It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again (1916-2016)


By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The title of this essay is of course a famous quotation attributed to Yogi Berra. It also expresses my experience when I decided to see what was said in early 20th century issues of the American Machinist magazine from about a century ago. This interest was precipitated when I noticed a large number of hits from a subreddit about propaganda posters connecting to The Metric Maven website.

Most people think that US metrication (or the lack of it) first took place in the 1970s, and, along with mint green leisure suits, is relegated solely to “The Decade That Taste Left Behind.” The early 20th century saw a number of attempts by people like John Shafroth to pass mandatory metric legislation (something not even contemplated in the 1970s). It was very strange to realize that the same arguments and issues that are discussed by metric advocates in 2016 were also present in 1916.

The 1916 issues of American Machinist are interesting in that one would have expected their pages to be complete polemics against the metric system as the editor, Ethan Viall, is completely anti-metric. To my surprise, some of the best arguments for adopting metric are found in its pages, but written as letters to the editor.


The pages of this weekly devote more and more column-millimeters to anti-metric prose as the 1921 metric hearings approach. One common “argument” found within its pages is that metric people are just a bunch of longhairs. For instance, in 1920 (Vol. 53, No. 2 pg 70) we read:

Theory (Calculate) vs. Use

In discussing the pros and cons of the metric question, it has been aptly said that the pros are represented by by the professors and the cons by the constructors.

Also (Vol. 45, No. 18 pg 780) editor Ethan Viall asserts:

[… As to the men who want the metric system so badly, they seem to be scientists and pseudo-scientists who have use for units of measurement to put down the sizes of things that exist, but not for the dimensions of things to be made — Editor]


In the last few years I have come in contact with scientists and professors, among them chemists and so-called chemical engineers. These men generally used dimensions and measures in the abstract only in their calculations and in the investigations of the many problems presented to them. Many of them have no conception of the mechanical limitations encountered in the development of their ideas into commercial propositions, and they therefore become strong advocates of the metric system, which for their work has some advantages. (Vol 45, No. 19 pg 828)

Of course the work of scientists is not “real work.” Editor, Ethan Viall, in response to some of the letters to the editor, finally resorts to a technical Darwinism argument against metric:

[The metric system is not established to the exclusion of all others in any country that we know. In Germany the inch  (Zoll) is still largely used, and in France the inch (pouce) is also extensively used. “The Metric Fallacy,” will give Mr. Greenleaf a lot of information on the different standards used in so-called metric countries.—Editor]

Ethan Viall asks: if metric is so great, why isn’t imperial/Olde English extinct in the wild? This of course assumes that humans are rational beings, an assumption that appears inconsistent with its author’s own views, and one’s general experience with life. Finally, Frederick Halsey’s sad polemic The Metric Fallacy is offered up as a pound of prose, that, independent of content, vanquishes a Yottagram of reason. For Halsey, questionnaires are an excellent substitute for investigation, and a single use of non-metric in a metric country means that metric Tinkerbell has died.

Some of the letters to the editor are fanciful, such as a long-winded argument for a base 8 measurement system. Others introduce cogent and recognizable contemporary arguments. What is most interesting, is the pro writings all seem to understand the importance of millimeters. Centimeters are generally introduced by detractors. One millimeter example is a letter to the editor from Adolf Langsner of Chicago Illinois:


In all our industries of light and medium nature no one, from the tool maker down to the machinist apprentice, can get along without a number of tables that the metric man would ignore entirely. Here is a little conversation which actually took place and which shows characteristically where the English system is of advantage to a modern industry:

Scene—in a medium-sized shop. Jim (who came from the other end of the floor): “Say, Fred, what size drill must I take for a 19/64-in. reamed hole?” Fred, a little surprised: “Why, ain’t ye have yer drill gauge!”

After pausing a while Fred continued: “Oh, I see; 19/64 in. is larger than a quarter, and No. 1 drill is the largest in the gauge. Well, how much is 19/64 in.?”

Jim took his “mike” out of the apron. Looking at it he gave the equivalent, 0.2968. “Oh, well,” he added, “let’s make it 0.297.”

Fred was well pleased with the change in decimals, because he instantly exclaimed, “That’s better.” He crossed out the first figure and wrote the second down. “Let me see,” Fred continued a while, “I think a drill in the neighborhood of about 0.288 to 0.20 in. will be right.”

“Ain’t ye smart?” shouted Jim again, “I know all that myself. What I want to know is the number or letter of such a drill.”

“I ain’t have not table; we have to ask Lang,” replied Fred.

Both repeated the story to me. While I took out my “American Machinist’s Handbook” and looked up index and page for letter-size drills, Jim, Fred and Gus, who “butted in” to see what the argument was, had a little conference. The question came up whether a 9/32-in. drill was not big enough. Jim assured them that 1/64 was too much to ream and that he had to make fifty pieces in a hurry. In the meantime I found that letter “L” drill is 0.290 in.

Here is a case where four men spent about fifteen minutes. The “Old Man” did not know that Jim had to get special information for the hurry job. Neither did the efficiency man know that an hour’s time was wasted and that such time is lost daily. Otherwise he might have introduced some new, efficient system—namely, the metric system.

If the man in the metric shop has to ream a 7.5-mm. hole (about 19/64 in.), he knows instantly that 7.4 and 7.3 drills are the nearest smaller sizes he can use. Suppose the same man has to make some special screws, say 5-mm. thread and 10.5 head. At once he knows that his two diameters have to be the same as given. On the other hand, if the man with the English standard has to make similar screws, say 10-32 with 13/32-in. head, the first thing he has to do is to “look up” what diameter No. 10 is and then get the decimal equivalent of 13/32.

We cannot get away from the fact that, whether calculations are done on the drafting table, in the raw material department or in the shop, there is always a necessity of converting fractions into decimals and vice-versa. These conversions alone have caused many a job to be “junked,” and a “firing” followed, no to mention the confusing mass of data of different wire gauges, sheet-metal gauges and other standards that cause endless trouble and waste of thousands of hours daily. …..

This was indeed deja vu all over again. My essay Without Metric Threads We’re Screwed points out that machinists still find calipers or use a micrometer to determine the decimal equivalents of drill bit sizes. Drill bit sizes come in fractions of an inch or number letter designations, but not in decimal inches. One cannot immediately know what drill size one needs for a 10-32 screw as the designations are uncoordinated and were created in the wonderland of technical Darwinism. I touch on this in my essay A Hole in The Screw Head. If one wants to drill a hole that is the same size as an M7 fastener (7 mm diameter) then one would locate a 7 mm drill bit. Fraction to decimal conversion charts are ubiquitous in shops throughout the US. If we used the metric system, they would be as obsolete as slide rules. Further, metric drill bits are not found in any US hardware stores, as I point out in my essay Yes! We Have No Metric Drill Bits. But who am I to question Metric Philosophers and their powerful philosophy of technical Darwinism that encompasses their imaginary ecosystem of rational human beings?

More often what one discovers is that humans have spent time learning a way to do something and are terrified that this knowledge will become obsolete. Rationality has nothing to do with their choice. I wrote the essay Isaac Asimov–Technophobe to address this issue. This concern was as true in 1916 as it is today. In a letter to the editor, Martin H. Ball of Watervliet, NY has  this to say:

If, instead of worshiping the theoretical, the rabid advocates of the metric system will divert their efforts toward changing the units of that system to dimensions that are thinkable, they will be doing me a good turn. …  the length of the meter [should be] changed to 40 inches. That would divert their attention to something practical.

As I have said before, it has cost me years of hard work to get the technical education that I now have, and to rob me of it is no more right than it is to rob me of any other of my possessions. And to make me think and work in the metric system would be doing just that.” (American Machinist 1916-09-28 pg 561).

It’s deja vu all over again!

One aspect that is lost on all these machinists in 1916 is that a single value for the inch did not exist, which caused confusion and scrap. It was not until 1959 when it was decided that 25.4 mm is an inch, just before Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and all the other “Anglo-Saxon” English-speaking countries, with the exception of the US, decided to become metric in the 1970s and make the agreement moot.

One self-described “practical man,” W. Osborne of Oil City, Pennsylvania, had this to say (Vol. 45, No. 13 pg 560) in American Machinist:

A practical man might have realized that the diameter of the earth could not be measured correctly without instruments,. ….

Indeed, instruments are a good idea, but I’m not sure why the diameter of the Earth is brought into a metric discussion when it was the circumference of the Earth that was of interest. The “practical” man goes on to inform us:

Now the meter is a piece of metal that the United States Government says is 39.37 in. long in the United States, but a little bit longer than that according to some textbooks. One of the books states that it is 39.37043 in., another that it is 39.3707904 in., and still another states that it is 39.36996 in.

As I am a citizen of the United States, 39.37 in. it legally is to me, and I’m rather forced to think that our meter is either 39.37 times our inch or else our inch is the meter divided by that number. I am not certain which is which, but I do know that if I am reading in the English system and trying to think in the metric system, my inches must be divided by 39.37 and the answer pointed off at the right place to have them changed to centimeters.

Centimeters are for detractors and millimeters for metric allies in the pages of American Machinist. But the author does not seem to realize that in 1916 “our inch” does not exist other than as defined by the metric system. The inch as a separate independent standard did not exist. The decision to define the US inch using metric standards was made by a practical man, who realized that the imperial yard standard from Great Britain was not stable or workable. He took the practical step of defining the US inch in terms of the only practical standard available, that of a meter. Congress would not act, so this practical man saw that practical instruments required that he define the US yard as 3600/3937 meters.

This practical man was, of course, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall. Thankfully, so as not to injure the sensibilities of the “practical” author of this letter to the editor, Mendenhall was an autodidact. He was also a great promoter of the metric system. The calibration of all the instruments Mr. Osborne would use during his life could be traced back to a metric bar in Mr. Mendenhall’s care. Our inch, is a metric inch. defined from the length of a meter.

Carl F. Jeansen, Ordinance Engineer at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C. related how Sweden converted to metric in five years. After that, a contract in any other system of units was no longer legal, and had no standing in court. Mr. Jeansen was at the Gothenburg Mechanical Works, which employed somewhere around 1000 to 1200 men when the change to metric occurred (American Machinist Vol. 45, No. 26 pg 1136):

The change from inches to millimeters was immediately started. All new drawings were made in the metric system, and when an old drawing was to be used the dimensions in millimeters added. At that time Swedish, English and Prussian inches were used in shop work. It was a relief to throw them out and use millimeters. In this shop the metric system reduced the number of errors in the drafting room and the cost of manufacture.

The change was carried through with practically no expense whatsoever. The taps in the Whitworth system were kept as they had to be used for repair work. Later on metric taps were gradually substituted.

When the American Machinist presented an article comparing the inch-pound non-system and metric in 1920 (“The English and the Metric Measuring System—A Comparison” 1920-11-11 pg 511), the centimeter is crammed in for rhetorical use. But first technical Darwinism must be introduced, after pointing out how great the US and Great Britain are as industrial powers:

This does not imply that the English system of measurements is perfect. Some of its units and sub-divisions have become obsolete by disuse. This is as it should be. It is a matter of evolution and growth stimulated by experience and changed conditions…”

Then the “primary units” of the metric system are introduced:


The accompanying illustrations. Figs. 1 and 2, show some relative comparisons of English and metric units of length. A study of Inch-Foot-Yard and Centimeter-Decimeter-Meter will show at once that the former three dimensions harmonize perfectly for practical use, while in the latter the unit sub-divisions of the meter represent too great a step from the meter itself. In the “inch” and “centimeter” the same defect is apparent, to which is added, the “indivisibility” of the centimeter into 1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and so on as compared with the inch.


Despite the fact that in the very pages of American Machinist, the pro-metric letters to the editor implement millimeters, and a centimeter is not to be found,  their formal comparison article offers up the centimeter as a bad version of an inch (which it is). After subjecting the rest of the metric system to this “analysis” the conclusion is obvious, just before the 1921 metric hearings they offer a Goldilocks conclusion:


Briefly stated the metric system is devoid of the English system’s handiness and convenience; its units are either too large or too small for the every-day requirements of industry. From the English system many sub-divisions have been dropped, having outlived their usefulness; thus proving the English system’s adaptability to the requirements of progress. The metric system, on the other hand, presents a rigid structure incapable of modifications and requiring conditions to adapt themselves to its use.

Fredrick Halsey resumed his metric salvos of ignorance in 1917 within the pages of American Machinist. Again the introduction of centimeters as a pseudo-inch was employed as grist for Halsey’s rhetorical mill:

Fig. 1 shows an English and a metric scale in contact. The lines upon the English scale give the dimensions to which things have always been made in English-speaking countries, and reduced to its lowest terms, the proposition before us is that these sizes shall be abandoned and those shown on the metric scale be substituted for them.


It is difficult to believe that Mr. Halsey is not aware of what he is doing. The pages of American Machinist are filled with millimeters as the “practical” small unit for metric work, yet as I show in my essay The Metric Fallacy?, he appears to have called a centimeter scale a millimeter one to make the metric system seem to be a more confusing version of inches. Here he is more cautious and uses the terms “English and metric scales”  rather than labeling a centimeter scale as a scale of millimeters. This is a curious difference compared to his earlier writing and I suspect it is not by accident.

Halsey’s article is almost embarrassing in its juvenile arguments. I will not burden the reader with examples from it.

Elsewhere, simplicity is sacrificed for the “practical” so that a non-metric world can be maintained. One letter to the editor attacked the idea of pipe sizes in metric. The author used conversions from Ye Olde English to argue the equivalent sizes obtained were odd and unworkable. In a reply, it was pointed out that one could easily change pipe sizes to simple integer millimeter dimensions in terms of fractions (American Machinist 1916-11-23 pg 915):


Under the banner, Letters from Practical Men, a conversion chart for inches to millimeters is offered in December of 1916:


Over and over it is apparent to all those involved and familiar with metric in the pages of the American Machinist, that millimeters are the unit of choice, but Ye Olde English habits die hard and they adversely affect the metric system. J. Pearlman of Walthamstow, England offers to show us how simple metric conversion is:

Let us proceed to convert 50,204,378 mm to kilometers. Starting from the right-hand side tick off each figure–50 km., 2 hm., 0 decam., 4 m, 3 decim., 7 cm., 8 mm. With the other system the process would be, first divide by 12, then by 3, then multiply by 2 and divide by 11, then divide by 40, then by 8.

Wow, as I’ve pointed out in previous essays, even this baroque use of the metric system seems simpler to the contemporaries of 1916 than Imperial/Ye Olde English. Today, the prefix cluster around unity is eschewed and we write this value as 50 204 378 mm. The triads immediately show us this value is 50 204 meters, or essentially 50 Km if it were a value to be placed on a roadway sign.

Again it’s deja vu all over again as I addressed this in my essays Naughtin and 1929 and Familiarity Versus Simplicity.

It is not deja vu all over again for the rest of the world. They have embraced the metric system.

Updated on 2017-01-09

Related Essay:

The Metric Fallacy?

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.

4 thoughts on “It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again (1916-2016)

  1. What I would like to know is: How, then, did (and do) we manage to get away with it for so long?! How did we manage to produce the quality and quantity of work that we did, without a rational system?!
    Nowadays we can maybe get away with it, because we can farm the hard work out to electronics (I can easily imagine a “digital” micrometer that directly shows wire gauges or drill sizes or what-have-you: do such micrometers exist in reality?), but how could we have possibly managed to get away with so much for so long?! Look up videos on YouTube, showing 100-year-old devices still in excellent working order: here’s one such video, does it amaze you?

  2. Don’t know if J. Pearlman threw you off, but the conversion of mm to Km is off by a factor of 1000.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. It should have been two commas. The original is hard to read and the second comma looked like a decimal point. Today we would use spaces.

  3. Thanks for an informative and fascinating site.
    I’m 63 and I experienced the height of our failed US attempt at metrication in the 1970s. Visited Canada where they had a DIFFERENT archaic system of Imperial Gallons; a good place to vacation while we had “gas lines” and they didn’t. Canada then smoothly proceeded -mandatorily- to liters of gasoline and KM road signs & speed limits such as 100 km/hr.

    So in my 20s I was certain we’d track the same path as Canada; a great time to do it, Together. And we in the US DID so momentarily, with gas stations briefly selling by the liter as I recall thinking, if it stays this way, of course we’ll get used to it. Apparently, most of our conversion attempts, while beginning simultaneously with Canada’s, were NOT mandatory. And being like Canada was not enough to encourage VOLUNTARY conversion.

    Now we have a permanent state of metric Coca~Cola, wine and liquor, and archaic beer still sold in 12-oz and 16-oz units. Most beer lovers probably know (355 ml) by photographic memory. Gas stations switched instantly back to US Gallons & road signs for distance and speed limits went quickly back to miles & mph.

    But one question remains: Stewart Brand, 78, is one of America’s first environmentalists, having published the Whole Earth catalog when energy saving products were not available on any internet, and having had some involvement with the first “Earth Day” in 1970 when he was already a veteran environmentalist. A living survivor and founding father of all “Green” causes in North America and the world today. But Mr Brand historically is known as a VEHEMENT OPPONENT of the metric system! I can find this historical fact, but I can not seem to uncover WHY. Why did Stewart Brand FIGHT the metric system, and why does he hate it??? Have you seen or heard any of his reasons?

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