America’s Skeuomorph Measurements

By The Metric Maven

Metric Day Edition

I’ve always wished I knew more about architecture, but don’t seem to have the drive, or take the time to learn.  My friend Sven has taken time, and it is often an enriching experience to hear him relate details about a building’s design as we walk the streets of our metropolis. Learning about a subject often forever changes one’s world and enriches it a the same time.

Sven introduced me to a term that I’ve discovered to have great utility in describing my world. It is the word skeuomorph (aka skiamorph). The definition which Wikipedia offers which I find most appropriate is:

A similar alternative definition of skeuomorph is “an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material”.[5]

Skeuomorphs are deliberately employed to make the new look comfortably old and familiar, or are simply habits too deeply ingrained to wash away.[4] Donald Norman, an academic in the fields of design, usability, and cognitive science describes cultural constraints, interactions with the system in question that are learned only through culture, which give rise to skeuomorphism. Norman also popularized perceived affordances, where the user can tell what an object affords, or will do, based on its appearance, which skeuomorphism can make easy.[6]

Examples of skeuomorphs are the click made by a digital camera so it sounds like a mechanical predecessor. Plastic “wood” paneling on station wagons and cars so they look like woodies. Also the stationary, stylized fake shutters which offer no protection, but are placed on either side of windows to appear similar to the original functional ones is a skeuomorph.

The very fact that change has occurred can be viewed by some as too radical for the public to digest, and others would rather not have a confrontation. The authorities involved find it much easier to hide a change than to reveal it has occurred. One fact is that on October 16th, 1834 the British Parliament building went up in flames. It is said that the burning of wooden tally sticks was to blame. The British standard yard, and the British standard pound were destroyed by the fire. Nine years later in 1843 a new standards commission was formed to construct new standards. The British created a new Troy pound  and legalized it in 1855.  Two copies of the yard and one of the pound were sent to the US. Unfortunately the yard standard was unstable, and it is my understanding the pound standard was created from two pieces, and would retain water. It was found to be unusable. At this point one suspects that learned men in the UK had begun to see the metric “writing on the wall.” In the US  T. C. Mendenhall found himself with no choice but to use the metric standards provided by the Treaty of the Meter. He had to make an executive decision to maintain the accuracy of measurement in the US. In their 1906 work Outlines of the Evolution of Weights and Measures and The Metric system, William Hallock and Herbert Wade relate on page 100:

Meantime the scientists and others had called for reforms in the British system which would involve more than merely the construction of new standards. In considering this subject, and especially in its bearing on the adoption of a decimal system, a committee of the House of Commons, reporting in 1862, stated that “it would involve almost as much difficulty to create a special decimal system of our own, as simply to adopt the metric decimal system in common with other nations. And, if we did so create a national system we would, in all likelihood, have to change it again in a few years, as the commerce and intercourse between nations increased into an international one.” The scientific men, and those who had been careful observers at international expositions and conventions, were now making their influence felt, and in 1864 was passed the Act mentioned above, which allowed the use of the metric system weights and measures.

Learned men in Britain tried to get the Metric System adopted as the single measurement system of the country, but their legislators allowed any changes to die by inaction. The US Congress mirrored the UK Parliament and inaction was always easier than considering a change. The US Constitution gives Congress the explicit power to legislate what measurements will be used in the US. Hallock and Wade observe in 1906 (page 110) that:

It is somewhat curious that the fixing of the weights and measures is almost the only power expressly and specifically conferred on Congress which that body has refrained from exercising down to the present time, notwithstanding its constant and most active interest in the coinage of money, as evinced by a vast amount of discussion and legislation.

Originally, the British version of inches, feet, yards and miles were all units which had their own artifacts and definitions. These have not been maintained since the adoption of the metric system. After the Mendenhall Order the inch, foot, yard and mile no longer had artifacts or direct definition as independent units of measure. It was at that point that the Olde English Units became a skeuomorph template which overlays the metric measurements. The skeuomorph measurements are cumbersome, inefficient and have long ago been abandoned by other countries, but provide calming assurance to the arrested society found in the US.

But when World War II broke out, it became obvious what measurement system we relied upon for our industry to function. In November 1945 The Chilliothe Constitution pointed out that for the duration of World War II, “..the standard meter and kilogram were carefully stored in the Bank of Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington. This was for fear of a bombing raid on the bureau of standards…” The Missouri newspaper also informed its readers:

“Those who have been urging that the U.S.A. adopt the metric system probably don’t realize it, but the meter and the kilogram have been the standard measurement of the bureau of standards for 50 years.

· · · But the bureau of standards has no standard foot or standard pound. It uses the metric system entirely and calculates the foot and the pound equivalents from meters and kilograms.”

So what is it that we are protecting by keeping current practices in place? We are simply protecting outdated skeuomorphs. A foot is just a useless skeuomorph placed upon the metric system to provide false comfort, after all just what is a foot anyway? Like any measurement “based” on human anatomy there is a distribution curve, baby feet are smaller than women’s feet are smaller than men’s feet. The size of feet in different cultures is different. The barleycorn, which is the basis of all Anglo-Saxon measurement varies from plant to plant, season to season, and the inch upon which the Anglo-Saxon inch is “based” has no correspondence to the multitude of inches from around the world. Others claim to have used the width of a thumb to define inches. Once again body parts, but from whose body? The yard?–body parts, the fathom?—body parts. As body parts are no rational basis for a measurement system, they can only be metaphors, and not measurements. So we are in fact protecting metaphorical dimensions with skeuomorphs. We seem to be the only country which is so uncomfortable with the modern world of 1906, that we still require a thumb to suck, and foot for our mouths when discussing measurements. America, it’s long past time we grew up and abandoned our irrational denial concerning measurement, and chose the efficiency and simplicity of the metric system.

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I saw a bumper sticker for sale this week which states:

4 Out Of 3 People Have Trouble With Fractions.

17 thoughts on “America’s Skeuomorph Measurements

  1. Something doesn’t seem right in your “inch skeuomorph” picture. The inches don’t match the metric.

    • I went back and looked again. It’s not that far off, very close to 25.4 mm for an inch—at least for a wooden ruler. Good enough for a skeuomorph.

      • It doesn’t really matter an inch is whatever you want it to be. The NIST, which is temporarily out of business (hopefully permanently) is the one who came up with those definitions full of decimal dust.

        • “Daniel,” your comment on NIST is not only idiotic (wishing that your own national standards institution, which maintains both systems of measure currently employed in the United States, closes forever), but completely incorrect, as the values established for the relationship between in.-lb. and metric units was determined by international committee in 1959.

          @MM, no need for the continued puerile name-calling.

          • I’ve been through this blog several time now. I can’t find an ad hominem, either abusive or circumstantial. Nor any instance of poisoning the well, guilt by association, tu quoque, red herring, straw man, or similar fallacy of relevancy. The only thing that has appeared here recently that could be called “puerile” or “name calling,” was in the last thread, when an inexplicably angry correspondent managed to insult the whole thread by asserting they were, pace capitalization, “Nobel candidates.” I doubt that was meant in a friendly manner.

            If you would quote the statement that has set you off, we can certainly discuss it rationally. Or not, as you prefer.

          • “Good enough for a skeuomorph.” The article in general, the article likening USC to “feral cats,” reduces itself to childish name calling.

            The notion that a system that has been in use and refined since the time of the Romans is some slip-shod, hodge-podge, half-assed imprecise cluster is insulting to all of us who profess a mastery in it.

            Perhaps you are confused due to the names our system shares in common with some less-successful offshoots that plagued continental Europe.

            The inch-pound system has enabled exceptional engineering on land, at sea, in the sky, and in the darkness of space. It is not a half-assed, good enough system.

          • The ancient Romans were exceptional enegineers, indeed; but their numbering system was rather cumbersome, too: besides the symbols (I, V, X, L, D, M and so on), it was essentially a mixture of decimal (for the “big” numbers and duodecimal (for fractions), with way too many different units, exactly as the USC “system”. Metric is a revolutionary evolution of all this, and can only be an improvement, while detracting nothing from the greatness of our ancestors. BTW, thanks to the Romans, it’s still good to have also the symbol X for 10 – as in Mac OS X, for example… 🙂

          • So “name calling” doesn’t imply ad hominem. Well, that’s one mystery less. Those interested in the Maven’s actual discussion of the feral nature of US units may find it here. The analogy is direct enough: a feral unit is one that has gotten loose, and all remnants of pedigree have been lost: it’s likely to be multiply defined and the responsible agencies may not be easily identified. Similarly, whether the term skeuomorph is appreciated or not, the painful fact is that any Independent standards for US units were lost or relegated to museums long ago, and US unit have been shadow-form overlays on top of metric standards for decades.

  2. Happy metric day to all. Down with the skeuomorphs!!! Great post Maven.

  3. You mentioned the report of 1862 to the British Government recommending the adoption of the metric system.
    It’s now 150 years since the recommendation was first made and the British still haven’t completed their conversion process. It looks as if their policy is being made by Metric Philosophers. ( )

  4. Your PS “I saw a bumper sticker for sale this week which states: 4 Out Of 3 People Have Trouble With Fractions” is a gem (other than that “which”, which should be “that”).
    Unfortunately, too many have trouble with decimal points too, with too many people writing “.99¢” for 99 cents…

  5. Do you remember this exceptional film, of the early ’70s…?

    Absolutely fantastic (by Douglas Trumbull and with Bruce Dern) – yet, while assertively being an avantgarde on the space travel (Saturn reached with manned flight at the very beginning of the 21. century! and even the American Airlines doing cargo in space! something we can only dream of, today…) and above all ecological front, they still used miles and degrees F (aaargh – vade retro!)…

    Not that this detracts from the excellent artistical merits of this rare kind of socially intelligent and engaged art – but, anyway, they could very well – also considering the favourable and “progressive” times – have promoted also the metric system, besides technology and ecology…!

  6. In Italian (great dubbers, BTW).. well, incredibly, even there they use miles (never used in Italy, except in the (aero)nautical sector); but degrees F aren’t mentioned, luckily:

    Anyway, the US were once capable of great things, but yet haven’t been able to convert to the metric system – an absurd contradiction, to say the least…

  7. … And today, it’s still the same: Freeman Lowell’s prophetical words in the film predicted a “future” in which people just “don’t care” – and that’s exactly why we have no future, today, but only an ever-changing, indifferent present, where nobody cares of anything really important to all.

    BTW: no common sense (and sensibility) of the future… no change (and, among other important things, no metrication in the US, sadly)…

    Horrible times, those we live in…

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