Is the metrication of a nation a technical exercise, or a social problem? Of course it is both, but in practice, one or the other view predominates. This should be recognized as framing all underlying debate. The classic example of a nation that came late to metric, but approached the transition as a technical hiccup, is now among the most successfully metricated: Australia. The nation that briefly flirted with metrication at about the same time, the 1970s, but dropped it on the dubious grounds that it would have required too much penicillin, is The United States of America. The Metric Maven has always sided with Oz, sometimes to the point of testing the patience of long-time readers. Keep this in mind, because it’s crucial to what follows.
A new book, Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet, by John Bemelmans Marciano, ostensibly on the failure of metrication in the US, has us here at TheMetricMaven.com in a quandary. If the subject matter matches the title, then we might be expected to have an opinion. Silence might even be misinterpreted. On the other hand, if the book is something else, we could find ourselves in the position of electrical engineers trying to make sense of a seriously bizarre piece of dilettante sociology.
The book certainly starts off at the right point: the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan gave the coup de grâce to any hope for imminent US metrication, by abolishing the US Metric Board. The Board had been in existence for only seven years, and still represents the sole official attempt to bring US measurement into alignment with the rest of the world. (I can personally attest that it was a time when kids were told by teachers that, ten years out of high school, we would never have to worry about confusing an ounce weight with a fluid ounce again.) But the Board foundered early, for reasons that will not be easily explained to citizens of European democracies. (Long story short: some members of the Board apparently saw their function as more than purely nominal.)
Before exploring this failure, however, Marciano indulges in an extended historical digression: at least twelve of his sixteen chapters. Our first major stop is actually the French Revolution. And I do mean stop: we will be stuck in France from well before the Reign of Terror, and will be hanging around for at least two Napoleons after (numbers I and III, I’m pretty sure — I’ve forgotten if II gets a mention, and frankly it’s not worth checking). The French chapters run from at least three through six and beyond, with chapter two, on the francophile Thomas Jefferson, as a kind of preamble. This makes the French section well over one fourth of the book. Although the book’s title suggests a specific focus on the failure of the US, alone among the nations, to metricate, the bulk of the book takes place elsewhere, and has only tenuous relevance to the US failure. The book seems to be intended more as a capsule history of the metric system. And if this is indeed the intention, then there is a grave problem. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, there is a dog that didn’t bark in the night: the complete absence of John Wilkins (1614-1672).
Ten years ago, a book on the history of the metric system might have been excused for not mentioning John Wilkins, and parroting the conventional wisdom that the metric system sprang fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, out of revolutionary France. But it is now known, largely from the research of Pat Naughtin, that the idea of systematized measures, divorced from any artifact, had been around long before: at least one hundred twenty years before the Revolution. In 1668 Wilkins published An Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, which included a proposal for an integrated system of linear, volume, and weight measures. It was not an isolated effort. William Brouncker, and the far better known Christian Huygens, collaborated. But the man who came up with the technological device that made the system possible, the “seconds pendulum,” may have been Christopher Wren, not primarily a scientist (or “natural philosopher”), but the architect of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Wilkins’ book was widely read well into the 1800s, and the units for length, volume, and weight it advocated were remarkably close to those later arrived at by the French by more dubious means.
Marciano is aware of such devices as the seconds pendulum, and of Jefferson’s disgust at the French rejection of them, which makes his silence on John Wilkins even more puzzling. The same silence, incidentally, is found in Marcus du Sautoy’s recent BBC documentary, Precision: The Measure of All Things. Du Sautoy also makes the astonishing claim that the French insistence on basing the meter on the Paris meridian was somehow an act of cooperative internationalism. Marciano doesn’t go this far, and seems to understand that their seven-year exercise in trigonometry was ultimately pointless, but persists in calling this nationalistic reboot or retread of some very old ideas an act of invention. He also discusses problems with the seconds pendulum that were apparent at the time, but which could have been compensated fairly readily. (A seven-year study of the behavior of pendulums in various parts of the world would also have provided a lot of information on the precise shape of the earth.)
The author’s Tilt-A-Whirl approach to history is engaging, his chapters on the French Revolution more fun than a free ride in a tumbrel, but perhaps not by much. It’s actually hard to find much in the book that has anything to do with SI, today’s metric system, or even measurement per se, except by implication — possibly invidious. There are long sections devoted to such things as English spelling reform: Noah Webster’s partially successful efforts to redefine American English; and the completely unsuccessful attempts of such disparate characters as the rather pathetic Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame), and Teddy Roosevelt. The efforts of advocates of artificially constructed languages, Esperanto, and its less-known predecessor Volapük, are detailed. One entire chapter is devoted to the development of standard time; and another is on attempts to rationalize the calendar, which continued through the 1920s. Cranky figures take the front row, including extended discussions of perhaps the greatest of nineteenth-century crackpots, Charles Piazzi Smyth, and his obsession with the Great Pyramid. Yet another chapter is given over to a man who, although no crank, is no more than a footnote in metric history: John Quincy Adams and his pointless and unreadable Report on Weights and Measures.
A great deal of the book concerns something that most people today wouldn’t think of as measured at all: money. This is justified on the grounds that “In the late eighteenth century, coinage was not only a part of weights and measures, it was the most vital part, and had been for thousands of years.” This is arguable (although some of us might point out there was an awful lot of measurement-based engineering going on in the ancient world, and when buildings and aqueducts fail, people die). But even granting this, money today is counted rather than measured: a very different thing. Neither SI, nor any of its several predecessors has a monetary unit. This doesn’t mean, however, that we aren’t going to be spending some time in Bretton Woods.
Eccentrics and guru-like figures continue to dominate in the “contemporary” section, from about 1970 onward (essentially just the last three chapters). Two of these are introduced in chapter one: Stewart Brand, described as a “libertarian prototechie,” and Tom Wolfe, a “literary icon in a white suit.” Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog in its myriad forms (all of them aging ungracefully, or thankfully forgotten) specialized in demagoguery by using metric system and nuclear power in the same sentence on all occasions. Wolfe then apparently dealt metric a crushing blow when he judged a “Most Beautiful Foot” contest at a party called a “Foot Ball.” Yet another oddity: the editor of the American Journal of Physics (actually a teaching journal) is cited, apparently with approval, for using such units as the “jelly doughnut” (106 joules) in an attempt to make science more understandable. (Last time I looked, the joule was an SI unit, and 106 was the prefix mega-. I like reporting food energy in megajoules, and I’m completely on board with making science understandable. I’m just not sure rebranding the megajoule as a jelly doughnut is the best way to do this.) The book also degenerates into reporting anti-metric t-shirt slogans and schoolyard taunts of the era.
Does the book address any technical issues at all? Very few, but one comes up at least twice, attributed to Tom Wolfe: “NASA had gone to the moon on inches and pounds and had never considered any other system.” Not true, of course. The computers aboard the Apollo spacecraft performed all calculations in metric. Only the displays were in archaic units. Considering the low speed of those early computers, that unit conversion must have been a significant extra computational load. But it is true that NASA was and is hostile to metric.
The author is under the curious impression that NASA learned a lesson from the Mars Climate Orbiter: “America has gone metric where it has been useful to do so. Thankfully, this now includes space travel.” Sorry, but again no. Official policy to the contrary, NASA and its supporting industries are as intransigent as ever. For as long as the Space Shuttle was in service, NASA baulked at any attempt at metrication, on the grounds that the conversion of drawings would have been too expensive. Now the Shuttle is retired, and the US has no manned spacecraft. American astronauts thumb rides on Russian spacecraft. NASA has as near a clean slate as it will ever have. But the contract for Orion, the manned spacecraft intended to replace the Shuttle, was awarded to Lockheed Martin, at least in part because Lockmart specified in its proposal that archaic units would be used whenever possible.
And our poster child for rational, democratic metrication? Australia gets one mention, and only to say that it had found metrication a “relatively straightforward project.” Come to think of it, there is another dog that didn’t bark lurking here. The Australian experience was that metrication costs were so low they were instantly swallowed up in the benefits. Considering how money-oriented this author is, it’s strange he never considers such terms as one-time costs, or ongoing benefits.
The book ends on a weirdly inverted triumphalist note. In fact, the entire book is a kind of celebration of technical and economic eclipse as social triumph. When I picked it up, I had in mind a map of a metric world with one obvious, US-shaped black hole in it, and the question “What happened?” Now that I’ve put the book down, I still have the same question.
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