Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

Charles L McNary 1874-1944

Selected by The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The metric hearings of 1921 were presided over by Chairman Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon. During the hearings, a major concern of the Chairman, which he emphasized over and over, was his view that any time limit or deadline to require metrication was a bad idea. Metrication in ten years was just too restrictive and onerous. He argued that any metric transition should be open-ended. Here is what some of the people testifying had to say in response:



Mention was made of the time that it would take to do this. I am informed that in Sweden they enacted a similar act; that at the end of 10 years the metric system was to be in force and the only system in force. Then nobody thought anything about it until the ninth year. Consequently, they made a rush and the change was made in one year.


The Chairman. Don’t you think, Mr. Macfarren, that through a process of education in the schools it would result in the establishment of this system throughout the country, or by the Government leading, or by voluntary effort initiated by large concerns; or do you think it should be established by enforcement through some statute within some specified time — 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years, whatever may be the time provided by law?

Mr. Macfarren. It is undoubtedly the function and the duty of the Government to regulate weights and measures, and this Government has sadly neglected its duty In that regard, and It certainly should take the lead. My only criticism of the bill is that the Government does not undertake within a year or two or three, or much less time than 10, to do all its business in the metric system, and force the contractors who wish to do business with it that much.

As far as this limit of 10 years is concerned, the only objection I have is that it is too long. Germany took two years, and we are just as smart as the Germans.

The Chairman. What time would you suggest for the period of transition?

Mr. Macfarren. I should say five years would be the maximum. Immediately upon such a bill’s passage, or even on the passage of this bill, educational arrangements will be made to see that the next generation will be ready for it. And the saving will be effected for all future generations once and for all.


It is a great mistake to agitate in favor of a long transition period. This would mean a long period of watchful waiting, with the outcome that nobody would do anything toward adopting the new system until the time fixed had expired. Such a law would be forgotten before it ever became operative. The United States Government had this experience when the railroads were ordered to equip all freight cars with automatic couplers and continuous brakes. The railroads did nothing toward complying with the law until the allotted five years had expired. The time was then extended two years and seven months, during the last year of which most cars were equipped.

In the United States, between 1890 and 1917, 230,000 railroad employees were killed and over two million injured on the job. Clearly the dangers of being a brakeman before the introduction of the Westinghouse Air Brake was still fresh in the public’s mind and an instructive parable.

US Administration of the Philippines


Mr. Hord. My experience with the metric system was in the Philippines during the years 1906 to 1910. There was a law enacted by the Philippine Commission in August, 1906, making the use of metric weights and measures obligatory in the islands. At that time I was collector of internal revenue for the islands, and the enforcement of the law was placed in the internal revenue bureau.

The Chairman. The system was enforced upon the people there through enactment of a statute?

Mr. Hord. Yes, sir.

The Chairman. What was the period of transition allowed by the statute?

Mr. Hord. About seven months. The law was enacted August 8, 1906, and took effect January 1, 1907.

The Chairman. Was there any complaint against its enforcement or was it generally accepted in the seven months?

Mr. Hord. None whatever. The only delay, as I stated, was caused by our failure to get the standards quick enough.

Yes, the conversion was done in seven (7) months in the Philippines, by US administrators.

The US Military and Metric

In 1894 the Congress passed a law requiring that in the medical services of the United States the metric system should he solely employed and gave one year for the change. It went into effect on the 1st day of January. 1895, since which date no transaction in medicine, no prescription has been written except in the metric system. It apparently caused no disorder or confusion and could not possibly do so because of its extreme simplicity.

and a portent:

The Chairman. Do you believe in the provisions of this act which attempts to make it obligatory on the people of the country to adopt it in 10 years?

Dr. Parsons. I do.

The Chairman. You do not think it is proceeding fast enough now?

Dr. Parsons. No. That has been shown very plainly by past experience. We are too subject to the inertia of our race. It ls gradually coming. I have not any question whatsoever but what we will ultimately have the metric system and be forced to it by the rest of he world, but I hate to see the American people be the last in the procession.


The Chairman. Are there any provisions In this measure which you think should be modified, or that new provisions should be inserted; or do you think that the bill in its present form should be adopted?

Mr. Bearce. I am rather favorably disposed toward the suggestion that has already been made to have this time considerably shortened with reference to the Government: that is, have the bill apply to all transactions of the Government within a shorter period, possibly a year or two years…

The Chairman asked over and over why a farmer should care about metric. He could not see any advantage. Here is how one person responded:

“Did you ever wonder why it is that the boys of the corn clubs and pig clubs, around over the country, are raising better pigs at less cost and more corn per acre than their fathers ever raised? How do they do it? They do it by using a better system than their fathers used. It is not because they are instinctively any better farmers, but because they select better stock and better seed; because they prepare their feed and fertilizer in better proportions, and feed it and apply it in correct quantities. In other words, because they weigh and measure where their fathers guessed.

“As this weighing and measuring continues and increases among the coming generations of farmers, these young men are not going to be content to struggle along with an antiquated and cumbersome system. Many of them are already familiar with the metric system from using it in the Babcock test of milk and cream and in soil and fertilizer analyses. To these young men the complete adoption of the metric system would be an easy step gladly taken.

When Australia metricated in the 1970s farmers profited considerably. According to Kevin Wilks in his book Metrication in Australia:

One of the most useful changes in units used in agriculture was the simple change from points to millimetres of rain. This had particular significance in irrigation work. The simplification that this change brought the ordinary farmer allowed him to make his own irrigation calculations, something that was simply not possible in imperial units.

What was said about centimeters versus millimeters?

If we are going to work in the metric system we will think in the metric system, and you have no difficulty. You know how long a meter is, and you can visualize a meter; you can visualize a millimeter. Very few people pay any attention to the centimeter, as the millimeter is so easy to handle. A thousand millimeters is a meter.

Another thing: In our present system, when we are handling small apparatus, which I have been doing a good many years, the unit of 1 inch, which we now use, is not small enough, and we frequently speak of such dimensions as fifty-seven sixty-fourths. I ask you, can you visualize what fifty-seven sixty-fourths is? You can not. Hardly anybody else can. We don’t know what those things are. and as a rule engineers who are working with these matters every day use decimals instead of fractions; but we would rather use metric decimals than present decimals. If you wanted to write that in metric dimensions you would write 23 millimeters. You can visualize 23 millimeters. but you can not visualize fifty-seven sixty-fourths, because it is a very unusual dimension.

We have. for another example. a working drawing presented by a prominent locomotive company in the United States. It is a side and top view of an ordinary gauge cock. The drawing is full size. The words “all dimensions in millimeters” obviate the need for the familiar abbreviation, m. m. after the figures in the drawing. There are 39 dimensions noted, and not one of these includes a fraction of any kind. If inches had been used in the design and manufacture of this particular American product, only 6 of the 39 dimensions could reasonably have been expressed in an integral number of inches.

 That is. by doing the work in millimeters the inconvenience of 33 fractional numbers and the corresponding involved calculations were avoided. These two illustrations are typical of the saving effected in the measurement of length, area, volume, and in the more involved calculations. It may fairly be said that the more difficult the problem the greater is the advantage in having it worked out in the metric way.

The New System

Rather than accept the metric system, the anti-metric participants submitted a bill to change the US measures over to decimalized US measures. Here is what they had in mind:

Sam’L Russell was not content with the restrictions this table placed upon measurement in the US:

I am not contending for an exclusive decimal system. I believe that we ought to recognize and employ decimal duodecimal and binate fractions of the foot as may best comport with the convenience of trade, fabrication and mechanics. It would be unnecessary and indeed undesirable to restrict ourselves to decimal fractions.

There ought to be the utmost liberty in the use of so-called common or vulgar fractions, every person to accommodate his own convenience in the matter of the division of the foot.

As if the proposals had not created a gallimaufry of new measures, there were also plans to decimalize the avoirdupois ounce. It involved fractions.

Chairman Charles L. McNary would have seemed like a person who would have wholeheartedly backed metrication. His Wikipedia entry states:

Steve Neal, McNary’s biographer, describes McNary as a progressive who stuck with the Republican Party in 1910 even when many progressives left the party in favor of West, a Democrat.[7] McNary backed the Progressive Era reforms—the initiative, recall, referendum, primary elections, and the direct election of U.S. senators— of Oregonian William S. U’Ren, and he was an early supporter of public rather than private power companies.[11] After West won the election, he chose McNary to be special legal counsel to Oregon’s railroad commission; the appointee used the position to urge lower passenger and freight rates.[11] Meanwhile, McNary maintained friendly relations with both progressive and conservative factions of the Oregon Republicans as well as with West.[7]

The entry continues with a laundry list of progressive initiatives which were endorced by McNary.

McNary’s Wikipedia entry is completely silent on the issue of metric. It is never mentioned that he was Chairman of Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Manufactures or A Bill to Fix the Metric System of Weights and Measures as the Single Standard of Weights and Measures for Certain Uses. Why is it that the history of (non)metrication in the US so hidden?

Despite the overwhelming amount of pro-metric testimony at the hearings, and the fact that the bill did not require any manufacturers to use the metric system—ever, the Chairman, Charles L. McNary, argued that metric should be voluntary and gave his reason thus:

The Chairman. If the thing is uneconomical, then the great law or the science of commerce ought to adjust it. It does in other things. Why does  it not operate in this field if everybody is losing by it, from the packer to the consumer? Why does it not correct itself?

It is clear The Chairman was a Metric Philosopher. There was no need to pass this feckless voluntary bill, as metric would automatically happen if it was supposed to happen at all. Clearly it must be done without intervention. The Metric Philosopher’s Philosophy would take care of the problem.  The bill was never passed, and the testimony has been forgotten and left out of our history. What is it about the introduction of the metric system in the US that turns people of a progressive bent in the US, into reactionary obstructionists?

The US has been waiting 91 years following the 1921 hearings for this powerful philosophical juggernaut of inaction, endorsed by The Metric Philosophers, to produce a metric America. It has been 146 years since John Kasson was able to make metric legal in the US.  Every other country in the world (except for the tiny two) exclusively uses the metric system today. Apparently the rest of the world couldn’t afford to wait around for a plan that involved “waiting around for something to magically happen.”  I can’t imagine someone setting up a business, walking away, and expecting it to operate efficiently without any guidance, coordination, or intervention on their part. Why do Metric Philosophers believe this to be the case with implementation of the metric system?  Benjamin Franklin understood this well when he said “Drive thy business, or it will drive thee.”

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

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

The Metric Hearings of 1975 — The Limits of Social Norm in Metrication

A Tale of Two Iowans

Australian Metrication & US Procrastination

John Quincy Adams and The Metric System

An Open Letter Response To: “Supporting American Choices on Measurement”

Dr. Patrick Gallagher — Director of NIST

Dear Dr. Gallagher:

This open letter is in response to your email/post entitled Supporting American Choices on Measurement which you composed in response to a We The People petition, which calls for making the metric system (that is, SI) the exclusive measurement system of the United States. In brief, what you offer is not a substantive response to a reasonable petition for action on an increasingly urgent issue, but only condescension and airy rationalization for perpetuating our current bureaucratic stasis.

First, the metric system, is a system. The random collection of measures used in the US is not a system. They are neither equivalent nor comparable. I am disturbed that the head of NIST can speak of the metric system, and our potpourri of units, as even remotely comparable in either intellectual stature or technical merit. But far more important, the very thesis of Supporting American Choices on Measurement is false on the face of it, as there is no actual opportunity for a metric option in this nation. In my postings on metric, I have written about The Invisible Metric Embargo in the US, which does not allow me to purchase metric tools—despite my desires as a consumer. One simply cannot readily purchase metric-only, mm-only, tape measures, and other tools in the US. I’ve had to obtain mine from Australia to use in my Engineering Practice. They are the same tools that are used in metric building construction, which the US government has quietly abandoned after the 1990s. Metric construction saves 10-15% when compared with our non-system. The Australians have been reaping these metric rewards for over thirty years. I have detailed this in Building a Metric Shed. Over the counter medicines are allowed by your “freedom of choice” to offer only teaspoons and tablespoons. Feral Units Endanger Our Health details the teaspoon/tablespoon, gram/grain misdosage problem, which has been acknowledged by the medical community since at least 1902. Mandatory dosage cups in milliliters have been eschewed by industry for years, to the detriment of public health and justified, probably for the most part, by the need for “freedom of choice.”

I may have the choice to set my GPS to meters and kilometers, but I don’t have the choice to press a button within my car and change the road signs to meters and kilometers. The choice of only miles and feet (in vulgar fractions no less) on US road signs was decided by filibuster, in 1978, by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa. The details of how this mandatory requirement for miles and feet on US road signs came about, may be found in A Tale of Two Iowans. What channel do I watch to see a metric only, or even a metric any weather broadcast in the US? Metric measures in weather broadcasts also ended in the late 1970s. I would like to see snow and rain totals in millimeters, but I do not have that choice.

The public teachers of the 1970s began to teach metric, but quickly realized that the US was to be the only country (other than Liberia and Myanmar) which had a government that would not institute a true metric conversion. The teachers were left without a measurement ecosystem outside of their classroom to which they could teach, and so metric instruction was “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Metric instruction has become perfunctory.

If we actually had the completely open, voluntary system about which you sing peons of praise, then why is there any restriction on manufacturers to include labeling other than metric at this moment? And why do you have to work “to make it possible” for metric only labeling? If it is not allowed right now, then metric only is obviously not a voluntary choice for industry. The non-system of the US is mandatory.  It does not support your thesis that everyone has a choice.

That measurement units need “context” for meaning, and are chosen depending upon the given circumstances is nonsensical. Why not just create a new measurement unit for each circumstance—like medieval cultures did? The non-system we use in the US, measures feet in barleycorns (three barleycorns in an inch you know), to determine shoe size, instead of millimeters. What possible context makes the measurement of human feet require barleycorns as a unit? Perhaps a foot should be measured in feet? That seems like a logical context. My essay Brannock and Barleycorns might help you with context when considering this question.

You cite examples of multiple units which are in use and describe the same quantity as something wondrous which we should lionize. This is not an advantage, it is a problem called unit proliferation. In the US, people who work with tools have to needlessly purchase both metric and inch tools. This doubles the infrastructure cost for working Americans. It is also a large drag on our economy. Weights and measures is The Invisible Infrastructure of a nation. Ours is in complete decay, yet you celebrate this fact.

There is no “seamless transition” between metric and our non-system. Dual units only encourage unnecessary opportunities for mistakes. Metric minimizes them. The DART and Mars Climate Orbiter mission failures which occurred because of the “choice” to use multiple measurement units, are examples which should not be swept under the rug with charming prose, like “seamless transition.”

Incidentally, your statement that the metric system is universal in science and industry is also demonstrably false. I grant you that it should be, but I know from personal experience that the US aerospace industry is currently hamstrung by something called the mil. A mil is one thousandth of an inch. Now, you might suppose that this would be an ideal time for a metric conversion in US aerospace: after all, with the long-overdue retirement of the Space Shuttle, the United States has no astronaut-capable space vehicle. But the contract for Orion, the manned vehicle intended to replace the Shuttle, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, at least in part, on the understanding that all engineering would be submitted in thousandths of an inch.

Dr. Gallagher, your response has shown that, as I predicted, this petition would be a feckless exercise in futility, and of no lobbying value. The public is viewed not as We The People, but They The Powerless. Your response demonstrates an apparent technical ignorance about the metric system. It makes you appear to have not even a basic understanding of how the measurement system that powers engineering and science around the world is used, and it’s massive advantages for society as a whole.  I would think It should be obvious to a Director of NIST, that a measurement system and a spoken language are two completely different intellectual constructs. Especially a Director with a background in physics and philosophy. My essay Orwell and The Metric System might be instructive if you are unclear on this point.

To compare the measurement situation we face in the US to bilingual education is mendacious. Your whitewash of the history of how the current non-system of measurements were finally defined in terms of metric standards, hides the fact there was no other technical choice. There was no alternative. Without using the metric standards supplied from our signing of the Treaty of the Meter, science and industry in this nation could have ground to a halt. T.C. Mendehall had no choice but to announce that metric standards would be used to define our farrago of units. This is because of government inaction on mandating metrication, and the fact that no alternative measurement standards existed for our non-system. The Constitution tasks Congress with fixing the weights and measures of the US, which they have neglected with vigor from the founding of the republic.

As Director of NIST, I cannot comprehend how you could assert there is no weights and measurements problem in the US whatsoever, and everything is just hunky-dory. This is clearly not the case. I have written forty-six essays over the last year or so detailing how our lack of exclusive metrication, costs us money, endangers our health and decreases our industrial competitiveness. The late Pat Naughtin left a classic Google video lecture, and a mountain of information on how damaging it is for the US not to have metric. How can you have apparently not investigated any of it?—and included it in your response? The information is freely available. I can only ask with exasperation why are you not promoting the metric system?—why are you not engaged in the carrying out the task for which the public has employed you?–to promote standards. The metric system is the standard of ninety-five percent of the worlds population. Why are you not promoting this standard with the sense of urgency that it deserves?

Your choice to issue Supporting American Choices on Measurement late on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend is as transparently cynical as is your response. The timing is calculated to minimize or eliminate any press coverage with three days of distraction. In doing this you are blatantly, and apparently willfully, ignoring the 25,000 49,914 American citizens who signed the petition for the US to adopt the metric system. Because of your callous and dismissive treatment of an earnest request made by these citizens for the implementation of the metric system, this only leads to a justified belief that our public servants have no interest in serving the public, or the public interest.


The Metric Maven
US Citizen and Professional Engineer

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P.S. To my (at this point, fairly) long time readers, I would like to state that my next regularly scheduled blog on 2013-05-30, was written, and scheduled, long before Dr. Gallagher issued his response to the metric petition. When you read my upcoming blog, you will see the same manner of argument as Dr Gallagher’s has been offered for almost a century. Dr. Gallagher only parrots the antique prose in a contemporary fashion.