Waiting for the Metric System Change of the Guard

Having written about the anti-metric system-adoption stance taken by the director of our country’s National Institute for Standards and Technology last week, it got me thinking more about the counter arguments offered during our 200+ year history on why some people are so firmly against the metric system.

As far as I know, the first formal anti-metric group in the United States was the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Anglo-Saxon Weights with Charles Latimer as one of its organizers.

In his book The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, Ken Alder says of him:

Charles Latimer was a devout Christian, a successful railway engineer, and an avid pyramidologist who believed that the ‘sacred inch’ had been built into the Great Pyramid at Giza and had been transmitted across the millennia to the United States. He also had visceral contempt for atheism, the French, and metric system.

Latimer went on to write a 65-page hardcover booklet published in 1880 titled The French metric system, or The Battle of the Standards: A discussion of the comparative merits of the metric system and the standards of the great pyramid.  In it he relates his beliefs mentioned above yet also noted:

Certainly the advantage of a decimal system is of paramount importance, and there is no reason why we should not have a decimal system, deduced from our measure of inch, foot and year, or multiples of our unit, the inch. (page 13)

Fast-forward a hundred years later and a book called Metric Madness: Over 150 reasons for NOT converting to the Metric System put out by the American Institute for Weights and Measures in 1980 (the organization began in 1917) relates:

Nobody disputes the advantages of decimals. The question is not whether decimals are better. This is precisely why we have decimalized so many of our measurements so extensively which, unfortunately, so many of the decimal proponents fail to realize. (page 58)

I find it interesting that so many anti-metric folks uphold the logic of a decimal system but want to decimalize our current units or retain our system for applications such as binary units (the second quote).

Let’s take a moment to look at the currently anti-metric Wall Street Journal:

• In November it published an anti-metric article to coincide with Thanksgiving last year called: “Cooking a Poundcake in a Metric Oven Is No Easy Task

which includes the line:

“The keepers of America’s metric flame are the roughly 300 members of the U.S. Metric Association. By most measures, their efforts in recent decades have failed.”

and in

• “Measuring Metric’s Limits in the Grocery Aisle” from April of last year.

It’s lead sentence reads:

The fight to persuade Americans to ditch English units for the metric system in their everyday lives is largely lost.

Pretty much shows the paper’s slant doesn’t it?

However, the publication didn’t always take such a position and in its informative book (that’s a review so I can now quote from it)* The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Metric System, published in 1977 indicates:

The metric system is a system of measurement that is simpler and more logical than the customary of English system of measurement…However, once the adult becomes familiar with only three of four basic metric units, the entire metric system falls into place and usually becomes the preferable measurement system. (page 9)

It also praises the metric system in other sections of the publication as well including how decimal arithmetic should be easy for Americans since our currency is based on the metric system (page 12).

While I don’t anticipate the Wall Street Journal warming up to the metric system anytime soon, Carl Bialik (who wrote the grocery store article above) pointed out in a May 31, 2013 article that the Washington Bridge collapse might have been contributed to by the use of dual measurement systems in this county.  In his article “Will This Bridge Fall? It’s Hard to Say” it says simply:

Adding to the confusion, states and the federal government maintain separate databases of bridge ratings and characteristics, and these don’t always line up, for reasons including the piecemeal adoption of the metric system and data sharing that takes place only once a year.

Who knows, maybe the Wall Street Journal will eventually swing its position back to where it was forty years ago and seek to help Americans (and its own writers) embrace, understand and use the metric system as it did once. It even has the book that it can dust off towards those goals

Fingers crossed.


* The book states that no part of it may be reproduced in any form by any means without permission except for brief extracts quoted for review.

One thought on “Waiting for the Metric System Change of the Guard

  1. The WSJ “Numbers Guy” is to Civil Engineering, what astrology is to astronomy. He has perpetrated a false history of metric non-adoption in the 1970s (see my blog: The Metric Populist Revolt that Never Happened http://themetricmaven.com/?p=252 )

    I was not able to access his current WSJ offering. It’s behind a paywall—at least for me. I doubt he mentioned that the current measurements used for US road construction are in chains. These use decimalized feet as a base unit. The bridges are constructed and designed with feet and inches (see my blog The Chain Gang http://themetricmaven.com/?p=465 ) This is a mess which could be resolved using metric-only adoption.

    I have not found an example (so far) of any metric construction occurring in the US. I would like “The Numbers Guy” to offer an example of the “piecemeal adoption of the metric system” in highway and bridge construction. There is very little to find anywhere in government, and in many cases, they have returned to the Ye Olde English way of doing things. The California DOT had centerstrips defined in metric lengths, but decided to go back (see my blog Seeing is Not Measurement http://themetricmaven.com/?p=426)

    If “The Numbers Guy” wants to know why bridges fall down, I recommend he read “To Forgive Design — Understanding Failure” by Henry Petroski. It has quite an interesting history.

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