The Ghost Town of our Zeitgeist

Near my Grandfather’s Montana cabin was a ghost town. There was not much of it left in the late 1970s. My Grandfather pointed out that young people liked to go there to get drunk, and burn down one of the buildings now and then. The town was the only thing standing as a testament to the existence of the people who constructed it, and their long lost memories and identities. But slowly, it faded away with time.

I came across a number of metric artifacts online that are interesting, as they are part of the Ghost town of metric. One is a bamboo ruler created in Japan, and marked with what look like millimeters, but 100 mm is about the width of your hand, so it seems it must be a very long ruler if metric. It is likely one that was used for scale drawings of some sort. The rulers are all about 300 mm, so clearly the units are a bit apocryphal. The rulers in the collection were exhibited in 1876 by the Japanese Empire Department of Education at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and finally ended up at the Smithsonian.

Another curious artifact is a US DecaLitre vessel with dual handles, which I guess one would need to handle 10 liters of any beverage, and it also shows how lack of a scale allows perception to decide intuitive volume. Yes, this brass vessel was made in the USA, probably about 1870, not long after the US made the metric system legal, but clearly not mandatory. The maker is said to be the United States Weights and Measures in the District of Columbia. Apparently 10 000 mL seemed like a good idea at the time, it could have been called the MyraMilliliter. As I’m sure you all recall, this volume would more properly be written daL, as the only two letter prefix, da, is the “proper” one. These are all members of the Metric Ghost Town of Our Past.

A pro-metric mug from around 1975 from the American National Metric Council.

The final Metric Ghost Town was constructed in the 1970s, and many of our existing structures are from that time. I recall Pierre looking through some contemporary metric newsletters and remarking something like: “It’s all so frozen in time, and depressing, there is nothing but a sad nostalgia left to embrace.” There is no contemporary metric city in the US, only a Ghost Town in My Brain.

In the 1970s, Reader’s Digest put out a pamphlet to help ease their readers into the new metric era. The balance of non-metric countries in the world were converting over to the metric system, but not with feckless pleading to pretty-please use metric as a conversion strategy. They realized that it was best for the industry of their country. The US post office was created to encourage commerce, the Erie Canal was created by US industrial policy, yet when metric was to be introduced in the US, it was wink-wink nudge-nudge. Perhaps it was because understanding the movement of cargo on a canal was much less abstract than a numerical simplification.

“Living With Metrics” is a Reader’s Digest pamphlet that was published to help the average American understand and cope with the change to metric. The subtitle of the pamphlet is: “How to Feel at Home with the Metric System.” It was published in 1978. They state:

… the United States is now committed to the change. It became national policy under The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 to work toward making the metric system dominant in all aspects of national activity–trade, industry, education, science, services—in an expeditious, planned coordinated way. No timetable has yet been set, but progress has been rapid, even without one, in science, education, and industry.

The second chapter is titled What Makes Metric Easier? and then proceeds to use the prefix cluster around unity to “illustrate.” They “helpfully” point out that one cubic decimeter of water is a liter, and weights a Kilogram. The illustration:

It is then explained:

The kilogram was adopted as the standard unit of mass because the gram, which would normally be used as the base unit, weights only about as much as a standard paper clip, an amount that would be inconvenient to work with in everyday usage. That also explains why the kilogram is the only base unit having a prefix.”

The metric three bears argument has long ago worn out its emotional impact when
confronted with practice. If the metric three bears argument held any sway, it would be Goldilocks choosing grams, millimeters, and milliliters as everyday units and then sleeping. When I’m confronted with the units are too small assertion, I ask why we use feet to measure the altitude of aircraft, and mountains. People in Colorado all want to climb the 14ers, which are mountains 14 000 feet and above. As has been discussed ad nausium on this blog, metric construction uses millimeters, and the side of a house can easily be 30 000 mm, or 30 meters along one side. The assertion that a gram is inconvenient, and that is why the Kilogram is a base unit in the MKS system, rings hollow. The linear unit used to define the volume of a liter is the decimeter, which has very little utility compared with millimeters. The pamphlet does use spaces rather than commas to separate metric triads “which is metric style.”

The pamphlet realizes there may be clouds on the metric horizon:

If conversion is permitted to be so vague and open ended, it will take far longer, and be difficult for all concerned. Experience in recently metricated countries has shown that people learn fastest and most easily from a quick conversion to metric…

When they get to discussing everyday metric in the grocery store, it is essentially in grams, as makes sense compared to using decimals paired with Kilograms. They state:

Remodeling projects–from new window screens to built-in shelves–demand fit, whether materials are in inches or centimeters.

Which brings me yet again to my pet peeve. The comparison of inches to centimeters simply helps to cement the notion that the metric system is just a similar replacement to our own non-system, which promotes apathy and lack of interest in metric. They go on:

Just as we make rough estimates of inches, feet, and yards we can get a feel for the meter and centimeter.” They rightfully assert: “What does NOT seem helpful in learning to think metric is reliance on conversion tables. … For length, distance, and depth, and other linear measurements, a meterstick, tap, or ruler subdivided into centimeters (and sometimes millimeters) are all useful.

Well, no, no, and three times no, use millimeters only, dump the centimeters. This
will provide the same integer values that grams and milliliters do in everyday life.

The authors make a pragmatic point about supermarket shopping, that was also in Metrication in Australia (you know, a country that can actually implement reform):

Very little about metric weights and measures will really change the way we shop, or the amount we buy. Take meat, for example. When it is precut, wrapped, and put in the display case, we will look at the size of a roast or the number of chops and the total price, just as we always have. We buy many things by eye, according to our needs. We select fruits and vegetables by the piece, bunch, or back, and pay the price marked. Even our shopping list seldom specifies amounts. … So long as customary information appears on food labels, we will tend to refer to it first. But in time, the amounts, directions for use, and recipes will be in metric units.

Pat Naughtin realized and warned that dual-scale markings simply suppress conversion to metric. This seems to be the case in the US.

“A 500-gram loaf of bread may contain one or two slices more than a pound loaf.” This sentence caused me to realize I had no idea how much a loaf of bread weighs (masses in the metric system). I have the good fortune of having a nearby independent baker, and I just purchase the sizes of bread he bakes. I never ask how much it weighs, or how many slices it contains. In their chapter The Metric Supermarket, Kilograms and Pounds are directly related, with grams eschewed in their graphic:

They begin:

So what will it be like, shopping in a predominantly metric food store? The question, “What is it like?” was asked in a survey of shoppers in Australia, one of the “late arrivals” to metrics, and now almost completely converted.” Ninety percent said they had no great difficulty in learning and using the metric system. And the majority felt Australia’s fairly fast changeover had made it easier for them.

Australia changed to the metric system so long ago; it is becoming a faded memory for them.

Under the rubric Some laws need to be changed they inform us:

Federal, state, and local regulations for many food products are written in customary measures; some will have to be changed to allow metric quantities. Current labeling laws give preference to customary. Weighing and measuring equipment in factories and stores, subject to regulation and checking, will have to be replaced or converted.

But when the plans made for these changes materialize, and producers make the move to hard conversion, we’ll be able to shop in metric. It is then that we, as consumers, will be grateful for a comfortable familiarity with the basic system.

There is discussion that the scales will be in Kilograms in 50 gram intervals, you know, like pounds and ounces, even though all our scales I’ve seen are decimalized in pounds. They also indicate milk and other liquid products will be in liters and milliliters. That’s reasonable. After arguing that Kilograms will be the “base unit” they logically have grams for most products, including breakfast cereals. They even argue that 500 gram, 250 gram and other sizes will be common. That also seems reasonable.

When they offer up the proverbial metric recipe for Chocolate Cookies, (everybody goes for them as a metric example in the US) they use volume and not mass. All the ingredients are in mL, and the one time grams appear, it is quickly related to volume. This is a very poor way to cook, and makes US citizens look like pathetic provincials when they do. They mention that measuring spoons will be in mL, and have a nice illustration. The use of spoons has been a bit of a debate for me. Often one might like 30 mL of an ingredient, this is two 15 mL measuring spoons. How should we list this on a recipe? I’ve started experimenting with the total quantity first, and then the metric spoon equivalent, but only up to about 50 mL, because a measuring cup makes more sense after that (yes I have one that is about 80 mL, and cute.) It might be good practice to use the number of milliliters as an adjective or pseudo-prefix with spoon. We could have a 5 spoon, 15 spoon, and so on. We could state we need 2 Fivespoons, or 2 5-Spoons of flour. We could even put the total in parenthesis afterward as a check: 2 5-Spoons (10 mL). I really don’t like metric countries using Teaspoons and Tablespoons. It seems so unnecessary only produces opportunities for error.

Whoever made this drawing, apparently has never heard of preferred numbers, or their use in cooking.

The Home and Its Furnishings chapter uses meters exclusively, with some minute nods to centimeters. Home Care and Repair also nods at centimeters, with a tiny mention of millimeters, with decimals! Then comes Measuring and Metering our Environment. They then go full metal imperial on the metric system: “As other elements are converted, we’ll measure rainfall in millimeters (mm), snow in centimeters (cm) …” And why would this be? Well because it just makes more sense to change between scales that need conversion when talking rain and snow? No, just use it for both. 30 mm of water and 30 mm of snow are the same dimension when we measure them. 1235 mm of Snow? that’s quite a bit, like 1.235 meters. Of course 300 mm of rain would be a lot of rain. Why change units? To make the metric system mirror the antiquated difficult to use non-systems of the past, and make them seem more “comfortable.”

By far, one of the more interesting constructions in this metric ghost town brochure, is the chapter on Hobbies, Sports, Leisure Activities. This is where the dimensions of a metric football field are proposed in this graphic:

I really like it. The field will be longer, and wider. This could really spread the game out and make it a bit more biased to offense and scoring. I’d like to see it adopted, but that would only be in the realm of science-fiction at this point.

What this Reader’s Digest pamphlet describes, is an evanescent ghost town of our minds, that was never constructed, but was abandoned. If it had been constructed, like rest of the world did, it would not have been abandoned. As it was stated in the early 20th century, no country that ever adopted the metric system, then decided to abandon it and go back (ok France did, but just for a bit, and they are the only ones). The metric system in the US is just used at times as a political football, without any intention of a metric town ever actually being constructed. It is only useful to politicians as a bloody shirt of fear, in the ghost town of our Zeitgeist.

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.

The Perfectionists — How Precision Engineers Created The Modern World

By The Metric Maven

History, in many popular works of science, is either the product of centuries of oral tradition, created from whole cloth, that has been solidified and certified when put into prose form, and then indefinitely repeated, or skimmed over and misunderstood. The new book The Perfectionists — How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester is a curious work. At its beginning, the book indicates, rather furtively, that the metric system is important, and therefore appears in an afterword section at the end of the book.

Each chapter of the book leads a reader to expect that a new world of increased precision will be encountered. Chapter 1 — (Tolerance: 0.1), Chapter 2 (Tolerance: 0.0001), this continues until finally we reach Chapter 9 (Tolerance: 0.000 000 000 000000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01). I will give him a minute amount of credit in that he at least used triads separated with spaces, but when one has a tolerance, one generally offers a unit.

We will suspend talking about the body of this book for a moment to discuss Winchester’s exposition about the metric system. Amazingly he has, with slight reservations, accepted John Wilkins as the creator of the metric system. In my view Wilkins developed the system part of the metric system, and decimal notation was adopted to complete it. Winchester starts by describing Galileo’s analysis of a pendulum, and then moves on to Wilkins:

A century later an English divine, John Wilkins, proposed employing Galileo’s discovery to create an entirely new fundamental unit, one that had nothing to do with the then-traditional standard in England, which was a rod that was more or less officially declared to be the length of the yard. In a paper published in 1668, Wilkins proposed quite simply making a pendulum that had a beat of exactly one second–and then, whatever the length of the pendulum arm that resulted would be the new unit. He took his concept further: a unit of mass could be made by filling the resulting volume with distilled water. All three of these new proposed units, of length, volume, and mass, could then be divided or multiplied by ten—a proposal which made the Reverend Wilkins, at least nominally, the inventor of the idea of the metric system. Sad to say, the committee set up to investigate the plan of this remarkable figure never reported, and his proposal faded into oblivion. Page 332-333

When I read this, I realized it had at least a pair of misconceptions. First the resulting volume of a one meter cube is not what Wilkins proposed to fill with water, he proposed a cube that was one-tenth of the base length. I don’t know what Winchester means by the committee never reported, as his system was published by the Royal Society in 1668.

Pat Naughtin was of the impression that Wilkins’ monograph was a dud. This is not the case. Wilkins’ biographer made it clear that his work was influential at least into the mid twentieth century. Winchester then indicates that Tallyrand:

“…..exactly duplicated Wilkin’s ideas, refining them only to the extent that the one-second beating pendulum be suspended along the latitude of 45 degrees North.

Apparently Winchester is viewing the duplication as independent, when parsimony would probably argue for transmission.

The author further indicates that only measurements of the Earth were then considered. A very complex seconds pendulum was constructed in France, and measurements taken. Thus far, I’ve not found documentation which indicates if it was to be a backup, should the Earth measures become impossible to complete, but this is a reasonable conjecture.

Early in the book, the Antikythera mechanism is discussed, and its accuracy was impugned both for its poor construction and the general theory of the heavens it attempted to employ. I found this astonishing, when compared with the PBS Nova episode, Ancient Computer, which shows an amazing command of theory and fabrication. Winchester offers a bibliography, but no end notes. I do not see a book about the Antikythera mechanism.

The book’s use of measurement units is a pigfish roasted on a spit. Early in the book, most of the discussion was about English machining, and so the introduction of Olde and New English units made some sense, but there is apparently no impetus to provide metric equivalents. Later in the book his choice of unit use seems almost random.

When Winchester uses metric, he often uses them with a fractional description:

… for a lock to merely work required a tolerance of maybe a fifth of a millimeter; to insure that it not only worked but was infinitely interchangeable, he needed to have the pieces machined to a fiftieth of a millimeter.” pg 100.

He could have just as easily said 200 micrometers for it to work, and 20 micrometers to be interchangeable, or ten times the tolerance.

Winchester’s discussion of Carl Edvard Johansson (1864-1943) who invented gauge blocks is quite interesting:

His idea was to create as set of gauge blocks that, if held together in combination, could in theory measure any needed dimension. What, he wondered, was the minimum number of blocks that would be needed, and what should the sizes of the various blocks be? By the time he stepped off the clanking steam train at Eskilstuna station, he had solved the problem: with just 103 blocks made of certain carefully specified sizes, arranged in three series, it should be possible, he said, to take some twenty thousand measurements in increments of one one-thousandth of a millimeter, just by laying two or more blocks together.  pg 168

Indeed one-thousandth of a millimeter is very descriptive, but he could also mention this length is a micrometer. He goes on:

…according to his biographer, has since “directly and indirectly taught engineers, foremen and mechanics to treat tools with care, and at the same time giving them familiarity with [dimensions of] thousandths and ten thousandths of a millimeter.

A ten thousandth of a millimeter is 100 nanometers, and that is very impressive. Visible light has wavelengths that span from violet at 380 nanometers to red at 750 nm. Wow! light of this wavelength is so high in frequency that we cannot see it with our eyes, and Carl Johansson created a method that measured to this precision. Context is important, and I don’t see much of it in this work.

There is a completely egregious mixing of centimeters and millimeters. On Page 208 a non-conforming jet engine part is described: “It was a pipe no more than five centimeters long and three-quarters of a centimeter in diameter.” The diagram that accompany’s the prose has a legend in millimeters. Longtime readers know that if I was Simon Winchester’s editor, I would fine him at least $5.00 or at least 500 cents for each use of the word centimeter in his manuscript. It is a strange and proverbial rationalization that “too much precision is a problem.” Millimeters are just “too small” to describe everyday objects—too precise. Teachers offer this Jackalope Tale “wisdom” that has been received generation after generation without any introspection. The Qantas Airline Flight 32 engine failure Winchester discusses is an excellent example of how widespread and pernicious this idea can be. Like with the failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the exception slowly becomes the rule. The report on this engine failure used the word “cultural” to describe why the parts were not fabricated to their specification. The author states:

What the report also noted, however were the failures within Rolls-Royce: the failure to machine a critical part properly, the failure to inspect properly, and the failure to reject what were called “non-conforming” parts, and to allow them to pass into service, with potentially lethal consequences. The delivery of such engines to Qantas was far from unique: hasty inspection soon after the accident revealed that scores of Hucknall-made oil pipes with misaligned walls thinner than half a millimeter had already gone into service, with the consequence that no fewer than forty engines, in use by Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa, and on all the remaining five Qantas aircraft, needed to be withdrawn from use and repaired. page 211

The money shot from the failure analysis report Winchester quoted verbatim:

Large aerospace organizations are complex sociotechnical systems made up of organized humans producing highly technical artefacts for complex systems, such as modern aircraft. Due to the inherent nature of these complex sociotechnical systems, their natural tendency is to regress if not constantly monitored—and occasionally even when monitored vigorously. This natural regression can occur due to the pressure applied via global economic forces, the requirement for developing growth, profit and market share…….. page 212

And in my view, an inculcated belief in “too much precision.”

The questionable numerical exposition continues throughout the book:

 And the mechanical polishing and grinding of the lenses themselves are performed to one-quarter lambda, or one- quarter of the wavelength of light, with lens surfaces machined to tolerances of 500 nanometers, or 0.0005mm. And with the aspherical lenses that cut so markedly down on the tendency at wide apertures to display spherical aberrations, machining of the glass surfaces is performed down to a measurable 0.03 micrometer, or 0.00003 mm. Page 228

Seriously, he introduces 500 nanometers and then does not use a direct comparison! How about 500 nanometers and then down to 30 nanometers. That’s more than ten times better, and way smaller than the 100 nanometers of a gauge block, and in terms of light, well, very small.

Throughout the book are random mixtures of angstroms, microns, fathoms, yards, miles, inches, centimeters, feet, ounces, and probably more. Winchester states that the thickness of a silicon wafer is: “an exact two-thirds of a millimeter thick.” This would be 0.6666666… mm exactly? That must be one infinitely precise measuring device that does quality control on that wafer.

When discussing clean room standards he states: “ISO number 7, which allows there to be 352,000 half-micron size particles in every cubic meter of air.” Yes, half-micron or 500 nanometers? ISO 1 “… permits only ten particles of just one-tenth of a micron per cubic meter.” One-tenth of a micron? Perhaps 100 nanometer? This is a sad amount of numerical verbosity.

To me, this poor use of numerical grammar looks as bad as an obviously poor use of English grammar would to a copy editor. The gatekeepers of science writing would not put up with: “I thinks Jupiter big planet and much mass of planets in orbit round sun,” but the numerical use found in this book is sent right through their copy editing, apparently without a thought.

The final chapter, On the Necessity for Equipoise, causes one to wonder just what the book was about in the first place when he states:

For might there be in the wider world, in truth, simply too much precision? Might today’s singular devotion to mechanical exactitude be clouding a valued but very different component of the human condition, one that, as a result, is being allowed to vanish?

Apparently this author had a difficult time distinguishing between Art and Engineering?

The final send-off at the end of the book describes the gift of a tree, that is said to have its ancestry tracing back to the famous tree from which Newton saw an apple fall. That was when I knew I could not give this book a positive review. The story of the apple was almost certainly fabricated and promoted by Newton to keep from being accused of being in league with alchemists. The tree in the history of science is as mythical as the golden fleece. It is a good metaphor for a book with a promising subject, precision, which is all about numerical quantities, that are used as metaphors instead of descriptors.

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.