The Education of Louis Sokol
By The Metric Maven
Get a cup of coffee—this is long
In 1916 The Metric Association was formed. Its mission was to promote the metric system and educate the public. The Metric Association would become known as the American Metric Association during the 1921 metric hearings. It exists to this day after changing its name to the US Metric Association in 1974.This year marks this organization’s 100th anniversary.
Fredrick Halsey, the anti-metric polemicist who wrote The Metric Fallacy and who was as tireless as he was misguided in his opposition to the metric system, took note of this new pro-metric organization around 1920. Mr Halsey called the headquarters of the American Metric Association and stated with certainty that “We have killed the metric system before and we will kill it again.” (1921 metric hearings page 41). Halsey demonstrated that stopping legislation in this country is much easier than passing reform. The 1921 metric hearings contain some of the best expositions about how countries successfully changed to metric. The hearing results were a forgone conclusion, there would be no metric switch-over in the U.S..
The period from the 1920s to the 1960s was one of deafening silence and at best indifference to the metric system. As more and more countries began to switch over to the metric system in the 1960s, this period began to suggest that some optimism for the introduction of the metric system into the US might be justified. In 1966 The Metric Association published its first Metric Association Newsletter. The Newsletter was conceived by USMA member Louis Sokol. These newsletters provide a glimpse into the history of the battles over the metric system in the US. The first newsletter contains an editorial comment which states:
There is much latent interest on the subject [of the metric system] from people in the fields of commerce, industry, engineering, education, and science who are looking for leadership that should come from the federal government.
The editorial indicates that metric critics complained that the US should have better “sold” the world on the decimal inch. Our solipsism knows no end.
It is noted that by the end of 1966, India completed their metric changeover, and it had been 100 years since the metric system was legalized in the U.S. by John Kasson. That year was also the 50th anniversary of the Metric Association.
The introduction of dual-dimensioned engineering drawings is celebrated as a great breakthrough. In the April 1967 newsletter. Editor Louis F. Sokol states:
Most significant is the increasing use of dual dimensioning (both millimeters and inches) on new engineering drawings of our largest industrial organizations.
In April 1968 Sokol continues to promote “an effective educational campaign plus the application of those actions for them to become effective.” There is no call for mandatory metrication. Each of the Metric Association newsletters from 1966-1968 contain editorials which are rather banal. They generally deal with legislation and pedantic details. A November 1968 editorial by Sokol was pounced upon by John Bemelmans Marciano for use in his cartoonish work Whatever Happened to The Metric System. Here is the introductory paragraph:
Marciano offered this quotation as an example of how “out of touch” the Metric Association was with the rest of the country. It was quoted and left for the reader to assume it was a typical statement. After two years of published newsletters, the quotation has clearly been cherry-picked to maximally assail Sokol’s personality.
Sokol’s editorial continues and takes up over another full page with discussions of the signing of the metric study bill by President Lyndon Johnson and what the Metric Association might do to assist this study. The use of metric by the US military in Vietnam is addressed, the difficulty UNESCO encountered in trying to compile resource maps that are non-metric is touched upon, and the fact that Johnny Carson had a metric system segment on the September 12, 1968 showing of The Tonight Show. Apparently Marciano did not see the need to point out how “out of touch” Johnny Carson, possibly the most popular talk show host of all time, was by taking an interest in the metric system. Marciano’s editing and representation of Sokol is clearly for the purpose of lampooning, and misrepresenting his overall tenor.
The Metric Association offered centimeter-millimeter rulers, marked as centimeter-only, for a thin dime, with a minimum order of four. I will not belabor what long time readers know, I see the use of centimeters as a detrimental pseudo-inch and this type of ruler only harms metric adoption in the US.
In May 1969 Louis Sokol points to Cessna offering metric equivalents for its performance data as an indication of increasing metric use in the U.S. He ecstatically proclaims: “The Halsey philosophy is dead!” in an editorial. The first signed editorial is by Metric Association president Douglas V. Frost PhD in August of 1969. Until this point it is assumed that Louis Sokol, the editor, wrote them.
The August 1970 newsletter announced that Botswana, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Rhodesia, and Zambia were all planning to adopt the metric system. New Zealand had already announced its intention to become metric a year earlier. In November of 1970, Louis Sokol, in a signed editorial, described the spectrum of metric opinions from a National Metric Study Conference, but claimed:
Everyone expressed the feeling of the inevitability of metrication but felt that very slow progress would be made [if] it were left to an evolutionary process. No single industry or professional group can bring about metrication by itself, because of the interdependence of various sectors of our economy on one another. There is a need for direction and guidance on this problem, and that can only come in the final analysis from the government.
The February 1971 Metric Association Newsletter announced that Nigeria planned on switching to the metric system in the near future.
The US metric study precipitated a number of conferences and discussions around the country at a level not seen before or since. In May of 1971 Sokol praised the work of the Metric Study Group for its unbiased and objective work. Sokol saw it as a good sign that the US had undertaken a study with such a large scope prior to a metric changeover. Only “Burma, Gambia, Guyana, Jamaica, Liberia, Malawi, Sierra Leone and the United States!” had not committed to metrication. The August 1971 Metric Association Newsletter headline was: A Metric America — A Decision Whose Time Has Come. The Metric Study Group of the National Bureau of Standards had submitted its report. The report looked forward to the day, ten years hence, when the U.S. will have become “predominantly though not exclusively metric.” It was noted in an unsigned editorial that: “While the conversion recommended by Secretary Stans is a voluntary one, it will require the approval of Congress to authorize such a program.” Senator Clayborne Pell (D-RI) introduced the “Metric Conversion Act of 1971.” This introduction of legislation would repeat itself annually for another four years.
The publicity surrounding the Metric Study Report, and the large number of countries converting to the metric system, produced a belief among the general public that the US was going to become metric. In 1972, the May Metric Association Newsletter reported that Richard Nixon saw metrication as an important step, but: “Should such a change be decided on, it would be implemented on a cooperative, voluntary basis.”
Despite Nixon’s voluntary view, Louis Sokol had this to say in his editorial in August of 1972:
It is quite evident that the debate on whether we should go metric is now a thing of the past. We are going metric! The only question is about how and when.
It seems very likely that Sokol had never read any of the 1921 Metric hearings, or those of the early twentieth century. The U.S. had a voluntary “plan” in place since 1921, and after 50 years, there should have been no need for metric legislation, because the US should have been metric already, if voluntary metrication actually had the asserted affect. The Metric Association, despite its long tenure, seemed to have lost historical context, and did not learn from its past.
In 1973 Sokol was beginning to promote the idea that metric is better by 1000, and chastised new metric resources for pushing the prefix cluster around unity. He saw them as of little use, but like many metric advocates, he could not let go of inch nostalgia and made an exception for the centimeter:
By 1973 the AFL-CIO and Small Business associations were arguing against a voluntary bill with a ten year “suggested” term. In 1974 parliamentary procedures were used to keep a metric bill from appearing for a vote.
In late 1974 Louis Sokol noted that “1975 will mark the centenary of the signing of the “Treaty of The Metre”…” which was signed by the US. “…it would be most fitting if 1975 would go down in history as the year the U.S. Congress finally gave its official approval to authorize a national 10 year metric conversion program.”
Ever optimistic, Sokol editorialized in February of 1975 that: “The promotional efforts of the USMA for the past 58 years are finally bearing fruit.” The Metric Association was now the U.S. Metric Association or USMA. There was a pervasive belief among the metric advocates of the time that metric conversion was moving along at a break-neck pace—independent of government intervention. The lack of government coordination is seen as simply making the process more costly and inefficient. There seems to be some cognitive dissonance when Sokol was:
…amazed to discover that no model, whether of domestic or foreign manufacture, was obtainable with a kilometre odometer/speedometer unit. Not one dealer had such a unit in stock with which the miles unit could be replaced by a mechanic in a few minutes.
This situation points out the crying need for some governmental direction and guidance. ….
The May 1975 USMA Newsletter reported that Alan Harper visited from Australia to provide an overview of the first four years of Australia’s metrication.
On December 23 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the “Metric Conversion Act of 1975.” The USMA Newsletters spend a considerable amount of time throughout this era discussing the pros and cons of meter versus metre and liter versus litre when spelling these metric units. While Louis Sokol seemed sanguine, a short column written in the August 1976 USMA Newsletter offered up a more cautionary viewpoint. The USMA had 14 regional directors at that point. Frances J. Laner was the director of the Rocky Mountain Region. Laner looked back at US metric history and saw reason for alarm. She noted that John A. Kasson expressed hope that the US would become metric after he was rebuffed in his attempt to make metric mandatory. The current law “…reflects a similar directive to that of Congressman Kasson in 1866. No target date, no compulsory measures, but rather advisory assistance with a hope for a changeover completion.” Laner continues:
With the absence of a target date, will the metric issue continue for another 200 years before the nation discards the “beloved” 57 traditional units in favor of the 7 base metric units? Will the metrication issue become a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records because of its long history of pro and con debate? Prior to December 1975, when a lecture or seminar on metrics was given by me, many attendees expressed the need and desire for metric legislation. Now with legislation on the books, a curious downturn appears evident. Many of the audiences appear less motivated.
Indeed it appears that the metric “legislation” of 1975 acted as a sop, and redirected interests elsewhere. Frances Laner does not mention the 1921 metric hearings and may have been unaware that in many ways they were a repeat of Kasson’s hope that the US would voluntarily become metric. She had every reason for concern, and a 200 year wait might be optimistic. She had the foresight to see that the passed meaningless legislation was nothing but apparent action and not actual action.
In 1976 the USMA began offering metric rulers with millimeter markings and diminished the importance of centimeters:
In April of 1977, Louis Sokol wrote a letter to President Carter urging him to quickly appoint a US Metric Board. The May 1977 USMA Newletter pointed out that the Department of Defense would only encourage the use metric units in new weapons only “when there are nonsignificant technical or cost penalties.” ….”The DOD says its “evolutionary pace” on metrication will be guided by industry’s progress,..” US Metrication was a game of chicken without any participants.
The August 1977 USMA Newsletter would report that the Federal Highway Administrator, William M. Cox would not convert the nations highway signs to metric. The excuse offered in the Newsletter was that 5000 letters were received which were against metric road signs. The fact that Congressman Charles Grassley called for no metric road signs was also mentioned. This would alleviate any demand for metric speedometers and odometers. Louis Sokol had recently installed metric speedometers in his cars.
In November of 1977, 15 of 17 nominees for the Metric Board were announced. The USMA did not have a single member appointed to the Metric Board, nor were they consulted about prospective nominees. Peggy Rainwater, who was in charge of the nominations on behalf of President Carter, would not return calls or solicitations by the USMA.
By 1978 it was clear to Sokol that metric conversion was under siege in the press, and the general public was not engaged, and possibly hostile. A representative of The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was nominated to the Metric Board. That organization had lobbied against the passage of any metric legislation—including the earlier Metric Study. It did not bode well for the future. The February 1978 USMA Newsletter has an almost siege mentality within its prose. A conversion graphic from km/h to MPH is offered and demonstrates that constant conversion versus metric-only was still considered something which would not be detrimental to metric adoption.
Thirteen metric nominees were finally confirmed. Their statements about metric during their confirmation did not raise any anti-metric concerns. The last four members of the Metric Board were seated in June of 1978.
The British, under pressure from the Conservative Party, the Liberals, and others, withdrew their plans which included mandatory dates to cease the use of imperial units for bulk foodstuffs and other retail goods. Metrication was to proceed on a voluntary basis. In hindsight, one can see this as a portent for the US.
On October 20th of 1978, the General Accounting Office issued an anti-metric report. The USMA indicated this was a report that was generated with anti-metric political motives behind it. The excessive cost estimates did not comport with the experience of other countries.
Louis Sokol’s editorial comment in the November 1978 USMA Newsletter summed up the situation with its title “Metrication On The Defensive.” Sokol found himself in the position of trying to use rational argument with people who only relate to emotional truthiness. He finally came to the conclusion:
In the light of recent events it is quite obvious that the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 with its strictly voluntary approach with no “M” days is inadequate to assure successful completion of the metrication process now underway. Nothing of the magnitude of metrication can be successfully accomplished with a strictly voluntary approach…..
On December 14-15 of 1978 The Metric Board adopted a logo.
The Metric Association (USMA) had been attending American Association for The Advancement of Science (AAAS) conferences, and nothing in their newsletter leads me to believe the USMA was met with anything except amity. At the January AAAS meeting in Houston two academics with PhD’s spoke. One took issue with metrication claiming that the current units are “more natural” and the other academic claimed that metric units are of inconvenient size.
The US Metric Board continued to meet. Alan Harper who lead the successful metrication of Australia was asked if he could have metricated Australia under the current US law. “No” was his emphatic answer.
The words “Voluntary Metric Conversion” hung around the neck of pro-metric persons like an albatross. As other countries were finishing their metric switch-over, the ship of metric conversion sat in a dead calm, dying of thirst.
The September-October 1979 USMA Newsletter reported that during a discussion of the interpretation of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, it left “..some board members feeling the Act does not charge USMB [US Metric Board] with encouraging metrication and that Congress did not intend for the U.S. to go metric when it passed that bill.”
The Metric Board indicated its purpose was to coordinate a voluntary metric program. Well, if no one volunteers, and they don’t want any advice, the Metric Board is moot. The few businesses which did convert, like a gas station in Minnesota which sold in liters, soon found themselves alone. The US road signs did not change, the US weather reports did not change, the measures at US grocery stores did not change, US consumer products did not change, US rulers did not change (and have cm/mm on them), the US Post Office did not change. The emphasis on metric education left U.S. teachers holding the bag. There was no external world of metric to which they could teach. Metric was but an abstraction.
In the January-February 1980 USMA Newsletter Sokol comes to the conclusion that metrication is both a technical and a social change. By the end of 1980 Sokol would find hope with the election of a new congress: “…it seems more of its members will be influenced by the needs of commerce and industry. Hopefully, the climate will improve for enacting legislation which would expedite metrication by Congress setting some goals for its completion.” Sokol had also become the USMA President Emeritus, and Valerie Antoine became the USMA president.
The May-June 1980 USMA Newsletter announced that Australia completed its metrication.
The US Metric Board continued to meet, and there was speculation about who the new board members might be with the change of administrations. Then it became known that the Reagan administration was likely to call for the abolition of the US Metric Board. In the January-February 1981 USMA Newsletter Louis Sokol registered his dismay that the MX missile had been awarded to a contractor for design in inch-pounds.
The US Metric Board (USMB) met in California during the month of January. President Reagan’s daughter Maureen Reagan (1941-2001) was running for office in California. She addressed the USMB meeting and said while she favored strengthening the metric act, she would not back the inclusion of mandatory wording. Sokol began to wonder if the US was drifting into a “Metric Purgatory.” He stated in his March-April editorial:
As I see it, the planned demise of the U.S. Metric Board will not be a great loss to the cause of metrication. Its anti-metric members will lose a forum for their retrogressive actions. The few good, pro-metric members of the Board have been effectively out-maneuvered all along by the obdurate, anti-metric minority. Our only hope for completing national metrication is to have Congress pass more effective legislation which spells out a definite metric commitment as well as target dates for major areas of the economy such as weather reporting, motoring, and consumer buying.
This statement echos back to John Shafroth’s experience in the early 1900s when his metric committee was stacked with anti-metric persons. Sokol had no idea how dramatic a political change was taking place in 1980. As the years would pass by, his Metric Purgatory would ossify into Metric Carbonite.
The Metric Board was disbanded. It existed for but a single presidential term, that of Jimmy Carter, where it found itself an immediate orphan left exposed to the blood-sport of Washington. This was the end of any governmental attempt to usher the metric system into the United States. The USMA continued, but the one moment in history where metric switch-over was a world-wide phenomena, and change was in the air, was instead suffocated by the same reactionary U.S. politics which were on display in 1866, 1905, 1921, 1937 and 1975.
It appears to me that the USMA of the 1960s and 1970s promoted metric ideas which continue to hinder metric adoption to this day. The most damaging, in my view, was the idea that completely voluntary metrication is a workable idea. It was not understood by Sokol that a “voluntary plan” had been “in place” since 1866, was reaffirmed in 1921, and in each case had the identical effect of no metrication at all. This prior history should have left the USMA forewarned, so they could have pushed for unequivocal mandatory metrication in 1975. One can see that some members may have been swept up in the world wide metric switch-over enthusiasm and were blinded with optimism by the publicity.
The embracing of the centimeter exception, metric conversion rather than metric only, and the use of dual unit dimensioning, did not help, but they were but peccadilloes when compared with the adoption of voluntary metrication.
How did the USMA react to this loss? What did it learn? We will explore this in Part II