By The Metric Maven
This last Fourth of July, I took a long drive back to the small Iowa town where I spent some of my early years. The mind has plenty of time to wander and as I turned off of the interstate and saw all the fields of corn and soybeans, a life-long cliche automatically intruded. It is “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” It suddenly struck me this was a saying that involved measurement, but one had to wonder just how good this aphorism is. When I consulted Wikipedia I found true understatement:
I estimate that much of the corn in my home county was about one-meter high on the Fourth of July. When I measured my “knee-high” length, it is about 500 mm, so this means modern corn is about twice the size it was when this phrase was coined.
My stream of consciousness connected with a pair of other measurement based incidents that took place in my hamlet. The town has a small soda fountain in the local drugstore, and did when I was a boy. One of the other local boys pointed out that if you ordered two small sodas, the total volume was about half as much larger than the single large soda. In other words if the large soda was 200 mL, the two small sodas were each about 125 mL or 250 mL total. The price of two small sodas was the same as the large soda. When I realized this was true, I felt odd ordering two smalls, and sitting at the soda counter sipping them down. I felt like I was doing something very untoward. Others began to order the same way, and apparently the proprietor realized what was happening and eliminated the small soda from the menu.
I drove along the old highway past Blairsburg Iowa where there is a large wind farm. There are wind generators as far as the eye can see. About 27% of Iowa’s electricity is generated with wind power. According to Wikipedia, in 2014 Iowa’s Wind Farms generated about 59 Petajoules of Energy. When I was a boy, these were all corn and soybean fields. They are still dominated by crops, but now the fields are punctuated with wind generators.
As I thought about change, a story came to mind that illustrated a problem that those who would introduce change face. One day a contractor was attempting to set stakes into the ground to create a form so that he could pour a concrete slab for a garage entrance. He kept adjusting the stakes and then trying to check to see if they were square. This process was progressing very slowly. My father pointed out that if you took the width between the stakes, and the length you were trying to achieve, square each number, add them, and take the square root, the result will be the diagonal length between corner stakes when they are square. When the two diagonal distances are equal (and equal to the value computed) then it should be square. Alternatively one can design a pad with 6 x 8 foot sides which have a 10 foot diagonals and eliminate any computation whatever. When both diagonals are 10 feet, it should be square
The contractor had been doing this type of work for decades, and exploded. He did not want to be told how to do his job. After much discussion, the contractor calmed down and finally decided to consider looking at the method. Quite often fear of ignorance can cause visceral reactions. People underestimate the amount of measurement which is performed each day in our modern world, and because of this, the importance of measurement methods is diminished and often dismissed.
While I was in town, I attended a breakfast sponsored by the local fire department. This is a social function where I often run into people I’ve known since childhood, and that Sunday was no different. I was quite pleased (and surprised) that a local computer technician told me he has been reading my essays for sometime. A local attorney dropped by my table to verify I am the Metric Maven and told me he found a lot of my essays of great interest. His countenance then became a bit serious and filled with concern. “You realize that you are going to be disappointed if you get it in your mind that we will ever become metric—let alone in your lifetime.” I told him that I had a good understanding of the situation.
As I drove back to my home the next day, I thought about how fatalistic many, many people are about the possibility that the U.S. could become metric. As the black and white center stripes flashed past me on the interstate, and I contemplated the lack of change which has occurred over the last 150 years, I looked up at an oversize load and saw this:
The designation on the load was so out of context in the U.S., that my mind did not immediately process it. The realization came on slowly. The Greek letter phi is used to designate diameter on technical drawings. The diameter of the outer orange cover, on the oversize load has a diameter of 4300 mm, and it is clearly written and stated only in metric. The unit designation mm has no space between the integer and itself, which makes one suspect it was not made in the U.S.
What is this oversize load? I believe it is part of the pedestal of a wind generator on its way for assembly at a wind farm. I wondered how many people passing by would look at the label and realize that it states the diameter of the end is 4300 millimeters. Very few I suspect. Perhaps only me? Metric ever so slowly drips into the U.S. with the build-up rate of a stalagmite, but it is currently like a foreign language that is readily ignored, and never used. One cannot even purchase a millimeter only tape-measure in a U.S. hardware store. We are apparently impervious to change and insist that no one tell us how to do our job. The rest of the world is metric, and some like Australia and the UK use it very effectively for construction and manufacturing. We’ve chosen ignorance, which means that others will probably construct our future.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.