & US Procrastination

John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

5 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Iowans

  1. The narrow minded masses possess great fear and insecurities. How else do career polititians survive?

  2. On a philosophical basis, I would not want the government to force the use of metric other than within government business – official signs – tax rates etc. I want to preserve the right of people to do stupid things.

    I do think the time for metric is coming soon – a 100% tax rate would still leave a deficit – there is an economic nightmare coming which will bring many changes – one of those changes will end up with the USA producing goods for exports as the printed paper won’t buy things anymore. Those buying our exports will want metric products and the US will no longer be able to be arrogant about units.

  3. Where do you come up with the connection between the adoption of the metric system and Iowan’s saving $16.00 per day?

  4. Thus, a better question would be if such is “estimated”, then was it really estimated with 1-cent precision?

    As very likely not, then just write such as “$16 per day” in the future.

    (There are a few more similar style-like “errors” in the essay, but such are probably not worth mentioning as the essay was truly informative and such doesn’t deal with SI or precision.)

    Anyway, thanks for telling what Rep. John Kasson had done in 1866, which was also written about in the USMA’s bimonthly newsletter not too long ago.

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