A Question of Convenience


By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My favorite meat market is supervised by a long-time Irish immigrant to the US. He is of good humor and was pleasantly surprised when he realized why I came in and generally ordered 0.45 pounds of hamburger. “It’s 200 grams” I pointed out one day. Like most persons who have lived in countries with the metric system he immediately exclaimed “The weights and measures here are crazy, I don’t understand why they do it. It took me a long time to get used to them.”

He noted that people can be very exacting about their measures. One day a patron asked for a steak cut to one-quarter of an inch. When it was placed on the scale, the Irishman asked if that was good. The customer reached into his pocket, produced a tape measure, measured the steak’s thickness and indicated it was close enough. The Irishman was floored by this.

During the Winter, I generally carry a millimeter-only tape measure with me. I produced it and told him that from now on I was going to demand my steaks be to the millimeter. The Irishman assumed it was an inch measure, so I pointed out that it wasn’t. He was so surprised he came around to the customer side of the meat counter to get a better look at it. We commiserated about the lack of the metric system in the US. Now and then when I would come in I would pull out the tape measure and say “I need steak—to the millimeter.”

The market has been around since the 1940s and is still a “small-town” feeling independently owned family business. The people behind the counter recognize me when I do business there. One day I was asked “You’re the metric guy—right?” I admitted I am. He asked: “If we switched over to metric, how would we do business? how would we measure things?” I told him that only grams would be used mostly, and pointed to my blog showing how the UK packages its foodstuffs. “You would think of 1000 grams as a Kilogram or 2500 grams as 2.5 Kilograms with very little thought.” The values you would use would generally be all integers without a need for decimal points. He seemed interested. Liquids would all be measured in milliliters and would also be integer values without decimal points. You would sell 300 mL of barbecue sauce, or 250 mL of mustard, it would all be simple numbers. The person behind the counter was still not convinced. I jokingly said I would report his intransigence to the Irishman.

As I was driving back to my residence with my 200 grams of ground beef, I wondered what the best value for pre-packaging might be. When one goes into an ordinary chain grocery store in the US (not my meat market) the beef is generally found in one-pound packages. They are not really 1 LB, they are 1.15, 1.2, 1.1 and so on. Now and then you will find some that are 1.00, but it’s not a requirement obviously. It struck me that the constant argument for Ye Olde English measures is how convenient they are, despite their obvious awkwardness as in the case of pounds and ounces. If you buy one pound of hamburger you can make it two 0.5 LB patties, or three 0.333 pound patties or four 0.25 LB patties. One of the weird arguments made about the meter is that you have to have 0.333 meters when it is divided in three and so without a metric foot the metric system is somehow incomplete and irrational. If the embracers of medieval measures believe this is a valid argument for length, they should also consider it a problem for weight (mass) in Ye Olde English.

It struck me that pre-packaged ground beef could be sold in 600 gram packages. This would make it easy to have two 300 gram patties, or three 200 gram patties, or four 150 gram patties, or five 120 gram patties, or six 100 gram patties. Seven doesn’t work, but you see the point. This is similar to the choice of 600 mm center to center separation in millimeter only metric construction. It makes the simple arithmetic easy and generally works out to whole numbers. Of course this would also be true for 600 mL volumes, should one be interested in dividing them up in the most utilitarian way possible. When I had custom mm only metric rules fabricated to give to my best clients I chose 600 mm. It seemed long enough to measure a large number of everyday engineering objects, and also was a number which is easily divisible with a large number of integers.

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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.



By 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

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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.