Whatever Happened To the Metric System?

Guest Book Review By Sven

Is the metrication of a nation a technical exercise, or a social problem? Of course it is both, but in practice, one or the other view predominates. This should be recognized as framing all underlying debate. The classic example of a nation that came late to metric, but approached the transition as a technical hiccup, is now among the most successfully metricated: Australia. The nation that briefly flirted with metrication at about the same time, the 1970s, but dropped it on the dubious grounds that it would have required too much penicillin, is The United States of America. The Metric Maven has always sided with Oz, sometimes to the point of testing the patience of long-time readers. Keep this in mind, because it’s crucial to what follows.

A new book, Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet, by John Bemelmans Marciano, ostensibly on the failure of metrication in the US, has us here at TheMetricMaven.com in a quandary. If the subject matter matches the title, then we might be expected to have an opinion. Silence might even be misinterpreted. On the other hand, if the book is something else, we could find ourselves in the position of electrical engineers trying to make sense of a seriously bizarre piece of dilettante sociology.

The book certainly starts off at the right point: the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan gave the coup de grâce to any hope for imminent US metrication, by abolishing the US Metric Board. The Board had been in existence for only seven years, and still represents the sole official attempt to bring US measurement into alignment with the rest of the world. (I can personally attest that it was a time when kids were told by teachers that, ten years out of high school, we would never have to worry about confusing an ounce weight with a fluid ounce again.) But the Board foundered early, for reasons that will not be easily explained to citizens of European democracies. (Long story short: some members of the Board apparently saw their function as more than purely nominal.)

Before exploring this failure, however, Marciano indulges in an extended historical digression: at least twelve of his sixteen chapters. Our first major stop is actually the French Revolution. And I do mean stop: we will be stuck in France from well before the Reign of Terror, and will be hanging around for at least two Napoleons after (numbers I and III, I’m pretty sure — I’ve forgotten if II gets a mention, and frankly it’s not worth checking). The French chapters run from at least three through six and beyond, with chapter two, on the francophile Thomas Jefferson, as a kind of preamble. This makes the French section well over one fourth of the book. Although the book’s title suggests a specific focus on the failure of the US, alone among the nations, to metricate, the bulk of the book takes place elsewhere, and has only tenuous relevance to the US failure. The book seems to be intended more as a capsule history of the metric system. And if this is indeed the intention, then there is a grave problem. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, there is a dog that didn’t bark in the night: the complete absence of John Wilkins (1614-1672).

Ten years ago, a book on the history of the metric system might have been excused for not mentioning John Wilkins, and parroting the conventional wisdom that the metric system sprang fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, out of revolutionary France. But it is now known, largely from the research of Pat Naughtin, that the idea of systematized measures, divorced from any artifact, had been around long before: at least one hundred twenty years before the Revolution. In 1668 Wilkins published An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, which included a proposal for an integrated system of linear, volume, and weight measures. It was not an isolated effort. William Brouncker, and the far better known Christian Huygens, collaborated. But the man who came up with the technological device that made the system possible, the “seconds pendulum,” may have been Christopher Wren, not primarily a scientist (or “natural philosopher”), but the architect of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Wilkins’ book was widely read well into the 1800s, and the units for length, volume, and weight it advocated were remarkably close to those later arrived at by the French by more dubious means.

Marciano is aware of such devices as the seconds pendulum, and of Jefferson’s disgust at the French rejection of them, which makes his silence on John Wilkins even more puzzling. The same silence, incidentally, is found in Marcus du Sautoy’s recent BBC documentary, Precision: The Measure of All Things. Du Sautoy also makes the astonishing claim that the French insistence on basing the meter on the Paris meridian was somehow an act of cooperative internationalism. Marciano doesn’t go this far, and seems to understand that their seven-year exercise in trigonometry was ultimately pointless, but persists in calling this nationalistic reboot or retread of some very old ideas an act of invention. He also discusses problems with the seconds pendulum that were apparent at the time, but which could have been compensated fairly readily. (A seven-year study of the behavior of pendulums in various parts of the world would also have provided a lot of information on the precise shape of the earth.)

The author’s Tilt-A-Whirl approach to history is engaging, his chapters on the French Revolution more fun than a free ride in a tumbrel, but perhaps not by much. It’s actually hard to find much in the book that has anything to do with SI, today’s metric system, or even measurement per se, except by implication — possibly invidious. There are long sections devoted to such things as English spelling reform: Noah Webster’s partially successful efforts to redefine American English; and the completely unsuccessful attempts of such disparate characters as the rather pathetic Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame), and Teddy Roosevelt. The efforts of advocates of artificially constructed languages, Esperanto, and its less-known predecessor Volapük, are detailed. One entire chapter is devoted to the development of standard time; and another is on attempts to rationalize the calendar, which continued through the 1920s. Cranky figures take the front row, including extended discussions of perhaps the greatest of nineteenth-century crackpots, Charles Piazzi Smyth, and his obsession with the Great Pyramid. Yet another chapter is given over to a man who, although no crank, is no more than a footnote in metric history: John Quincy Adams and his pointless and unreadable Report on Weights and Measures.

A great deal of the book concerns something that most people today wouldn’t think of as measured at all: money. This is justified on the grounds that “In the late eighteenth century, coinage was not only a part of weights and measures, it was the most vital part, and had been for thousands of years.” This is arguable (although some of us might point out there was an awful lot of measurement-based engineering going on in the ancient world, and when buildings and aqueducts fail, people die). But even granting this, money today is counted rather than measured: a very different thing. Neither SI, nor any of its several predecessors has a monetary unit. This doesn’t mean, however, that we aren’t going to be spending some time in Bretton Woods.

Eccentrics and guru-like figures continue to dominate in the “contemporary” section, from about 1970 onward (essentially just the last three chapters). Two of these are introduced in chapter one: Stewart Brand, described as a “libertarian prototechie,” and Tom Wolfe, a “literary icon in a white suit.” Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog in its myriad forms (all of them aging ungracefully, or thankfully forgotten) specialized in demagoguery by using metric system and nuclear power in the same sentence on all occasions. Wolfe then apparently dealt metric a crushing blow when he judged a “Most Beautiful Foot” contest at a party called a “Foot Ball.” Yet another oddity: the editor of the American Journal of Physics (actually a teaching journal) is cited, apparently with approval, for using such units as the “jelly doughnut” (106 joules) in an attempt to make science more understandable. (Last time I looked, the joule was an SI unit, and 106 was the prefix mega-. I like reporting food energy in megajoules, and I’m completely on board with making science understandable. I’m just not sure rebranding the megajoule as a jelly doughnut is the best way to do this.) The book also degenerates into reporting anti-metric t-shirt slogans and schoolyard taunts of the era.

Does the book address any technical issues at all? Very few, but one comes up at least twice, attributed to Tom Wolfe: “NASA had gone to the moon on inches and pounds and had never considered any other system.” Not true, of course. The computers aboard the Apollo spacecraft performed all calculations in metric. Only the displays were in archaic units. Considering the low speed of those early computers, that unit conversion must have been a significant extra computational load. But it is true that NASA was and is hostile to metric.

The author is under the curious impression that NASA learned a lesson from the Mars Climate Orbiter: “America has gone metric where it has been useful to do so. Thankfully, this now includes space travel.” Sorry, but again no. Official policy to the contrary, NASA and its supporting industries are as intransigent as ever. For as long as the Space Shuttle was in service, NASA baulked at any attempt at metrication, on the grounds that the conversion of drawings would have been too expensive. Now the Shuttle is retired, and the US has no manned spacecraft. American astronauts thumb rides on Russian spacecraft. NASA has as near a clean slate as it will ever have. But the contract for Orion, the manned spacecraft intended to replace the Shuttle, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, at least in part because Lockmart specified in its proposal that archaic units would be used whenever possible.

And our poster child for rational, democratic metrication? Australia gets one mention, and only to say that it had found metrication a “relatively straightforward project.” Come to think of it, there is another dog that didn’t bark lurking here. The Australian experience was that metrication costs were so low they were instantly swallowed up in the benefits. Considering how money-oriented this author is, it’s strange he never considers such terms as one-time costs, or ongoing benefits.

The book ends on a weirdly inverted triumphalist note. In fact, the entire book is a kind of celebration of technical and economic eclipse as social triumph. When I picked it up, I had in mind a map of a metric world with one obvious, US-shaped black hole in it, and the question “What happened?” Now that I’ve put the book down, I still have the same question.

Related essays:

John and the Argot-nauts

Bonfire of The Vanity Units

11 thoughts on “Whatever Happened To the Metric System?

  1. The Metric Board was stocked with opponents as well as proponents of metrication and had dissolved to endless bickering inaction long before it was abolished, The Board itself complained it hadn’t been granted enough authority by Congress to do anything. Obviously, it should have been replaced by something meaningful (would have required action by Congress) but it is unfair to say Reagan killed metrication by killing the board. He killed a prime example of waste in government. Our government is full of activities that sound great on paper but can’t possibly carry out their mission and are just a waste of money — this was one.

    I’ve not read the book but per reviews, Marciano seems to assume metric is dead in the US. Reality may be that it has gone underground or back in the closet. Still a minority, but a reasonable percent of American businesses have gone metric in the intervening years. Marciano has apparently not covered this at all in the book. If that is true, he paints such an inaccurate picture that I don’t need to waste money on the book.

    • “Marciano seems to assume metric is dead in the US. If that is true, he paints such an inaccurate picture …..”

      That maybe this was his intent. To give the natives a sense that the actions that lead to the failure were right and Americans should never feel they made a huge, whopping mistake. Even has the nations falls apart.

  2. I concur with John Steele’s remarks, plus more. President Reagan did NOT “abolish” the U.S. Metric Board. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (MCA), the enabling legislation for the USMB, remains in effect. The president merely defunded this toothless, moribund group and saved the taxpayers’ money. If you were to look up “throwing good money after bad” in a reference book, you’d probably find the USMB logo in the article! No coordinated national plan for U.S. metrication had ever reached fruition, much less enactment. Actually, the U.S. never really “went metric.” We just did a lot of silly posturing. We didn’t do what Australia did, which was to convert, and convert valiantly they did. I visited that country, and saw it as a metrication model for America to follow.

    According to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, a Congressman Eldon Rudd of Arizona wrote to Mr. Reagan asking him to introduce legislation repealing the MCA. The Administration declined, and expressed its support for voluntary conversion where needed.

    The MCA lives on, with its provisions for a USMB intact. A president could not reappoint a board, but that should not be attempted until the Nation has a true metrication plan on the table and the will to carry it through to Australian dimensions.

  3. One has to ask oneself honestly if the US is a better place now then in the ’70s and before. The US no longer rules the world. Foreign nations once poor and destitute are growing and producing the metric products the world is only willing to buy while US factories are closed and empty, rotting away.

    As mentioned NASA is almost out of business. Any new projects done in USC get a few steps past the drawing stage and then is cancelled.

    Drive through once manicured neighbourhoods and see the rot and decay there now.

    Whether Ronald Regan defunded or closed the metric board is moot. At the same time though he also opened up the doors for American industries wishing to metricate without headache or opposition to go elsewhere and import the now metricated products back into the US.

    The US decision only made it possible for the rest of the world to advance at the expense of the US. Is this then really a bad thing?

  4. NASA – and not only – should learn from Apple; for example, their PDF on case design is completely metric and also correctly uses the ISO date format (!):


    Sadly, if the US industry, while perhaps often internally thinking in metric, then still uses machinery tailored on old and obsolete USC units, there’s little NASA can really do, at least in absence of a nation-wide metrication effort: saving costs will sadly still be more important than evolving towards the present (see worldwide use of SI) and the future (or an improved SI: it’s certainly still not perfect…).

    But scientific and technical divulgators could and should use only the metric system: the masses, while perhaps still being rather uneducated on this front, would soon adapt, and eventually even enjoy and embrace the use of metric units, also in everyday life! Or is this only wishful thinking, in the US case?

    Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be such an educational effort going on…

    And if Politics (with an uppercase P: the one – sadly very rare nowadays – that cares about the world and the future…) had some real, forward-looking ideals, a complete metrication in your entire country could probably be made in a couple of years, at most – but with incredibly no political will, both from “below” and from “above”, of course nothing changes.

    Obvious things, but anyway…

    • What NASA is now doing is subbing out to private companies like Space-X who design, engineer and manufacture in metric. So instead of being the contractor themselves, they now are just a front company awarding contacts to others and let them do all the work.

      • So, that means that projects originating from NASA will all be metric, now and in the future? This would be a very good thing, of course…

  5. Thanks for the review, and the comments too — useful to read several good points.

  6. Moot?

    Marciano starts his anti-metric coda with “The Day The Metric Died,” citing the Reagan action against the USMB as a critical moment in that period, and he is perpetuating that falsehood so often repeated in the media and by individuals. Lyn Nofziger, who urged the president on, was the father if this delusion, as he thought he had won some kind of signal victory over U.S. metrication in the process. This lie cannot stand.

    • A perhaps unintended effect of this post was it reminded me of Esperanto. Forcing a designed language down on to the subjects by the elites doesn’t work. Take France – use of foreign words is forbidden, (and often used to restrict trade). Yet, the use of the French language is receding and it will eventually disappear as a language (other than a few borrowed words that the dominate language will retain. The fact is the world has become a much smaller place – regional dialects and accents are disappearing – some may think all this is bad – I think it is good – harder to get people that speak the same language to kill each other in wars… ) Keeping a language from evolving is a sure fire way to kill it off.

      But units of measurement are also language. While the application of force can change the future use – what really matters is the utility of language. Languages are alive. They change, mutate mostly retaining the most efficient and useful words while other words fall out of use. There is a similar effect on grammar – and sadly only a slow effect on spelling.

      The metric system as language is being adapted – while the older generation might ask for the ‘large bottle of coke’ from the store, my kids would ask for a 2-liter bottle.

      This idea that the US is not going metric is just wrong. It might not be moving as fast as I would like – but it IS moving. And – it is moving because measures are language and the selection of ‘the fittest’ in our living language is making it so.

      Sadly, part of being ‘the fittest’ means compatibility with the past and the older generations. Thus, as much as I would like for a new standard for garden-hose connectors to take over – it isn’t going to happen soon – and you will find this connector used world wide – quite an entrenched standard despite of the classification as a metric country or not. (And in spite of the fact that hose connectors just don’t work well!)

      I can go to the hardware store and there is a selection of metric hardware that surpasses by miles what can be found in so-called metric countries in Latin-America (most ferreterías won’t have ANY metric screws or bolts) . Most of our exported industry gets transformed into metric – if it ever comes back – it will come back as metric.
      Despite the gloom of the review – change IS happening. We should be celebrating the appearance of every new application of the metric standard. Freedom (including from government boards that would dictate our use of units) is a wonderful thing – and as allowed metric to grow and thrive in the USA.

Comments are closed.