Orwell and The Metric System

George Orwell (1903-1950)

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

As I wandered the halls of my Junior High as a boy, I saw two books over and over. One was George Orwell’s 1984 and the other was his book Animal Farm. They were required reading for an English class. One I was never in.  I did not read either book until a few years back when I read 1984. When I did, I was surprised at the anti-metric viewpoint Orwell articulated. Christopher Hitchens in his book Why Orwell Matters states on page 128:

“And he had a strong conviction that the metric system — which was to become such a toxic issue in England in the early years of this millennium — was somehow ill-suited to humans, let alone Englishmen.”

He conceded that for industrial and scientific purposes the metric scheme was necessary. However:

“The metric system does not possess, or had not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimeter, which is less than half an inch. In English your can describe someone as being five feet three inches high….but I have never heard a Frenchman say, ‘He is a hundred and forty-two centimeters high’; it would not convey any visual image.” (page 128-129)

Hitchens discusses Orwell’s literary objections that consist of the the fact that measurements such as the pint, quart, foot and so on are much shorter to pronounce than liter, meter and such. It is the same complains I heard when reading objections offered in the 19th century by “defenders of Anglo-Saxon measures.” Hitchens then states:

“…he [Orwell] was protesting to his agent that the American publishers of Nineteen Eighty-Four had, at the proof stage, rendered all his metric measurements into the old form: ‘The use of the metric system was part of the buildup and I don’t want it changed if avoidable.” It’s easy to see why. When Winston Smith goes slumming with the proles in Chapter Eight, he gets into a futile conversation with an addled old man whose memory — so crucial to Winston — is a wreck except for unimportant details:

“I arst you civil enough, didn’t I?’ said the old man, straightening his shoulders pugnaciously. ‘You telling me you ain’t got a pint mug in the ‘ole bleeding boozer?’

‘And waht in hell’s name is a pint?’ said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the container.

‘ ‘Ark at ‘im. Call ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart and there’s four quarts to the gallon. “Ave to tach you the A, B, C, next.”

‘Never ‘eard of ’em,’ the barman said shortly. “Litre and half litre — that’s all we serve.’

Hitchens states: “..Orwell succeeds in depicting a sodden deracinated people who have been forcibly alienated from the familiar things that were near and dear to them.”

I have heard Hitchens relate that he was puzzled by Orwell’s skepticism toward the metric system. That in turn, surprised me. When I first ran across Orwell’s anti-metric position, It struck me as a common problem that many scholars encounter, and to which they are blind. This is the problem where their thesis for a particular circumstance is applied outside of the environment in which it makes sense. James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough, saw magic everywhere, and could not help but stretch the bounds of his thesis to the point where one might see the whole of humanity acting in response to magical impulses. Richard Dawkins and his idea of Selfish Genes controlling humanity is another. Or Population Geneticist George Price, who became consumed by the idea that we are all evolutionary automatons.

What was the thesis of Orwells’ that acted like a literary version of The Blob, and finally oozed over the metric system?  It is the idea that the control of language was the weapon used by Big Brother to enslave the population. Big Brother was slowly eliminating words that could express complicated human emotions and societal ideas. Big Brother was distilling the dictionary down from a massive tome, to a pamphlet. The purpose of this was to make the public less and less articulate, and unable to express themselves. This was the means by which he would reduce humanity to a useful primate, somewhere just above a chimpanzee using sign language, but much more pliable for enslavement. Orwell seems to simply apply  his thesis to measurement units. If a group is trying to eliminate numerous measurement units, then it’s the same activity, with the same sinister purpose as was done with literature. He equates literature with scientific measurement. Now that’s serious pigfish.  More measurement units good, less measurement units bad. Orwell’s thinking–flawed.

In my view, Orwell is also a good example of what C.P. Snow famously called “The Two Cultures.” Snow saw two groups, which can be broadly called literary intellectuals and scientific intellectuals, existing with a deep intellectual chasm between them. Orwell is clearly in the literary camp, and appears to be almost scientifically illiterate. Whereas society may have a fractal nature, the mass of a ball bearing does not; it has one value. The idea that assigning a multitude of unequal units to describe a ball bearing’s mass, will in turn, increase one’s understanding of the value of its mass, is anathema to a common understanding of the quantity. Engineering and Science rely on consistent and universal measurement to function. Without measurement consensus, scientific endeavors would grind to a halt as no one could repeat experiments.

If I had the opportunity, I would have given Mr. Orwell a bit of homework that just might have changed his view about metric. I would have had him read John Quincy Adams Report on Measures. It is clear to anyone reading it (except for its author, which is very odd) that the almost uncountable number of units he quotes produce nothing but confusion, and do not lead to clarity. Here is part of ONE page from the voluminous report:

Click To Enlarge

Earlier John Quincy Adams relates how the French attempted to retain measurement names even as they had simplified the quantities by using grams.

I have used grams in my cooking for about two years now, and I can tell you, grams mean something to me, other quantities are just opaque obfuscation. Orwell’s unfamiliarity with Engineering and Science, and his strange belief that there should be one simple, logical and intuitive measurement system for Engineers and Scientists and a complete non-intuitive free-for-all of units and sizes for the “common person” seems contrary to his stated interests. The one place where reality intrudes and shows no quarter is in measurement. If you cannot be certain how much of a commodity you are purchasing, then you may end up starving. Deliberate confusions of measurement quantities, and unit proliferation, are perhaps the oldest methods employed to cheat one’s fellow person. So would you like to purchase to gold by the pound and sell it by the pound at the same price, when in one case it’s Troy and the other it’s Avoirdupois? Given the choice between this option and in both cases measuring the mass in grams which would you choose?

Mr Orwell did not do humanity a favor by embracing, manifesting and promoting his idea of “Englishness” through measurement confusion. He has hurt Britain, and his influence on thinking in the US has certainly made matters worse. Even worse, he has created an “intellectual refuge for scoundrels,” mantled within anti-authoritarian literature. James Joyce is respected as a literary beacon, but I suspect he would write useless books on plumbing. Orwell may have exceptional and important observations about human society, but is obviously feckless when it comes to understanding quantitative measurement.

Believe me, Big Brother would have loved the imperial system, and those struggling against him would have spoken in soft whispers about metric measurements. The only words that would have been added to Big Brothers dictionary would have been perches, pottles, casks, firkins, and hogsheads ad nausium. Big Brother will determine the dimensions of the world, and with a proliferation of units, change it at will. But Orwell leaves us with a very slight puzzle about his view of the metric system, In his essay England Your England, he also said this:

One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to  the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency.

In the context of this essay, which appears to have been written as a semi-patriotic paean of praise for England as the Nazis rained bombs upon his nation, I think he might be using this statement to tap into some type of “English Pride,” in the same manner that I hear some ignorant Americans gleefully express the belief that our Olde English Measurements are what make us “unique” and “exceptional.” I’m not certain if Orwell’s statement on weights and measures is a condemnation, or a dog-whistle statement to the British, which is meant to endear them to themselves. Either way, George Orwell did not understand that a measurement system is not the same as a vocabulary. A vocabulary maps words with the infinite variety of human emotions and metaphor. A measurement system maps numbers to a single reality in nature. The reduction of vocabulary reduces the ability of a population to express itself socially. The proliferation of measurement units decreases the ability of a population to describe the physical world in a coherent manner. The metric system was created in response to exactly this problem. The physical world is not the same as the emotional world. Mr Orwell dealt with the latter, but clearly had little understanding of the former, or he would have embraced the metric system.

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.


Filmmaker Amy Young is working on a documentary about the kilogram. It is called The State of the Unit: The Kilogram. She is soliciting funds on Kickstarter to complete the documentary. You can view the promotional video and pledge funds here. The opportunity to see a documentary produced concerning one of the primary units of the metric system, and the artifact that defines it, is a singular occurrence. I urge my readers to contribute to this project, The Metric Maven has. The deadline for a successful Kickstarter campaign for this documentary is May 17th. Currently she has raised $17.5K and the goal is $26.8K. If the pledge goal is not met, it is my understanding it will not be funded by Kickstarter. If you are serious about metrication in the US, I urge you to pledge.


MetricBustersBy The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

It is the best of shows, it is the worst of shows. It is a show that attempts to show the nuts and bolts use of scientific thinking when deciding propositions. It is also a show that promotes the worst of American disorganization and lack of planning. Yes, I said this about MythBusters. You can stop gasping now. It is a show that indicates it’s about Science! and claim they are “experts,” so don’t try this at home kids!  But they also have warnings about “Science Content” lest too much science depress their ratings. Four years ago on 2008-10-30 I wrote to the MythBusters as a Professional Engineer, another kind of “expert,” who is not on television. I pleaded with them to adopt metric only in their show,  and to encourage metric thinking. The US Mail and email I sent to these prominent “Technical Personalities”  was met with nothing but silence. Their lack of concern for metric seems to say “we’re all for science, but we just don’t care about organized measurement.”  I discovered that MythBusters  fan boards have inquired about their lack of  exclusive metric use from at least as early as 2006.  There has been nothing but The Silence of the MythBusters concerning metric for at least the last six years. But on 2012-09-30, during a Reddit Driven Q&A session, a metric advocate asked Adam Savage the question directly:

Q: Why don’t you guys use the Metric System on Mythbusters? as it is the standard for scientific experimentation

By: KyleGustafson

A: We try, we do both sometimes. But we’re both fully inculcated with the english system, sad to say. That’s how we think.

Wow, that’s it? That’s all that Adam has to say? He has been so inculcated with the Olde English non-system by our culture, that he cannot think otherwise? A MythBuster can’t think otherwise! His mind embraces disorganization and rejects organization, and nothing can be done? This is MythBusters! A show that is supposed to challenge myths, and change peoples views. But when it comes to embracing metric, all Adam has to say is “we try.”  Adam, seriously, it sounds like an excuse which is as lame as: “the dog ate my homework.” Apparently you just don’t give a damn Adam, and don’t care to. As Jamie is silent, I can only assume the same. Your show is completely counter-factual to your anemic assertion that “we try” when it comes to metric. It appears that the use of measurement units in Mythbusters is at best thoughtlessly ad hoc, and at worst, willfully ignorant. How feckless. You and Jamie find the courage to have a bridge drop out from under you while you dangle in the air 50-75 meters above concrete below, but the metric system is too scary?—too much of a challenge?

Why am I so upset about this show? Why do I care?—after all it’s just one more program emanating from “the vast wasteland.” I care because I’m very certain that scores of young American children are inspired to consider Engineering or Science as vocations because of this program. The unfortunate fact is that MythBusters propagates the inculcation of the American hodgepodge of pigfish measuring units on television. This will acclimate another generation of aspiring Engineers and Scientists into accepting the US measurement status-quo. Because of this learned comfort for a farrago of mixed measurement units is being inculcated into another generation of youth, metric will not move forward a millimeter in the US for at least another generation.

I’m an enthusiastic fan of the show’s premise, but find the execution of it by the Mythbusters cohort to be at best amateur, and at worst ignorant, when measurement units are involved. MythBusters seems to encourage an attitude of “just make it up as you go kids!—grams and inches—milliliters and ounces—no problem, don’t worry about it—–we’re doing science!”

Adam appears to be fishing for some manner of absolution by saying:: “we do both [English and metric units] sometimes.”  Why how “fair and balanced” of you. Adam, seriously, take time from being feted, and read Naughtin’s 1st Law: Dual Scale Instruments are Evil. The rest of Naughtin’s Laws are here, but I suggest you don’t take my website’s word for it, how about watching one of his lectures about metric? You will also hear his “don’t dual with dual” assertion. Perhaps you might even check out his Metrication Matters website and learn a bit about the system your show ignores and 95% of the world uses.

The story behind the creation of MythBusters is curious. Here is what Wikipedia has to say in it’s first sentence:

MythBusters is a science entertainment TV program created and produced by Australia’s Beyond Television Productions[1] for the Discovery Channel. The series is screened by numerous international broadcasters, including SBS Australia, 7mate Australia, and other Discovery channels worldwide

The entry continues: “Filming is based in San Francisco, though some elements of production are done in Artarmon, Australia.”

So MythBusters was proposed and created by an Australian Television Company!  Australia is the one English speaking country where metric is ubiquitous. Houses in Australia are all built in  millimeters and meters only. The Land of Oz is where one can purchase 300 mm, 600 mm, and 1000 mm metric only rulers (and tape measures) at the Land Down Under’s local equivalent of The Home Depot. You can be certain you’re not in Kansas anymore when that happens. You order your steaks in grams there.  Kilojoules are what one counts when on a diet in Oz, and not Calories (1000 calories = 1 Calorie). Was there not one discussion of exclusively using metric units in MythBusters by its Australian creators?! Inquiring Metric Mavens want to know.

Since 2003, the MythBusters have used measurement units with a contempt that is so reckless, that I suspect it is born of complete ignorance. I will give you one example, but choose almost any episode where multiple measurement units occur, and you will get showered with a farrago of Furlongs per Fortnight measurement units and metric mixed in without distinction.

In one program segment entitled   Fireworks Man,  Grant, Tory and Kari need to measure how much known weights will decrease the speed of a commercially available fireworks rocket. They set up a yellow and black 32 foot scale, in one foot increments, against which they photograph the rockets to determine their speed. They compute the speed of an unloaded rocket as 80 feet per second, then convert it to 55 miles per hour.

This triumvirate of technology next add nuts, which each weigh 50 grams, to reduce the rocket speed. They determine the optimum load (50% reduction in speed) is 150 grams. Grant then states: “Well with 400 rockets, 150 grams that’s 60 kilograms. That’s a carrying capacity of about a 130 pounds.” Feet, miles, grams, kilograms, pounds. The rockets were not powerful enough for 400 of them to possibly lift a man.

The myth is supposedly German in origin, which leads Kari, Tory and Grant to discover that commercially available European fireworks have more thrust than their American counterparts. The European rockets can carry 300 grams per rocket. The graphics for all the tests show the results in miles per hour against weight in grams.

In the full scale test, black powder is used to produce a synchronous ignition of the rocket engines. As Tory is pouring in the black powder He says: “Now I know this might not seem like a lot of black powder, but I’m actually using six ounces, I mean that would be plenty to fire off a cannon ball.” The MythBusters segment has now used feet, miles, grams, kilograms, pounds, and ounces (by weight not volume I assume?).

According to Wikipedia, when the MythBusters show is shown in some countries:

The United States customary units, used by the hosts throughout the show, are converted to metric in the process. Sometimes, the part where the myth is explained in sketches is completely redrawn in that language.

Seriously, is America ever going to grow up and face up to the importance of metrication? Apparently Adam’s cavalier attitude verifies to me that we need mandatory metric legislation to change our schools, industry and government to metric. Otherwise Adam Savage’s descendants will also be prisoners of “english system” inculcation. The MetricBusters have become so celebrated, they are now Dr. Adam Savage and Dr. Jamie Hynaman. According to Wikipedia:

Hyneman and Savage received honorary doctorates from the University of Twente in the Netherlands for their role in popularizing science, on the occasion of the university’s 50th anniversary, on November 25, 2011.[65]

Right through The Metric Maven’s heart! The country which has used metric the longest, awarded them Doctorates.

Well, add another 100 years before metric is possible in this country. You can thank Adam and Jamie, The MetricBusters, for doing their part. With friends like them, who needs reactionaries?

If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page.