John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

By The Metric Maven

John Franklin Shafroth

June 9th is the birthday of John Franklin Shafroth (1854-1922). When I began researching the history of metrication initiatives in the US, John Shafroth’s name appeared over and over. I had never heard of him. It was ironic to discover he was a resident of “The Mile High City”—Denver Colorado.  Shafroth attempted to legislate the metric system as the standard of weights and measures for the United States. He is on record as supporting mandatory metric conversion bills from at least 1896 to his death in 1922. For twenty six years he did what he could to finally unify the “hammer to fit, paint to match” weights and measures still used in the United States to this day.

Shafroth was a US Representative, Governor and Senator from Colorado. He was able to usher in The National Bureau of Standards, now known as NIST. which earned praise from the President of MIT.

I contacted the three Authors of Honest John Shafroth — A Colorado Reformer. None of them were aware of his work on weights and measurement reform, nor were they surprised he had been involved. Shafroth was immersed in many issues of his day.

Shafroth managed to maintain his reputation at time when his political contemporaries were shown to be as corrupt as the Colorado River is long. When in 1904 Shafroth believed his opponent had won the election, he resigned. This earned him the name “Honest John.” John Shafroth was elected and held office as both a Republican and a Democrat, but could not get the country to adopt the metric system. The Denver Colorado resident was clearly not concerned about the city losing its Mile High prestige. It may be pointed out that the state of Colorado is the only one in which every square millimeter of land is above a kilometer. It is the Kilometer High State. We can replace 5280 by 1000 meters should they need a marketing replacement.

His bill to adopt the metric system was favorably reported by unanimous vote of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures on December 6, 1900. The effective date of when the metric system was to take effect was however moved to January 1, 1903.  Representative Shafroth asserted that “…all the civilized nations except Great Britain and the United States had adopted the metric system, Russia being the last to do so a few weeks ago.”  The New York Times  quoted the wording of the metrication bill on December 7, 1900 in their article, Favor The Metric System:

That on and after Jan. 1, 1903, all the departments of the Government of the United States in the transaction of all business requiring the use of weight and measurement, except in completing the survey of public lands, shall employ and use only the weights and measures of the metric system, and on and after Jan. 1, 1903, the weights and measurements of the metric system shall be the legal standard weights and measures of and in the United States.

The proposed bill never made it to The House floor, and vanished with the adjournment of the 56th Congress. Shafroth would introduce the bill again in the 57th Congress, and again on the first day of the 58th Congress.

Shafroth’s opponents labeled it The Metric “Force'” Bill. The Friday, May 16, 1902 issue of The San Francisco Call offered its view of the metric bill:

…it has become known among the opponents of the system as the “metric force bill,” and a good deal of opposition has been arrayed against it.

It is quite probable that an attempt to bring about the general use of the metric system in this country by a drastic measure of compulsion would be unpopular and would rouse a discontent that would go far to defeat the desired object, but still it is not easy to see how the improvement  can be brought about by any other means. The way to adopt the system is to adopt it, and that can be effected only by governmental action, for it is only through the Government that there can be brought about that wide-spread simultaneous acceptance of the change which is essential to its success. It required legislative act to reform the calendar, to establish a decimal system of currency and to make other improvements of a similar kind. The objection to the so called “force bill” on this subject is therefore invalid. If the metric system be good enough to be adopted at all it should be adopted by law.

While visiting Washington, Lord Kelvin appeared before the house committee and gave a strong endorsement to the bill ...

…when attention is given to the fact that there are in different countries and localities sixty different “inches,” 135 different lengths of the “foot,” 235 different different weights for the “pound,” it will be evident that it would be better for industry and commerce, as well as for science, to have a common uniform system of weights and measurements arranged on the decimal plan and based upon scientific principles….

1902 was the last year metric would be discussed by Congress until the 1920s. Had the Honorable John Shafroth been successful in passing his metric bill, this blog would never have become necessary. The prediction found in The San Fransisco Call proved accurate. Without mandatory legislation—metric conversion would not happen in the United States. It has been 110 years after Rep. Shafroth’s mandatory legislation was submitted, and we still use grains, carats, troy pounds and ounces, as well as avoirdupois pounds and ounces, three different miles: nautical, statute and survey, along with teaspoons and tablespoons much to the detriment of our economic and public health.

In 1902, during metric system hearings, Shafroth initiated this exchange:

Mr. Shafroth. How do you account for the fact, though, that there is not a single country that has adopted the metric system that contemplates adopting the English system?

Mr. Towne. Why should they?

Mr. Shafroth. Does not that show the superiority of the metric system?

Mr. Towne. No, sir; it shows the superiority of an established standard, and no country
in the world has ever had what America has to-day in this respect.

Certainly no other country does—they have more sense. Shafroth’s observation is still correct. No country which has adopted the metric system has ever regretted the change, and switched back. We are still the country who never tried. We are “The Little Engine that Couldn’t.”

The authors of the book Honest John Shafroth had this to say about the hurdles he faced:

“Shafroth’s failure to produce a speedy resolution on the Philippines demonstrated something he already knew: It was much easier for Congress to do nothing than to take action” …..

“Shafroth wanted the the United States to adopt the metric system. The idea died.” (page 102)

When Shafroth was up for reelection in 1918, he had a number of negatives haunting his campaign, and some that the public just didn’t care about. The authors of Honest John Shafroth relate:

 “Nor did most voters take an interest in adoption of the metric system or changing the date of the president’s inauguration, two of the senators pet projects.” (Page 129)

Shafroth would narrowly lose the 1918 election, which ended his political career.

In the map below are the 192 countries who have embraced the metric system as of 2012 in green and the three who have not in grey:

Antarctica is populated with scientists. It is essentially metric

All I can say on this occasion is: “Thank you Mr. Shafroth, thank you for trying so hard not to let your country waste money and lives by not adopting the metric system.”

There is not a Senator or Representative in the US Congress, for whom a change to the metric system is currently an issue.  The late Metrication Enthusiast Pat Naughtin sent letters to every member of the US Congress about the importance of Metric System adoption in 2011. In his newsletter Metrication matters – Number 95 – 2011-04-10, Pat states: “The result: nil, nix, nothing, zero, zilch. Not even a courteous, “We thank you for your letter … ” This has also been my experience when I contacted both my US Senators, my US Representative, and both my State Senator and Representative. . indicates that no metric legislation of any kind has been proposed since the 105th Congress (1997-1999). That legislation, like all since 1988 is anti-metric. The only solace I can find is that all the proposed bills died. It’s been at least 13 years of political silence since the last anti-metric intitiative, with no end in sight. It has been over 100 years since John Shafroth did his best to convert the US to the metric system. I suspect that if he knew, Senator Shafroth would find this years’  birthday anything but happy.

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

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

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 not of direct importance to metric education. It 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.

2 thoughts on “John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

  1. Reading this article about John Franklin Shafroth, he was partly successful in his goal of the United States adopting the metric system. If one reflects about the idea that ‘sixty different “inches,” 135 different lengths of the “foot,” 235 different different weights for the “pound,” was the state of affairs at his time. The United States has adopted a uniform inch, foot, and pound defined by the International System of Unites. He was a founder of NIST. As in his time and at present, there are elected officials and others who work to keep status quo. The fact is we have dual labelling in products sold on store shelves, is a tribute to his work.
    Myanmar is in transition to the SI system. Liberia was founded by the United States of America to repatriate freed slaves. The country gets aid from us and is ‘in our sphere of influence’ to use a cold war phrase.
    I think an effort to bring change to industry will finally bring about the change by pressure in the United States adopting the SI system.
    I suspect Senator Shafroth would find this years’ or other commeration of his birthday happy.

    • The hard questions first, eh?The worst of all woldrs is to mix Imperial and metric measure in the same report, paragraph, sentence. I’ve give up reading US sources reports for this reason. Some American writers think it’s trendy to throw in a bit of metric measure, but really it’s like throwing in a foreign word unnecessarily; just reveals your ignorance. If a Brit emigrates, part of the learning curve will be getting to grips with metric measure, unless his host nation is the United States (or Liberia, Myanmar). The rest of the world has gone metric.So here’s a notion for those astrophysicists out there, when we start colonising the local planets, surely adjustment will need to be made for difference in gravity, length of day, days in a year. Can SI cope with this? Or will we need a Galactic system with local variations?

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