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.

One thought on “The Ghost Town of our Zeitgeist

  1. I immediately went to ebay to find one of those coffee cups – no luck.

    I like that it is not about converting – but about thinking in metric.

    The sad story of the failed change to metric effort is something I’ve thought a lot about. What stopped it? My conclusion is it was protectionism. (anything to tilt the playing field in our favor is the American-way) The cost of not going metric is huge – continues to grow.

    If you think about it – the biggest activity of government is to restrict trade.

    It is important to realize that sociopaths/psychopaths tend to rise to the top of power structures. The bigger the structure the more extreme the psychopathy. Finding a way to keep them out of power structures is of existential importance.

    Sometimes I imagine what the world would be like if we had carried through with that change.

Comments are closed.