By The Metric Maven
The year 1929 is remembered as the year of the Stock Market Crash, which occurred on October 29th. This event is so large in the American memory that for a person living eight decades later, it is hard to imagine anything else happening that year.
An interesting Engineering Oddity from that era was the Armstead Snow Motor. A 1929 video shows the snow motor in action, first using a modified Fordson Tractor and then with a modified Chevrolet automobile. One has to hand it to the inventor for getting prototypes and a promotional film made. The film shows the snow motor moving across snow which is 1-2 meters deep. It hauls 20 Megagrams of logs behind it, and demonstrates it is superior to a horse in these conditions.
One can be assured that our measurement system didn’t help Mr Armstead develop his vehicle at that time. The Ford Motor Company would be imperial until the 1970s when it embraced metric for manufacturing. What is interesting is that some Americans of the era realized this was a problem. On January 13, 1928 The Rock Valley Bee, in Rock Valley Iowa published a metric article entitled: Wanted a New Set of Standards.
The article warned about our current weights and measures:
And if you should set out to learn them beware! It was Sir Hiram Maxim, the great Inventor, who once said, “I cannot understand why we stick to these weights and measures. There was only one man who knew the English weights and measures; he studied them for thirty years and he just knew them all when the poor fellow went mad and died.”
The newspaper notes that over “100 countries of the world have adopted – the metric system and are enjoying a great advantage In commerce, education and common world understanding thereby.”
It is further observed:
“That we are conscious of this handicap Is shown by the agitation by various organizations and Individuals which has been under way for some time for general adoption of the metric system. The states of Illinois, California,.North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah, with a combined population of 16,000,000 through their state legislatures, have memorialized congress to adopt metric standards. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which has a membership of 3,000,000, at its national convention at Grand Rapids, Mich., last year, passed ;a resolution calling upon congress to enact metric legislation as soon as possible. More than 100,000 petitions, urging the same legislation are pending before congress and some time ago Congressman Fred Britten of Illinois announced that he expected to Introduce In this session of congress a liberal metric standards bill and press Its passage.”
Who was Republican Congressman Fred A. Britten (1871-1946)? According to Wikipedia: “Britten attended Healds Business College, San Francisco, California. He was a construction worker and a business executive before his political career began.” It is very likely that his knowledge of construction indicated to him that the metric system could lower overall business costs.
The Newspaper article has a nicely framed list of the current “commonly used” measurements with the metric system next to it for comparison.
One often encounters a strange incredulity from Americans about the simplicity of the metric system, as if it is, in the words of the period—a humbug. During the metric system hearings in 1904-1906 this exchange occurred between Representative, John W. Gaines of Tennessee, and Herbert Davidson. Mr. Davidson was involved in the manufacture of Library Supplies. This involved woodwork, ironwork, printing, and any other trade which was required by his company to supply libraries of the day:
Mr. Gaines. ….when I went to school my teacher very properly, I think, skipped me over the metric system, and they did not teach it then. Would we not all have to go to school and learn the metric system before we could know whether or not we were getting true measure according to the old standard?
Mr. Davidson. I think that a person of ordinary intelligence who gave five minutes to the subject of the metric system would be able to comprehend it. [Laughter.]
Mr. Gaines. How long have you studied it?
Mr. Davidson. I must say that I never spent fifteen consecutive minutes over it.
Mr. Gaines. Well, you are an expert by nature.
(Mr Davidson then attempts to explain the metric system to Mr. Gaines)
Representative Gaines could not seem to accept the simplicity
of the metric system and later continued his incredulous inquiry:
Mr. Gaines: Now, I do not want to weary the committee with my continuing colloquy; I just want to find out how we are to equip our people with sufficient information to enable them to know how to swap one plan for another, Mr. Chairman. Then I shall end this colloquy. Where did you learn the metric system?
Mr. Davidson. By putting a rule in my pocket and using it the same as I would a foot rule…….
Mr. Davidson. Why, I chose to use the metric system is because it impressed me as being simpler.
Mr. Gaines. When did you first undertake to study the metric system?
Mr. Davidson. I say I never studied it.
Mr. Gaines. ….. The people of the United States, at all events would have to first learn the metric system before they could use it. Now, this is what I am trying to find out—they would have to learn the difference between a foot and a meter and a yard and a meter and a pound and a meter, and so on. They would have to do that certainly.
Mr. Davidson. They would have to gain some knowledge of the metric system; but it all appeals [appears?] to me, sir, as being so exceedingly simple that I cannot comprehend the intelligence that can not understand what a meter is, what a liter is, and what a kilo is.
Mr. Gains. But you must remember that we are not all college graduates, unfortunately for us; and I take it that you are.
Mr. Davidson. Neither am I.
For the people of the 1920s this reduction must have also seemed surprising, but my reaction was “that looks really complicated. why is that?” It struck me immediately that the people of the 1920s did not have Naughtin’s Laws to fall back upon when implementing the metric system. When Naughtin’s Laws are invoked, and the number of units that an everyday person might encounter are the only ones listed, it becomes a much more succinct list:
I have a suspicion that the population of the 1920s would be incredulous with this short list. I can almost hear them saying, “How can this be?–it must be a humbug of some sort.” Yes Virgina, the metric system is this simple for everyday people. The use of unit prefixes based on 1000 makes the metric system elegant in a way that was probably unimaginable in the 1920s. When one is so conditioned to seeing dozens of measurement units, I suspect their minds—and perhaps those who first proposed the tens near unity concept, simply could not get around the idea of using prefixes separated by 1000 for both magnification and division of the base unit. If we properly implemented the metric system these days, it’s even simpler to use than it was in the 1920s.
Yet again, members of congress did not act to legislate mandatory metric in 1928, and the Great Depression settled on the country like an economic plague. Certainly there were more pressing problems than legislating the metric system? Apparently not. Some citizens realized it might be a key to helping the US out of the Great Depression. A letter to the editor in the March 6, 1933 The Pittsburgh Press produced the Letters to the Editor headline: Metric System Urged to Spur Prosperity’s Return
E. Delchambre wrote:
“Do WE want to help end the depression?—Very well. Why not try this:
Get rid of our awkward, out-of-date, no-good-excuse-for-it system of weights and measures and adopt the metric system.
Do we visualize the chain of activities this action would start?
New or altered machinery in numerous shops, mills and factories; new or altered scales; new liquid and dry measures; new rules, baskets, glassware, crockery, tools, instruments and gauges of all kinds too numerous to mention.
Funds? The R. C. F. has distributed millions for projects far less worthy than this one.
Now is the time to make the change, when such a change would impede production very little.
The benefits derived would be everlasting.”
The entire contemporary car industry of the world has switched to metric, so if the Armsteed Snow Motor were developed today, the inventor would start with a metric vehicle to modify and most likely have to kludge on imperial parts, or make a conscious effort to obtain all metric parts to remain compatible.
We now find ourselves mired in another economic crisis. It is time to invest in “The Invisible Infrastructure” of our nation by changing to metric. The cost savings obtained by using metric to rebuild our physical infrastructure would be enormous. We would then have Architects and Engineers well versed in metric construction, which would make bidding on worldwide engineering projects seamless and eliminate our self-imposed metric embargo that hinders our trade with almost all other nations of the earth. I suspect the increased trade from all other metric countries will make up for the loss of trade from Liberia and Burma—-perhaps in a week?
Update 2012-10-30 As pointed out by Openly metric there was a mistake on the Naughtin figure with 1000 micrograms = 1 gram. It has been changed so it is now correct: 1000 milligrams = 1 gram.
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.