By The Metric Maven
When I think about the group of non-metric units used in this country, it reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, The Hitchhiker. A young woman keeps encountering a hitchhiker over and over and finally becomes convinced he is trying to kill her. She attempts to run him over, but fails. She drives without rest and tries to stop only when absolutely necessary, but each time she stops, there is the man, hitchhiking. After a phone call, the woman realizes that the man is not trying to kill her, but she is already dead. He is the personification of death, patiently waiting for her to realize that she had been dead all along.
In my metaphor, the woman is the set of Olde English Units to which we cling. The terrifying hitchhiker is the metric system, patiently waiting for the set of units to realize it is dead. One way to see that the set of Olde English Units we use is dead, is to realize that they have not changed in the last 150 years (actually for centuries in some cases). The metric system has evolved and changed. There have been a few incarnations of metric. The British, who in my view were trying to hang on to a metric system which is as similar to Imperial as possible, created the cgs or centimeter-gram-second system. Long time readers know what I think about using a centimeter, period, let alone using it as the basis for a measurement system. It’s a pseudo-inch system. There was The Metric Technical System (mts) which was based on force rather than mass. Herbert Klein in The Science of Measurement relates:
Systems that are based on force or gravitational units rather than mass units must be supplemented by a separate unit of mass designed to go with the basic unit of weight. In the Metric Technical System, this added mass unit is the metric slug, or hyl (9.80665 kgm) (page 205)
To confuse matters further there was also another mts, the meter-tonne-second system, which thankfully is now but a historical curiosity. These systems seem to have invoked a strange version of The Implied Precision Fallacy. The idea was that mts is for industry and cgs is for laboratory work, but thankfully SI became the system for all to use—well except in one country.
The mks or meter-kilogram-second system became popular and shows that nature can sometimes produce miracles, a reasonably elegant system from a committee. Even as all the discussion was raging about the metric system and its constituent units, what to add, and what to remove, there was no parallel discussion for the Olde English Units used by the US. Apparently the Anglo-Saxons of the Middle Ages had given us the one and true system of units for all time, perfect and sublime, and no others were ever to be needed. The world it reflects is static. There is one problem with this notion however, the world has changed in ways the 8th and 14th centuries could never have contemplated. First there was the discovery of electricity. This precipitated Mary Shelley into writing the first Science Fiction novel, Frankenstein, which was based on Galvani’s experiments. The discovery of the relationship between electricity and magnetism was a startling and unexpected connection. This fusion, electromagnetism, was theoretically described by James Clerk Maxwell and was commercialized by George Westinghouse. In 1893, the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago placed on display the wonders of Westinghouse electric lighting for all to see. Nearby, however, another gathering of much greater importance occurred, which is generally forgotten. It is described by Hallock and Wade (The Evolution of Weights and Measures 1906 pg 208):
In 1893 in connection with the World’s Colombian Exposition at Chicago, an International Congress of Electricians was held, and a Chamber of Delegates, composed of officials appointed by various governments, proceeded to define and name the various electrical units.
The US Congress passed an Act on July 12, 1894 which defined and established the units of electrical measure for the United States. These consisted of those agreed upon at the Chicago congress of Electrical Engineers in 1893, which displaced the definition of the ohm which was in use by Great Britain. According to Hallock and Wade in The Evolution of Weights and Measures 1906 pg 207:
At a meeting held in 1884 an international commission decided the length of the column of mercury for the standard ohm, and the legal ohm was defined as the resistance of a column of mercury of one square millimeter section of 106 centimeters in length at a temperature of melting ice.
This did not win out however when:
…Professor Henry A. Rowland in America and Lord Rayleigh in England, carried on further investigations to evaluate the true ohm, with the result that the length of the mercury column was found to be nearly 106.3 centimeters, which accordingly was adopted by the British Association Committee in 1892, together with the definition of the column in length and mass, rather than length and cross-section.
Well, as I’ve stated in many blogs, they should have used millimeters. The length would have been 1060 mm and changed to 1063 mm with nice round numbers, just like the Australian construction industry.
The ohm, ampere, volt, coulomb, farad, joule, watt, and the unit of inductance, named the henry, after Joseph Henry, were all defined in Chicago. In case you are uncertain of its location, Chicago, is in the United States, near Berwyn. Yes–Berwyn. There were no US representatives trying to define alternative “US Customary” equivalents of the electrical units. No argument for the inclusion of barleycorns, inches or yards in the electrical definitions were contemplated, they were all metric. Electricity, perhaps the most important discovery since fire, is not described in any way by US Olde English Units. The US Olde English (USOE) units are stagnant and have been since the 14th century. “They’re dead Jim.” The ohm is no longer defined as it was in the 19th century, using columns of mercury. It was redefined in 1990 using the Quantum Hall Effect. It continues to be improved and changes with the times. Metric units are living units. Olde English Units are Night of the Living Dead units.
Those who misguidedly try to resist the use of metric units in the US, have created a weights and measurements apartheid. There is one set of medieval pre-scientific units for the masses, which separate them from the creations of modern Engineering and Science, and one set of measurements for those educated beyond High School in a technical discipline.
Strangely Americans don’t see this as insulting, but in my view they should. They are locked into a set of units which creates a barrier between the public and the important scientific information needed to make critical public policy decisions. If one is forced to use US Olde English units, one never develops the “feel” or comfort with metric units, which 95% of the world’s population has when evaluating scientific results. US Olde English Units are so anachronistic, and arrested they cannot, and do not, offer a description of electricity. How can they but act as a barrier between Americans and all the Engineering and Scientific discoveries since 1893? They are all in metric units. Some see this as “freedom,” I see it as state sponsored ignorance, imposed on US citizens, and apologized for by quislings. Herbert Klein, author of The Science of Measurement (page 24) makes this statement, which should have an asterisk, but does not. I have taken the liberty to add one:
Moreover, the tools and techniques of measurement provide the most useful bridge between the everyday world of the layman and of the specialists in science.*
* Except in the United States of America.
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.