By The Metric Maven
“It is safe to say that after the metric system has been adopted by the U.S. and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ.”
— Alexander Graham Bell, 1906
Often pro-metric people in the US invoke the change from Roman Numerals to Hindu-Arabic Numerals as an analogy for the ease that metric allows one to quantify the universe versus the complicated and confusing way which US Medieval Units do. Hector Vera’s very interesting and informative PhD thesis: The Social Life of Measures — Metrication in the United States and Mexico, 1789-2004 quotes an early historian of science, George Sarton, about the adoption of Hindu-Arabic Numerals:
The case [of the dissemination of Hindu-Arabic numerals] is interesting because the new decimal system was a time-and labor-saving invention of the first magnitude. The Hindus had made to mankind a gift of inestimable value. No strings of any kind were attached to it, nor was the suggested improvement entangled with any sort of religious and or philosophic ideas. Those proposing to use the new numerals were not expected to make any disavowal or concessions; nor could their feelings be hurt in any way. They were asked simply to exchange a bad tool for a good one. [… However] more than a millennium had elapsed between the discovery and its general acceptance […]. (pg. 19)
Without any physical barrier, or new equipment required, and relying only on the power of their simplicity to broadcast them, it took Hindu-Arabic numerals over 1000 years to distribute themselves around the globe. This is exactly the method proposed by Metric Philosophers for the metric system to be properly advanced in the US and around he world—just sit and wait for it to happen.
The metric system was first placed into law by France in 1795 (already a violation of the Metric Philosophers creed), so, using the dissemination of Hindu-Arabic numerals as an example, we would expect the U.S. to finally adopt the metric system in 2795 or about 800 years from now. Pat Naughtin often thought it would only be about 200-300 years without any intervention, but I think he was optimistic.
The Metric Philosophers require that we abandon any enlightenment view that we humans can guide our future and instead opt to neuter any active attempt. Reality must conform to their theory, and so we must all wait. But why does it take so long?
Hector Vera Points out:
In general, voluntarily adoption of the metric system has not worked because it punishes people willing to take the risk of making the change alone, while the rest of the material and social landscape is still working with the old measures. Merchants and industries that stepped forward and adopted the metric units voluntarily got isolated in the middle of a sea of users who did not understand metric measures.
So, is there any historical example one might cite where this has occurred? One that comes to mind is the example of Robert Bullard. Robert Bullard P.E. is a professional engineer who, after exposure to metric housing construction in 1985, wanted to begin building metric housing in the U.S. . Bullard is the subject of a 2005 Metric Today article (Jan-Feb Vol 40 No. 1) entitled Florida Engineer Battles Officials to Use Metric Housing Plans. The advantages were clear to Bullard:
In 1985, he was first exposed to a set of metric plans, for a NATO military tank training area. The draftsman who prepared the design remarked to Bullard that, because of its decimal simplicity, the metric system allowed fewer errors and facilitated a 10 to 20 percent faster delivery time. Then, while working with a structural engineer in the early 1990s, Bullard asked that the plans for a house be converted from wood frame to masonry. The engineer, who grew up in the Middle East, used metric units in revising the plans, and Bullard was astonished to see the task completed in a fraction of the expected time. According to the draftsman, the speed of execution was made possible because metric units do not require the same time-consuming manipulation of fractions demanded by U.S. customary units.
Florida state and county officials rejected his metric plans. It took a considerable amount of time and effort for Bullard to push his metric drawings up each step of the approval processes. The push-back continued:
Bullard then took the unusual step of appealing to the Volusia County Board of Adjustments and Appeals, which gave permission for him to use metric, but “only this time.” The foot dragging repeated itself during the approval process for the Bethune Beach house. Cougle explained, “Normally, this [presentation of plans] is a 10-minute process. But with us, they would say, ‘We’ll let you know.’”
Another problem was obtaining metric construction supplies, which forced dual dimensioning on the physical items at the work site.
Some time ago I heard that Bullard had to return to Ye Olde English construction. I talked with him by phone and the visceral frustration overflowed. He related the amount of added expense that he has endured by trying to go metric in a sea of Medieval Units. He fought city hall and the entrenched construction profession and lost.
The British on the other hand had a coordinated government switch-over to metric civil engineering construction, and they now have all metric construction in millimeters. Their wait for metric construction is over, because they used planning and enforcement instead of waiting and self-delusion to achieve metric. British Metric Philosophers have done their best to retard progress, which has left the UK with a superposition of confusion. The metric philosophers must enforce their waiting for technical Darwinism to work, because they will only allow their viewpoint to exist and their non-methods to be employed. They do not want metric, they want to impose a philosophical dogma.
Again from Vera’s PhD thesis:
Samuel Stratton, the first director National Bureau of Standards, who in 1902 wrote to one of the leaders in a pro-metric organization saying that “if any legislation is enacted concerning the use of the metric system by the public, it will probably be the states, and then only with reference to the common weights and measures as used in every-day business transactions.” But, yet again states never passed any compulsory metric legislation.
That was 1902, and in 2015 or about 113 years later, we have the mysterious appearance of an evanescent bit of legislation in Hawaii and also last year in Oregon. And “yet again states never passed any compulsory metric legislation.” We must wait 800 years, and must not try to interfere by “meddling with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale.” The Metric Philosophers will not allow that, it’s unnatural.
Vera quotes a 1994 General Accounting Office (GAO) report about metrication and then notes:
Despite more than one hundred years of experience indicating that voluntary metrication is almost equal to no metrication at all, the option of a “legislative or mandatory requirement” was not even considered.
It appears that the Metric Philosophers have effectively marketed their views, and with the consent of powerful interests, have imposed a sort of learned helplessness into the psyche of U.S. citizens. They push a TINA view point, that is: There Is No Alternative to an 800 year wait.
Vera has this quotation from Lewis M. Brancomb, who was director of the NBS from 1969-1972 (now NIST):
…we homed in on two alternatives. The first is laissez fair, a perfectly sound principle and indeed the one that should be recommended in the absence of contrary evidence. The Unites [sic] States follows no overall plan; everyone does their thing. ….
And what is the second alternative?
The second alternative is a planned program of metric conversion based on an overall national program with a target for becoming predominantly but not exclusively metric. Within this framework, segments of society would work out their own timetables and programs, dovetailing them with timetables of other segments. Such a plan would involve voluntary conversion; voluntary in the sense that it is not driven by any legislative or mandatory requirement.
So the director of NBS is unable to find any evidence that just sitting and waiting has not worked?—for the last 200 years? Wow. His search for evidence must have been voluntary and based on waiting for it to appear on his desk. The second alternative is to draw up a plan, make it voluntary, and wait. Isn’t that two of the same thing essentially? His words have a strange ring of learned helplessness to them. The U.S. around 1906 decided to convert the Philippines (acquired by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War) to metric. The mandatory requirement for metric was accomplished in less than one year. Is that evidence?—I guess not.
The Metric Philosophers apparently offer me only one completely unacceptable option. I must become “Metric Van Winkle” and somehow sleep through the next 800 years in order to see metric appear in the United States. The Metric Philosophers already have Rip Van Winkle’s world view down, which is much easier than actively promoting change.
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.