Testimony from the 1921 Metric Hearings

Charles L McNary 1874-1944

Selected by The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

The metric hearings of 1921 were presided over by Chairman Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon. During the hearings, a major concern of the Chairman, which he emphasized over and over, was his view that any time limit or deadline to require metrication was a bad idea. Metrication in ten years was just too restrictive and onerous. He argued that any metric transition should be open-ended. Here is what some of the people testifying had to say in response:


Mention was made of the time that it would take to do this. I am informed that in Sweden they enacted a similar act; that at the end of 10 years the metric system was to be in force and the only system in force. Then nobody thought anything about it until the ninth year. Consequently, they made a rush and the change was made in one year.


The Chairman. Don’t you think, Mr. Macfarren, that through a process of education in the schools it would result in the establishment of this system throughout the country, or by the Government leading, or by voluntary effort initiated by large concerns; or do you think it should be established by enforcement through some statute within some specified time — 3 years, 5 years, or 10 years, whatever may be the time provided by law?

Mr. Macfarren. It is undoubtedly the function and the duty of the Government to regulate weights and measures, and this Government has sadly neglected its duty In that regard, and It certainly should take the lead. My only criticism of the bill is that the Government does not undertake within a year or two or three, or much less time than 10, to do all its business in the metric system, and force the contractors who wish to do business with it that much.

As far as this limit of 10 years is concerned, the only objection I have is that it is too long. Germany took two years, and we are just as smart as the Germans.

The Chairman. What time would you suggest for the period of transition?

Mr. Macfarren. I should say five years would be the maximum. Immediately upon such a bill’s passage, or even on the passage of this bill, educational arrangements will be made to see that the next generation will be ready for it. And the saving will be effected for all future generations once and for all.


It is a great mistake to agitate in favor of a long transition period. This would mean a long period of watchful waiting, with the outcome that nobody would do anything toward adopting the new system until the time fixed had expired. Such a law would be forgotten before it ever became operative. The United States Government had this experience when the railroads were ordered to equip all freight cars with automatic couplers and continuous brakes. The railroads did nothing toward complying with the law until the allotted five years had expired. The time was then extended two years and seven months, during the last year of which most cars were equipped.

In the United States, between 1890 and 1917, 230,000 railroad employees were killed and over two million injured on the job. Clearly the dangers of being a brakeman before the introduction of the Westinghouse Air Brake was still fresh in the public’s mind and an instructive parable.

US Administration of the Philippines


Mr. Hord. My experience with the metric system was in the Philippines during the years 1906 to 1910. There was a law enacted by the Philippine Commission in August, 1906, making the use of metric weights and measures obligatory in the islands. At that time I was collector of internal revenue for the islands, and the enforcement of the law was placed in the internal revenue bureau.

The Chairman. The system was enforced upon the people there through enactment of a statute?

Mr. Hord. Yes, sir.

The Chairman. What was the period of transition allowed by the statute?

Mr. Hord. About seven months. The law was enacted August 8, 1906, and took effect January 1, 1907.

The Chairman. Was there any complaint against its enforcement or was it generally accepted in the seven months?

Mr. Hord. None whatever. The only delay, as I stated, was caused by our failure to get the standards quick enough.

Yes, the conversion was done in seven (7) months in the Philippines, by US administrators.

The US Military and Metric

In 1894 the Congress passed a law requiring that in the medical services of the United States the metric system should he solely employed and gave one year for the change. It went into effect on the 1st day of January. 1895, since which date no transaction in medicine, no prescription has been written except in the metric system. It apparently caused no disorder or confusion and could not possibly do so because of its extreme simplicity.

and a portent:

The Chairman. Do you believe in the provisions of this act which attempts to make it obligatory on the people of the country to adopt it in 10 years?

Dr. Parsons. I do.

The Chairman. You do not think it is proceeding fast enough now?

Dr. Parsons. No. That has been shown very plainly by past experience. We are too subject to the inertia of our race. It ls gradually coming. I have not any question whatsoever but what we will ultimately have the metric system and be forced to it by the rest of he world, but I hate to see the American people be the last in the procession.


The Chairman. Are there any provisions In this measure which you think should be modified, or that new provisions should be inserted; or do you think that the bill in its present form should be adopted?

Mr. Bearce. I am rather favorably disposed toward the suggestion that has already been made to have this time considerably shortened with reference to the Government: that is, have the bill apply to all transactions of the Government within a shorter period, possibly a year or two years…

The Chairman asked over and over why a farmer should care about metric. He could not see any advantage. Here is how one person responded:

“Did you ever wonder why it is that the boys of the corn clubs and pig clubs, around over the country, are raising better pigs at less cost and more corn per acre than their fathers ever raised? How do they do it? They do it by using a better system than their fathers used. It is not because they are instinctively any better farmers, but because they select better stock and better seed; because they prepare their feed and fertilizer in better proportions, and feed it and apply it in correct quantities. In other words, because they weigh and measure where their fathers guessed.

“As this weighing and measuring continues and increases among the coming generations of farmers, these young men are not going to be content to struggle along with an antiquated and cumbersome system. Many of them are already familiar with the metric system from using it in the Babcock test of milk and cream and in soil and fertilizer analyses. To these young men the complete adoption of the metric system would be an easy step gladly taken.

When Australia metricated in the 1970s farmers profited considerably. According to Kevin Wilks in his book Metrication in Australia:

One of the most useful changes in units used in agriculture was the simple change from points to millimetres of rain. This had particular significance in irrigation work. The simplification that this change brought the ordinary farmer allowed him to make his own irrigation calculations, something that was simply not possible in imperial units.

What was said about centimeters versus millimeters?

If we are going to work in the metric system we will think in the metric system, and you have no difficulty. You know how long a meter is, and you can visualize a meter; you can visualize a millimeter. Very few people pay any attention to the centimeter, as the millimeter is so easy to handle. A thousand millimeters is a meter.

Another thing: In our present system, when we are handling small apparatus, which I have been doing a good many years, the unit of 1 inch, which we now use, is not small enough, and we frequently speak of such dimensions as fifty-seven sixty-fourths. I ask you, can you visualize what fifty-seven sixty-fourths is? You can not. Hardly anybody else can. We don’t know what those things are. and as a rule engineers who are working with these matters every day use decimals instead of fractions; but we would rather use metric decimals than present decimals. If you wanted to write that in metric dimensions you would write 23 millimeters. You can visualize 23 millimeters. but you can not visualize fifty-seven sixty-fourths, because it is a very unusual dimension.

We have. for another example. a working drawing presented by a prominent locomotive company in the United States. It is a side and top view of an ordinary gauge cock. The drawing is full size. The words “all dimensions in millimeters” obviate the need for the familiar abbreviation, m. m. after the figures in the drawing. There are 39 dimensions noted, and not one of these includes a fraction of any kind. If inches had been used in the design and manufacture of this particular American product, only 6 of the 39 dimensions could reasonably have been expressed in an integral number of inches.

 That is. by doing the work in millimeters the inconvenience of 33 fractional numbers and the corresponding involved calculations were avoided. These two illustrations are typical of the saving effected in the measurement of length, area, volume, and in the more involved calculations. It may fairly be said that the more difficult the problem the greater is the advantage in having it worked out in the metric way.

The New System

Rather than accept the metric system, the anti-metric participants submitted a bill to change the US measures over to decimalized US measures. Here is what they had in mind:

Sam’L Russell was not content with the restrictions this table placed upon measurement in the US:

I am not contending for an exclusive decimal system. I believe that we ought to recognize and employ decimal duodecimal and binate fractions of the foot as may best comport with the convenience of trade, fabrication and mechanics. It would be unnecessary and indeed undesirable to restrict ourselves to decimal fractions.

There ought to be the utmost liberty in the use of so-called common or vulgar fractions, every person to accommodate his own convenience in the matter of the division of the foot.

As if the proposals had not created a gallimaufry of new measures, there were also plans to decimalize the avoirdupois ounce. It involved fractions.

Chairman Charles L. McNary would have seemed like a person who would have wholeheartedly backed metrication. His Wikipedia entry states:

Steve Neal, McNary’s biographer, describes McNary as a progressive who stuck with the Republican Party in 1910 even when many progressives left the party in favor of West, a Democrat.[7] McNary backed the Progressive Era reforms—the initiative, recall, referendum, primary elections, and the direct election of U.S. senators— of Oregonian William S. U’Ren, and he was an early supporter of public rather than private power companies.[11] After West won the election, he chose McNary to be special legal counsel to Oregon’s railroad commission; the appointee used the position to urge lower passenger and freight rates.[11] Meanwhile, McNary maintained friendly relations with both progressive and conservative factions of the Oregon Republicans as well as with West.[7]

The entry continues with a laundry list of progressive initiatives which were endorced by McNary.

McNary’s Wikipedia entry is completely silent on the issue of metric. It is never mentioned that he was Chairman of Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Manufactures or A Bill to Fix the Metric System of Weights and Measures as the Single Standard of Weights and Measures for Certain Uses. Why is it that the history of (non)metrication in the US so hidden?

Despite the overwhelming amount of pro-metric testimony at the hearings, and the fact that the bill did not require any manufacturers to use the metric system—ever, the Chairman, Charles L. McNary, argued that metric should be voluntary and gave his reason thus:

The Chairman. If the thing is uneconomical, then the great law or the science of commerce ought to adjust it. It does in other things. Why does  it not operate in this field if everybody is losing by it, from the packer to the consumer? Why does it not correct itself?

It is clear The Chairman was a Metric Philosopher. There was no need to pass this feckless voluntary bill, as metric would automatically happen if it was supposed to happen at all. Clearly it must be done without intervention. The Metric Philosopher’s Philosophy would take care of the problem.  The bill was never passed, and the testimony has been forgotten and left out of our history. What is it about the introduction of the metric system in the US that turns people of a progressive bent in the US, into reactionary obstructionists?

The US has been waiting 91 years following the 1921 hearings for this powerful philosophical juggernaut of inaction, endorsed by The Metric Philosophers, to produce a metric America. It has been 146 years since John Kasson was able to make metric legal in the US.  Every other country in the world (except for the tiny two) exclusively uses the metric system today. Apparently the rest of the world couldn’t afford to wait around for a plan that involved “waiting around for something to magically happen.”  I can’t imagine someone setting up a business, walking away, and expecting it to operate efficiently without any guidance, coordination, or intervention on their part. Why do Metric Philosophers believe this to be the case with implementation of the metric system?  Benjamin Franklin understood this well when he said “Drive thy business, or it will drive thee.”

Related Essays:

How Did We Get Here?

John F. Shafroth: The Forgotten Metric Reformer

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.