Wrapping My Mind Around U.S. Metric History

When I decided to document U.S. metric history, I knew it would be a huge undertaking for me personally but I also hoped that it could have a positive impact on a wider world. Since I have taken on huge projects before and they’ve turned out quite well that aspect didn’t scare me.

What has turned out to be daunting has been trying to assimilate the vast amount of research that I’ve had to collect and go through. I now have a broad mental outline of the entire history of the metric system from prehistory to today but I will need to continue to refine the story as I deal with precise plot points in its history.

Interestingly, information has come from different sources depending on the time period. Ancient and more recent history on measurement systems has mostly come from books:Lots of reading

The Story of Measurement
, Andrew Robinson (217 pages)
The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, Edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (236 pages)
The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, Ken Alder (350 pages)
A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement, Ian Whitelaw (157 pages)
Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity, Robert Tavernor (192 pages)
World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, Robert P. Crease (276 pages)
Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, Andro Linklater (263 pages)

Of course, the definitive piece for the U.S. history of the metric system up until 1968 is:

The History of the Metric System Controversy in the United States. (“This document reviews the debate between 1790 and 1968 on the question of the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures by the United States.”) U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards. (268 pages)
This report has made up the bulk of my research from our country’s early history through the last attempted implementation with the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

Other sources include newspaper and magazine articles. The oldest newspaper article I have is one from the New York Times and is dated 1877. It is titled “The Metric System” and begins with the lines:

Nothing more clumsy and inconvenient could well be devised than the dozen or more mensuration tables of arithmetic, which are a terror to childhood and almost impossible to retain in memory for life. There are in use lines, barleycorn’s, inches, nails, ells, quarts, quarters, gallons, pecks, bushels, coombs, minims, noggins, kilderkins, firkins, barrels, butts, pipes, puncheons, tierees, hogsheads, seruples, carats, grains, drams, pennyweights, and many others.

(Apparently things were even more confused back then than they are now but we still didn’t have the wherewithal to change.)

I also have information from sources such as the L.A. Times and countless magazines. In the age of the Internet, I also have my fair share of information from Wikipedia and various blogs. My guesstimate of the full amount of books and other information that I have for this project is about 7,000 pages but that’s probably conservative. And new information is coming in all the time.Lotsobooks

In fact, one of my most recent acquisitions is a book on the implementation of the metric system in Australia (which I think I have indicated in the past is probably the most metric of any of the previous British Empire entities) titled For Good Measure: The Making of Australia’s Measurement System. (It was sent to me on faith alone by a gentleman there who advanced the book to me prior to receiving payment for it. Thanks Peter.)

Ultimately, what I ended up doing was dictating relevant passages into a Word document that will now form the backbone for my outline. Even this is an extensive document but at least it’s providing me with a jumping-off point. It was the only way I could figure out how start to pare down so much information into something that was usable.

You have to start somewhere, even if it’s the most tedious thing in the world to do.


3 thoughts on “Wrapping My Mind Around U.S. Metric History

  1. I believe that companies need to increase and use metric systems to sell stuff. Like for an example 1 quart of milk should just be 1 liter. Also shampoo & facial wash should display metric as their main display. For an example 355ml( 12 oz) instead of the other way around. People are already use to ml, l, and grams because of wine, alcohol, medicine, drugs including illegal, and soda bottles. This will not be a big deal and can help.

  2. ^samjamoin: You are so right though. I’ve seening all these petitions online and on the whitehouse website and Ive been thinking the we should also petiton companies to become and use more metric as their display. That would be a good idea.
    I also hope hawaii passes the metric bill and Obama seriously increase the use of the metric system in goverment standards.

  3. Hi Linda: Researching the history of the United States failure to adopt the System International of Units is a large task. The USMA has some historic moments and laws plotted out on their site. I think any change needs to come through writing companies and petitioning the Senate and House of Representatives.

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