My_Brothers_BarjpgBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

Not long ago I recall reading a dismissive internet comment which was something on the order of: “the metric system is for scientists and not for regular people.” Clearly, if one understands the simplicity of a metric upgrade for the average person, this statement is completely born of ignorance. If a person uses milliliters, grams, millimeters and so on, then much of everyday life becomes elegant, and the displaced medieval measures are as unwelcome as trying to figure out which number Superbowl XXXVIII was. It was Superbowl 38.

The assertion that “metric is only for scientists” clearly was not a technical statement, so what kind of statement is it? When I read the statement, my mind went back to when I first lived in Los Angeles. The music on the radio was no longer likely to be The Beatles, but was instead The Beach Boys. When an old surf music oldies hour was introduced, the introductory line, (as best as I can recall) was “Remember when boys with buzz cuts were surfers and long hairs listened to classical music?” Indeed, “long hair” was at one time a proverbial phrase. Isaac Asimov in his 1957 essay Victory on Paper,{1]  when discussing the importance of paper chromatography states:

Nor is this ‘impossible’ problem just a matter of idle curiosity on the part of long-haired biochemists who have nothing better to do.

Surfers and long-hairs are viewed quite differently in American culture. Surfing is an athletic, sun-bathed, manly activity, and happens out in the fresh air. Listening to classical music is thought to be a square, intellectual non-activity that men who have a delicate constitution engage in.

This seeming comparison of surf music and classical music actually also contains a succinct statement about American anti-intellectualism. Richard Hofstadter in his work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life makes this point about how teachers are viewed in the US:

The boys grow up thinking of men teachers as somewhat effeminate and treat them with a curious mixture of genteel deference (of the sort due to women) and hearty male condescension. In a certain constricted sense, the male teacher may be respected, but he is not “one of the boys.” pg 320.

I’ve found it a curious truth that US scientists generally use more metric than not, but engineers use almost no metric. Engineering is also a profession that builds bridges, bends steel into aircraft and developed muscle cars of the 1970s. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but when a statement like “metric is only for scientists” is forwarded, it seems to be directed somewhere other than at a comparison of the utility of medieval measures and modern metric ones. It becomes a “feeling” about what metric is, and it’s not manly. One can almost hear a more modern version “those latte sipping pro-metric guys can have their system, no one’s stopping them. It’s a free country” with the implied attack on their manhood and inveighing against comfort that these sissies would embrace inside of a coffeehouse while discussing impractical literature.

Another aspect of American anti-intellectualism is the idea that practical is always better than theoretical. John Kasson (1822-1910) saw metric as practical and said so much after he lost his 1866 bid to make metric mandatory 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. [emphasis mine]

In the US, then and now, metric is seen as an effete system created by a bunch of scientific dandys from France, despite its English origins. When discussing The Practical Culture of the US, Richard Hofstadter states: “With all this there went a persistent hostility to formal education and a countervailing cult of experience.” (pg 257). When I was growing up, I often heard these phrases: “I’m a person who works with his hands.”, “You can’t learn this from a book” or “They don’t teach people this in college.”

When metric hearings were held in Congress in 1905 a Mr Gaines asserted the usefulness of the foot for farmers estimating how much volume would be needed to store grain. This exchange took place between Mr George Wetmore Colles a consulting mechanical and electrical engineer which was used to make a point about impractical people:

Mr. Gaines. Now, you yourself do not use the peck or the quart, or the pint. Then you are not an expert in this. Then you are a professor in this.

Mr. Colles. No; I am an engineer.

Mr Gaines. Rainbow people want this metric system, and the practical people do not want it. And when you want to change the bushel into something else you become yourself one of these rainbow chasers. [Laughter] (pg 153)

Mr. Gaines was clearly not pleased that an engineer might side with impractical scientific longhairs and wanted to press the point. This testimony may have been in 1905, but in the late 20th century a supervisor at a company where I previously worked summoned a group of engineers to present a talk he had prepared. His presentation began with a question: “Who has done more for humankind? Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison?” The engineers (mostly electrical engineers) looked at each other, and when polled, unanimously stated that the answer was clearly Albert Einstein. The supervisor had a negative visceral reaction, he was sure it was Thomas Edison, and was furious the group had given “the wrong answer.” What kind of people were they?! Edison is a focal point for the “cult of the practical man” and the supervisor was dealing with a room filled with apostates.

To the less-than-studious engineering supervisor, Albert Einstein was probably the archetypal impractical and effete “long-hair.” Thomas Edison was a “practical” git ‘r done person who had “invented” many practical devices. Today, very few of those devices are of any great importance. The invention of the electric light bulb was an act of brute force and Joseph Swan is certainly its inventor. Edison simply won a blind brute force trial and error race to produce a commercially viable inefficient version. Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, which is part of what would become quantum mechanics and in turn led to the development of highly efficient LED (light emitting diode) “light bulbs” that are rapidly replacing Edison’s “practical design.” Edison ignored the “Edison effect” as he saw no “practical” use for it although it was the key to vacuum tubes that would revolutionize electronics. When cathode ray tubes were developed for television screens, engineers needed to use relativity theory to predict the path of the electrons inside which paint the images. The “impractical” Einstein also invented a new type of refrigerator with his former student Leo Szilard.

The year 1905 was the “miracle year” when Einstein published three amazing papers that changed engineering and physics forever. It was a less than miraculous year for metric testimony in the United States:

Mr. Lanning. Is there any theoretical or practical relation between the electrical unit and other metrical units, or the unit which we use in all ordinary standards of weights and measures?

Mr. Colles. There is a theoretical relation, but no practical relation. It relates in words, I may say, to the velocity of light, and, as I say, it is very abstruse that it does not concern anyone outside of a laboratory, and even then only those engaged in investigations like those of X-rays and other scientific inventions, which have no practical constructive value, and probably never will have. (pg 151)  [emphasis mine]

1905 is a year for great intellectual irony in the US, where a false dichotomy of meaningless “scientific inventions” and useful “actual inventions” is delineated by a “practical person.”

I ran across a letter to the editor in the May 19, 1920 Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer that railed against current legislation which would make the metric system mandatory in the US. Here is the section that is pertinent:

The meter was never designed by manufacturers for manufacturing. A meter was sort of conjured up by a bunch of purely theoretical scientists. In practical use, the divisions of the metric system are either too great or too small to be of practical value.

Go through any buyer’s guide from A to Z and see if you see any products whose sale or manufacture would be improved by metricalizing their measurements. Manufacturers are the immediate butt of the metrical joke. (It’s a theoretical joke but a practical calamity)

The epistle is reprinted from a company newsletter called “Drill Chips” originally published by The Cleveland Twist Drill Company. This name still exists as a brand in the US.

It is the fate of the metric reformer in the US to be viewed through the lens of American anti-intellectualism. These metric ideas are seen as abstract; they are not “practical” or we would have known about them already and adopted them in the US. The reformer is not a “git ‘r done” guy, but is instead a mamby pamby complainer with impractical “ideas.”

There are many factors that contributed to the lack of metric adoption in the US over the last 150 years. Our lack of a strong central government is cited by Hector Vera as an essential roadblock, but even if it wasn’t, other contributing factors could be America’s inward looking attitude and a belief that if an idea was worthy, a practical American would have thought of it, and the rest of practical America would have already adopted it. The assertion that metric is for scientists and not for regular people is not a technical statement, it’s just a prejudicial one.

[1] Isaac Asimov Only A Trillion Abelard – Shuman 1957 pg 57

Related essays:

Familiarity Versus Simplicity

Metamorphosis and Millimeters

Isaac Asimov — Technophobe


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.

4 thoughts on “Longhairs

  1. You know, this makes me wonder if a step along the road to US metrication would be to attack Americans as un-manly for not using metric.

    Get some True Blue Aussie Blokes from all manner of manly occupations like construction and farming on camera to talk about how they use metric measurements and splice it together into some ads for the cause.

    Or if that’s too much work, make t-shirts with suitable slogans.

    Here’s one to start you off: REAL MEN USE MILLIMETRES!

  2. If the correspondent from The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer cared to look at the history of the metric system, they would have been that in the 1780’s units of measurement in France were in a real mess. The livre (pound) and pied (foot) varied from place to place and from commodity to commodity (a little like the US bushel in the nineteenth century). The metric system was designed to do away with these differences and to enable trade and commerce to be conducted transparently across national boundaries. One of the most prominent people outside France to support an international decimal-based system was Thomas Jefferson.

    • You’re incorrectly assuming that the correspondent from The Bridgeport Times and Evening Farmer is intelligent and would be able to see and understand the logic of what you are saying.

      Can you imagine the dumb look that would appear on his face if you stood in front of him or her and presented these facts to him personally? It wouldn’t be pleasant.

  3. Oh dear! Why does the Devil have so many of the the best tunes, and the stick-in-the-muds have so many of the best one-liners?

    I once read a book called “Roads to Ruin”. It had arguments of the opponents of all manner of reforms, and they all looked so amazingly plausible! It wouldn’t matter what reform you think up, clever people will find a way of arguing against it.

    Look at the lyrics of that wonderful song, “The Fool on the Hill”

    “The Fool On The Hill”

    Day after day, alone on the hill
    The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
    But nobody wants to know him
    They can see that he’s just a fool
    And he never gives an answer

    But the fool on the hill
    Sees the sun going down
    And the eyes in his head
    See the world spinning around

    Well on the way, head in a cloud
    The man of a thousand voices talking perfectly loud
    But nobody ever hears him
    Or the sound he appears to make
    And he never seems to notice

    But the fool on the hill
    Sees the sun going down
    And the eyes in his head
    See the world spinning around

    And nobody seems to like him
    They can tell what he wants to do
    And he never shows his feelings

    But the fool on the hill
    Sees the sun going down
    And the eyes in his head
    See the world spinning around

    He never listens to them
    He knows that they’re the fools
    They don’t like him

    The fool on the hill
    Sees the sun going down
    And the eyes in his head
    See the world spinning around

    It’s a wonder that there is any progress anywhere and at any time, and yet it happens.

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