Naughtin and 1929

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The year 1929 is remembered as the year of the Stock Market Crash, which occurred on October 29th. This event is so large in the American memory that for a person living eight decades later, it is hard to imagine anything else happening that year.

An interesting Engineering Oddity from that era was the Armstead Snow Motor. A 1929 video shows the snow motor in action, first using a modified Fordson Tractor and then with a modified Chevrolet automobile. One has to hand it to the inventor for getting prototypes and a promotional film made. The film shows the snow motor moving across snow which is 1-2 meters deep. It hauls 20 Megagrams of logs behind it, and demonstrates it is superior to a horse in these conditions.

One can be assured that our measurement system didn’t help Mr Armstead develop his vehicle at that time. The Ford Motor Company would be imperial until the 1970s when it embraced metric for manufacturing.  What is interesting is that some Americans of the era realized this was a problem. On January 13, 1928 The Rock Valley Bee, in Rock Valley Iowa published a metric article entitled: Wanted a New Set of Standards.
The article warned about our current weights and measures:

And if you should set out to learn them beware! It was Sir Hiram Maxim, the great Inventor, who once said, “I cannot understand why we stick to these weights and measures. There was only one man who knew the English weights and measures; he studied them for thirty years and he just knew them all when the poor fellow went mad and died.”

The newspaper notes that over “100 countries of the world have adopted – the metric system and are enjoying a great advantage In commerce, education and common world understanding thereby.”

It is further observed:

“That we are conscious of this handicap Is shown by the agitation by various organizations and Individuals which has been under way for some time for general adoption of the metric system. The states of Illinois, California,.North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah, with a combined population of 16,000,000 through their state legislatures, have memorialized congress to adopt metric standards. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which has a membership of 3,000,000, at its national convention at Grand Rapids, Mich., last year, passed ;a resolution calling upon congress to enact metric legislation as soon as possible. More than 100,000 petitions, urging the same legislation are pending before congress and some time ago Congressman Fred Britten of Illinois announced that he expected to Introduce In this session of congress a liberal metric standards bill and press Its passage.”

Who was Republican Congressman Fred A. Britten (1871-1946)?  According to Wikipedia: “Britten attended Healds Business College, San Francisco, California. He was a construction worker and a business executive before his political career began.” It is very likely that his knowledge of construction indicated to him that the metric system could lower overall business costs.

The Newspaper article has a nicely framed list of the current “commonly used” measurements with the metric system next to it for comparison.

Newspaper Summary of Metric Changes 1929

One often encounters a strange incredulity from Americans about the simplicity of the metric system, as if it is, in the words of the period—a humbug. During the metric system hearings in 1904-1906 this exchange occurred between Representative, John W. Gaines of Tennessee, and Herbert Davidson. Mr. Davidson was involved in the manufacture of Library Supplies. This involved woodwork, ironwork, printing, and any other trade which was required by his company to supply libraries of the day:

John W. Gaines

Mr. Gaines. ….when I went to school my teacher very properly, I think, skipped me over the metric system, and they did not teach it then. Would we not all have to go to school and learn the metric system before we could know whether or not we were getting true measure according to the old standard?

Mr. Davidson. I think that a person of ordinary intelligence who gave five minutes to the subject of the metric system would be able to comprehend it. [Laughter.]

Mr. Gaines. How long have you studied it?

Mr. Davidson. I must say that I never spent fifteen consecutive minutes over it.

Mr. Gaines. Well, you are an expert by nature.

(Mr Davidson then attempts to explain the metric system to Mr. Gaines)


Representative Gaines could not seem to accept the simplicity
of the metric system and later continued his incredulous inquiry:

Mr. Gaines: Now, I do not want to weary the committee with my continuing colloquy; I just want to find out how we are to equip our people with sufficient information to enable them to know how to swap one plan for another, Mr. Chairman. Then I shall end this colloquy. Where did you learn the metric system?

Mr. Davidson. By putting a rule in my pocket and using it the same as I would a foot rule…….


Mr. Davidson. Why, I chose to use the metric system is because it impressed me as being simpler.

Mr. Gaines. When did you first undertake to study the metric system?

Mr. Davidson. I say I never studied it.


Mr. Gaines. ….. The people of the United States, at all events would have to first learn the metric system before they could use it. Now, this is what I am trying to find out—they would have to learn the difference between a foot and a meter and a yard and a meter and a pound and a meter, and so on. They would have to do that certainly.

Mr. Davidson. They would have to gain some knowledge of the metric system; but it all appeals [appears?] to me, sir, as being so exceedingly simple that I cannot comprehend the intelligence that can not understand what a meter is, what a liter is, and what a kilo is.

Mr. Gains. But you must remember that we are not all college graduates, unfortunately for us; and I take it that you are.

Mr. Davidson. Neither am I.

For the people of the 1920s this reduction must have also seemed surprising, but my reaction was “that looks really complicated. why is that?” It struck me immediately that the people of the 1920s did not have Naughtin’s Laws to fall back upon when implementing the metric system. When Naughtin’s Laws are invoked, and the number of units that an everyday person might encounter are the only ones listed, it becomes a much more succinct list:

Naughtin’s Laws Applied to Illustration

I have a suspicion that the population of the 1920s would be incredulous with this short list. I can almost hear them saying, “How can this be?–it must be a humbug of some sort.”  Yes Virgina, the metric system is this simple for everyday people. The use of unit prefixes based on 1000 makes the metric system elegant in a way that was probably unimaginable in the 1920s. When one is so conditioned to seeing dozens of measurement units, I suspect their minds—and perhaps those who first proposed the tens near unity concept, simply could not get around the idea of using prefixes separated by 1000 for both magnification and division of the base unit. If we properly implemented the metric system these days, it’s even simpler to use than it was in the 1920s.

1933 Letter to Editor
1933 Letter to Editor

Yet again, members of congress did not act to legislate mandatory metric in 1928, and the Great Depression settled on the country like an economic plague. Certainly there were more pressing problems than legislating the metric system? Apparently not. Some citizens realized it might be a key to helping the US out of the Great Depression. A letter to the editor in the March 6, 1933 The Pittsburgh Press produced the Letters to the Editor headline: Metric System Urged to Spur Prosperity’s Return

E. Delchambre wrote:

“Do WE want to help end the depression?—Very well. Why not try this:

Get rid of our awkward, out-of-date, no-good-excuse-for-it system of weights and measures and adopt the metric system.

Do we visualize the chain of activities this action would start?

New or altered machinery in numerous shops, mills and factories; new or altered scales; new liquid and dry measures; new rules, baskets, glassware, crockery, tools, instruments and gauges of all kinds too numerous to mention.

Funds? The R. C. F. has distributed millions for projects far less worthy than this one.

Now is the time to make the change, when such a change would impede production very little.

The benefits derived would be everlasting.”

The entire contemporary car industry of the world has switched to metric, so if the Armsteed Snow Motor were developed today, the inventor would start with a metric vehicle to modify and most likely have to kludge on imperial parts, or make a conscious effort to obtain all metric parts to remain compatible.

We now find ourselves mired in another economic crisis. It is time to invest in “The Invisible Infrastructure” of our nation by changing to metric. The cost savings obtained by using metric to rebuild our physical infrastructure would be enormous. We would then have Architects and Engineers well versed in metric construction, which would make bidding on worldwide engineering projects seamless and eliminate our self-imposed metric embargo that hinders our trade with almost all other nations of the earth. I suspect the increased trade from all other metric countries will make up for the loss of trade from Liberia and Burma—-perhaps in a week?

Update 2012-10-30 As pointed out by Openly metric there was a mistake on the Naughtin figure with 1000 micrograms = 1 gram. It has been changed so it is now correct: 1000 milligrams = 1 gram.

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Star Trek: The Metric Voyage

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It was when Star Trek The Original Series (TOS) was in reruns, that I first noticed its use of metric units. I was very pleased, and assumed they were used exclusively, but then completely disappointed when  one episode was metric and another used imperial and often they mixed both. The 22nd Century was not what I had hoped for, an all metric one. I can only hope the Erlenmeyer flask Spock is holding in this comic book cover is graduated in milliliters.

I began to wonder how much metric usage occurred in Star Trek. To find out, I decided to watch all 79 episodes and keep track of metric and imperial usage. This seemed like a simple task, just write down the units used and tally them up. What I realized, after a while, was that the undertaking  was more nuanced than it appeared on the surface. Sometimes measurement units were used as proverbial metaphors. For instance in Episode 77 – The Savage Curtain:

SCOTT: You’d never know anything had been out of order. I can’t fathom it.

I could not see claiming that Mr Scott had used an imperial measurement in this episode. Scotty was clearly using a metaphor, and fathom in this case is really a verb, and not a noun.

In the same episode, another exchange occurred that caused me interpretive difficulty:

The Savage Curtain Episode 77

KIRK: Yes, if I recall, your Union Army observation balloons were tendered six hundred or so feet high. We’re six hundred and forty three miles above the surface of this planet.

LINCOLN: You can measure great distances that closely?

SPOCK: We do, sir. Six hundred forty three miles, two thousand twenty one feet, two point zero four inches at this moment, using your old-style measurements.

LINCOLN: Bless me.

Did Captain Kirk convert metric units over to imperial for the benefit of President Lincoln? Spock indicated that the Units he used were “old-style,” and therefore implied they were not used in the 22nd Century. The usage of imperial units seemed to be employed only as a courtesy to the 19th century President. Miles, feet and inches with a decimal point?—oh my! One can only hope Spock was thinking to himself: “how utterly devoid of logic the old style system is.” We will also not explore how he could quote a distance to the planet with an accuracy of 1 mm (0.04″).

At the beginning of the episode Mr Spock relates:

SPOCK: An area of approximately one thousand square kilometers. It measures completely Earth-like.

Given the “weight” of the evidence, I judge The Savage Curtain to be an “all metric” episode, despite the appearance of imperial units. In one case as metaphor, and in the other, as a convenience to “President Lincoln.”

Another difficulty, was that in many episodes, temperature was quoted in degrees without specifying Fahrenheit or Celsius. Often the logical choice of unit could be inferred from context, but not always. In Episode 4 – The Naked Time one cannot be certain which are being used:

UHURA [OC]: Entering upper stratosphere, Captain. Skin temperature now twenty one hundred seventy degrees.

There are also units quoted in Star Trek episodes that are no longer in use. The Angstrom (100 picometers) is mentioned in Episode 16 – The Galileo Seven. In Episode 31 — Who Mourns for Adonais? we have:

SCOTT: External pressure building up, Captain. Eight hundred GSC and climbing.

GSC is grams-force/square centimeter, which was part of the old gram-centimeter-seconds system proposed by the British. It is no longer used. Grams-force is strictly forbidden in The International System of Units (SI).  Grams are mass. So does it count as a metric episode?—the units are metric even if the system isn’t SI.

The First Season had 29 episodes, here’s the measurement breakout:

Imperial Units 13
Imperial and Metric Units 5
Metric 0
No Measurement Units 7
Indeterminate 4

Imperial units completely dominated, there was not a single episode in Season One that had only metric units.

The Second Season had 26 episodes, here’s the measurement breakout:

Imperial Units 5
Imperial and Metric Units 8
Metric 8
No Measurement Units 5
Indeterminate 0

Metric usage finally increased, and eight all-metric episodes occurred. The number of “all imperial unit” episodes decreased, but the “imperial and metric” episodes unfortunately increased.  Still the Star Trek future was becoming more metric.

The Third Season had 24 Episodes, Here’s the measurement breakout:

Imperial Units 2
Imperial and Metric Units 3
Metric 8
No Measurement Units 11
Indeterminate 0

Metric has not increased, but the number of imperial episodes decreased. Unfortunately eleven episodes had no measurement units at all.

The Third season finally explicitly used metric temperature. In Episode 72 — That Which Survives we encounter this dialog:

KIRK: My phaser didn’t cut through it.
MCCOY: Whatever it is, it has a mighty high melting point.
KIRK: Eight thousand degrees centigrade. It looks like igneous rock, but infinitely denser.

Well, it’s centigrade instead of Celsius, but at least there was not a complete metric shut-out concerning temperature. Fortunately SI enforced Naughtin’s Fourth Law and eschewed a name with centi as a prefix, but there are still 100 graduations.. Perhaps SI should have created milligrade, but that’s another blog.

The First Star Trek Episode — The Man Trap was all imperial, but the last, Episode 79 — Turnabout Intruder was all metric, so there may be some hope for the future.

Dual Spocks and Dual Scales, both bad

I may be experiencing false hope however. I have concerns that even in the 22nd Century we might still have imperial units around. I think I know why it’s possible this could happen. It is because of Naughtin’s First Law which states that Dual-Scale Instruments are Evil. This law appears to be constantly violated in Star Trek. It’s clear from the program, that Spock can apparently set his sensor for miles and/or kilometers when measuring. He schizophrenically changes his mind from week to week. Not very Vulcan if you ask me. It was Pat Naughtin that noted, with surprise, that the use of dual unit measurement devices delays metric implementation by at least hundreds of years, and probably indefinitely.  The Star Trek world appears consistent with Pat Naughtin’s assertion. I can only hope it’s not a portent for us in the future.

Miranda in her metric sensor dress

In Episode 60 — Is There In Truth No Beauty?, we see an example of a violation of Naugtin’s 3rd Law, Don’t Change Units in Midstream and Naughtin’s 4th Law, No centimeters. Here’s the dialog after Kirk finds out Miranda is blind and uses a sensor net to observe the world:

MIRANDA: Pity, which I hate. Do you think you can gather more information with your eyes than I can with my sensors? I could play tennis with you, Captain Kirk. I might even beat you. I am standing exactly one meter, four centimeters from the door. Can you judge distance that accurately? I can even tell you how fast your heart is beating.

One should only use millimeters, meters, or kilometers with no mixing. What I mean is, don’t use metric like imperial, where a distance might be described with 5 meters, 35 centimeters and 2 millimeters. It just defeats the utility of metric adoption and complicates measurement for no reason.  It would be best if Miranda said she was 1040 millimeters from the door, or 1.04 meters.

Star Trek has predicted many technical innovations which have been realized since the 1960s. The communicator was the original flip phone. Electronic clipboards could be seen as early Ipads or Blackberrys. Flat screen monitors were everywhere. The wireless earpieces, Uhura, Spock, Chekhov, and others  used are so similar to modern Bluetooth type earpieces, that the first time I saw one in a coffee house, I was not sure if it was real or a “fashion statement” of some kind. Video conferences with Star Fleet command, Klingons, Romulans, and aliens were ubiquitous, and also are today for those who use Skype and other teleconferencing methods. Doors which sense your approach, and open automatically were novel in the 1960s, now they exist at the entrance of most grocery stores.

I deeply hope Star Trek is as wrong about future of the metric system in the 22nd Century, as they were at predicting we would still be using magnetic tape. The best way to intervene in the culture of the 22nd Century is to switch the US to metric in the 21st—with actual mandatory weights and measures legislation.

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