Multiple Metric Systems & Metrology

By Randy Bancroft

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Some Thoughts on: “The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning”

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

A few days ago, a website called The Federalist published a polemic titled The Metric System is Anti-Human Central Planning. The essay is quite derivative, containing truthiness assertions about the metric system, and an understanding of it at a hearsay level. Examining some of its claims can be instructive.

The first claim is: “All of metric’s shortcomings come back to the same point: it is great for science, but does not fit with the way people live their everyday lives.” This is simply not the case. A casual observation of how I propose to use the metric system in the US, and the actual practice in Australia, makes this claim laughable. When using grams, millimeters and milliliters, no decimal point is required to interact with everyday measurements. One would purchase coffee in quantities of 500 grams, measure the distance across a desk as 750 mm, or drink a 350 milliliter soda. For everyday people, it is much simpler than the current non-system. It would be a world of integers.

Lincoln Chafee suffered from the same lack of understanding of the metric system as does the author of the anti-metric essay under discussion. Chafee just said the metric system was good, without any detail or explanation.

The second claim is “It would be easier if all seven billion of us spoke the same language, wore the same clothes,…….” Indeed, government after government over the last two centuries realized that trade would be more efficient using the same measurement system worldwide. The metric system was adopted because it is easy to use, not because it is hard. This is why out of around 195 countries in the world, we in the US are the single irrational standout.

The French were the first to adopt the metric system, and were also the first to abandon it. The utility of the metric system is what kept it alive throughout the political upheaval that surrounded its adoption. Dutch traders realized its benefits, and were some of the first to embrace it. The metric system itself has an English origin, John Wilkins (1614-1672) proposed it in 1668 in a publication to the Royal Society in London. The idea was utilitarian enough to survive until the French Revolution afforded an opportunity for a country to adopt it. From that time onward, the metric system was an idea so appealing that it has displaced a multitude of other “natural” measurements.

The third claim is: “That is the difference between the English system we use (also known as the Imperial System) and the metric system: one developed gradually from the ground up and was later codified, the other was imposed from above based on the ideas of a few radicals.” We do not use the imperial system in the US. We use a far earlier version that is medieval in origin. The English realized how bad their non-system was in the 19th century and implemented half-measures to reform it. Finally, they embraced the metric system starting in 1965. England is metric.

This third claim also implies that some manner of “technical Darwinism” brought the current non-system about. This is simply not the case. The measures throughout the world were muddled, and only the metric system brought technical order, as it was created by rational thought, and not through an imaginary, mysterious, mythological process. I recommend the author look at the book Measure for Measure by Richard Young and Thomas Glover to see the thousands of versions of measurements in use before the metric system. There was never a natural decrease in the number of units until the metric system. Why? because fraud loves diversity. Thomas Jefferson was clear on this point.

The third claim, claims that people were “forced” to accept the metric system. This old hackneyed assertion was leveled at John Shafroth (1854-1922), when his metrication bill was called the metric force bill. The imposition of the metric system was an imposition of honesty on trade.

Claim four is that the dimensions of the English system, are more natural. Does he mean the British Imperial System?—-or our medieval English units? First, the width of a hand is about 100 mm, That seems rather natural to me. A foot is about 300 mm or so, the length of your leg to the waist is about 1000 mm. Natural is what people grow up with, not the system itself. Did your grade school teacher, instruct you on measures?—or impose them on you? The rationalization that the measures we use in the US are natural comes afterward, when you’ve already incorporated the information.

The fifth claim is “Defenders of the metric system stress its decimal nature frequently. Because everything works in multiples of ten, they claim…..” No I don’t claim this, period. I’m pro metric by increments of 1000, so that decimals and errors can be minimized by the use of whole numbers. The author has clearly done little research on metric system usage, or the metric system in general.

The sixth claim: “Ten is divisible evenly by two numbers: 2 and 5. That means it can be cut in half evenly, and about that’s it. Smaller fractions (other than fifths) require decimals, which is the opposite of the ease metric promises. Meanwhile the foot, being made of 12 inches, is divisible evenly by 2, 3, 4, and 6. The pound with its 16 ounces is divisible evenly by 2, 4, and 8.” First, in situations such as metric construction, 400 mm is the module dimension. A 400 mm module is divisible by 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16, 20, 25, 40, 50, 80, 100, 200. Yes, the metric system was created for simplicity. Also we use more than one pound. Gold is measured in Troy pounds and feathers are in Avoirdupois. Troy has 12 ounces in a pound and Avoirdupois 16 ounces in a pound. This is a muddle.  There is only one gram or Kilogram.

The seventh claim: “For scientific calculations, none of this matters, but if you’re building a house or cooking a meal, quick calculations of fractions is essential.” The false division between science and everyday measurement is conjured up out of thin air. The metric system does not require any fractions for cooking, or for the construction of a house.

His summary is no less at odds with the world at large:

“The metric system is a classic example of central planning gone wrong. While it is useful in a few ways, it has no place in the life of the average American. Traditional measurements require no coercion, because they make sense to us already. They measure our lives as they always have: on a human scale.”

The metric system, which has been of such utility in decreasing fraud, and simplifying measurement for the average person around the globe, has no place in the life of the average American? The author is right, we are exceptional.

Postscript: Peter Goodyear has brought to my attention an online petition to forbid the use of Ye Olde English units by science teachers. If you are interested in signing it, the petition is here.

3 thoughts on “Multiple Metric Systems & Metrology

  1. Why pay attention to him? Kyle Sammin is a clueless lawyer; as pretty much every lawyer I’ve met hates his own live – so we should feel a ‘little’ sorry for him. He is posting on a political website that no one reads – I’m surprised you even saw it.

    He obviously knows nothing of metrology – about all he did was stick his ‘foot’ in his mouth demonstrating that even people with an amazing level of ignorance can get worthless degrees if they brown-nose enough. The idea that metric equates to socialism made me laugh out loud. The true origin of the metric system is an attempt to take measurement standards OUT of the hand of the political class by defining standards with physical fundamentals. The metric system takes power out of the hands of socialists and gives it to the people.

    The metric system is taking hold in the USA with out any force – slower than I would like, but it is being adopted because of it’s utility. Go to the pawn shop – you will find lots of old imperial wrenches – but the metric tools are snapped up. People like metric.

    Apparently, lawyers like to argue – even if they have no idea what they are talking about – what a sad existence.

  2. England is metric. Well officially. But half a century after it became so, in non industrial usage, you are still hard pressed to find a measuring device which is not dual calibrated in inches and ,yes, centimeters. Building boards are still manufactured to a size of of 8 foot x 4 foot. Timber cross section is sized in inches – 4 x 2 etc but sold in lengths of a “metric foot” or 300mm. A terrible mess

  3. In response to the Federalist article all I can say is that we are entering a time in history where the US is about to lose it’s top position. In the technical realm, China and even Germany have by-passed the US as top developing nations. In an economic sense the US is ahead of China in nominal GDP but in GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity, China is ahead of the US.

    China, India and a number of other countries can develop and produce both commercial and military technology at much less than 50 % of the cost as it takes for the US. American nominal GDP is artificially high based on deficit spending. I doubt there is a single American that lives debt free. Take away the ability to borrow beyond ones personal means and American nominal GDP would drop considerably.

    American Exceptionalists love to mock the metric system and make mocking cartoons for example where the difference between the US and the world is the world uses the metric system and the US already landed people on the moon. But, I’m reminded of how a few years ago India and the US both sent a probe to mars around the same time and India did it at 10 % of the cost. In the future, India and China both being metric countries will be having colonies on the moon and mars and not the US.

    How will the attitude change towards metric once and for change as it is accepted that a country like China using the metric system went from being a stone age economy to the largest industrial and technical power in less than 50 years and the US using stone age measuring units went from the top to # 2 and continued to sink as time went on?

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