The Smithsonian and the Metric System

In September, I got a much-needed getaway. During that time, I made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit friends.

While there, I took advantage of my proximity to visit my contact at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (or NIST and the keepers of the metric system in the United States).

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

The NIST Museum

I was at NIST three years ago when I was just a few weeks into this project. Needless to say, my experience at its museum was radically different now that I had some context for the things that I saw. (Note: the museum is open only to official visitors. Still, there is a lot of information on the organization’s website.)

I also got a chance to meet with Elizabeth Gentry, my NIST contact there, and our country’s finest Metric Coordinator. While I’ve been keeping her up-to-date on the project, I’d yet to meet her in person.

Convert between systems only when necessary

I’m not sure how or why, but the friend I was staying with had some old U.S.-to-metric conversion slide rules imprinted with the Detroit Teachers Credit Union logo and a copyright of 1973.

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

One of the complaints that I’ve heard while on this project has been that our last attempt to convert to the metric system back in the mid-1970s spent too much time trying to teach people conversion formulas. Transitioning this way is actually quite complicated because there are so many formulas to memorize because we use so many different units (feet, pounds, ounces, gallons, ounces, etc.). The image to the right only captures part of the problem.

Any future plans to adopt the metric system would benefit from just straight measurement using the metric system, rather than trying to teach very complex and lengthy sets of conversion factors. (Only convert when absolutely necessary, like your grandma’s favorite recipes.)

For example: Do you have a space that needs a table? Just measure using the metric side of the ruler and do the same when shopping. I know I’m oversimplifying but it’s a start.

We were early decimal adopters—our coins

Needless to say, now that I’m involved with the metric system, I see its relevance almost everywhere.

Display depicting the different coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence.

A display depicting the different foreign coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence and establishment of our own mint.

I did end up coming across a coin display at the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian museum complex) called “Legendary Coins & Currency.” It reinforced some of my previous research that one of the reasons that the United States ended up with decimalized currency came from the fact that when we landed on this continent, we were not allowed to mint our own money while still part of England.

Note this quote from the History of Colonial Money that I found on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston site:

By 1652, the problem resulting from a shortage of coins had become extreme. England had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ plea for specie [gold and silver coin. ed], and the colonial leaders did not believe that the people should have to continue using the mixture of foreign coins, wampum, bullets, and barter objects any longer. In an effort to provide more good coin to further trade and commerce, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established an illegal mint in Boston in 1652.

That meant that we had a total mishmash of currencies, not only from our home country but with all the other countries with which we were trading. And there were many. It made for a difficult time. Thomas Jefferson was more than well aware of the problem as one source notes:

…one of Jefferson’s most troublesome legal clients finally paid him in a motley mixture of silver and gold — half joes and moidores from Portugal, doubloons and pistoles from Spain, and 308 English half crowns.

As a result, our fabulous founding father:

…had the rational idea to create a decimal-based currency system. Meaning that money should be based on the number ten. The word for one hundred in Latin is cent, so Jefferson suggested that the word for a 1/100th of a dollar be “cent.” The Latin word for “one tenth” is dime; so again, Jefferson suggested that as the name for the 1/10th of a dollar coin. The five-cent coin would become known as the half dime and then later, the nickel.

Thus, he was able to move us as a nation to the decimalized currency we still use in the U.S. today.

Jefferson was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimalized currency. He gave it, in 1784, its most articulate and persuasive expression in his “Notes on Coinage.” Congress, convinced by these arguments, adopted the new coin units with little dissent.

Unfortunately, he has more problems passing a decimalized system for our lenghts. But that’s another post.

[Please note: I am now starting a book on the subject of metric system adoption in the United States. I will post to this blog on occasion but the bulk of work on this project (when not at my full-time job) will focus on writing the book. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, the best thing will be to follow my Twitter feed and Facebook page. I’m finding those easier to keep up with. I now hope to post here once a month.)

Stay tuned!

Linda

 

2 thoughts on “The Smithsonian and the Metric System

  1. A good article Linda. You touched on the problems of conversion. Yes, this is a major problem which was tackled in countries like Australia and South Africa by prohibiting the sale of measuring devices that displayed imperial units. AS long as one is well prepared, the safety risks are minimal – witness the thousands of drivers who cross the US-Canadian border daily.

    Meanwhile, a rule of thumb for US and Canadian drivers who do cross into each other’s countries is the “20-30-50-80” rule: 20 mph = 30 km/h, 30 mph = 50 km/h and 50 mph = 80 km/h.

  2. It’s interesting that US coins are decimal, but their values are not marked that way. For example, a dime is the name of the coin worth 10 cents, but it is marked as ONE DIME instead of its value. This is not really a complaint, just an observation. Everyone knows the value of the coins by look and feel, rather than what’s written on them.

    I agree that minimizing conversion is a key to successful metrication. The goal is to end up with round, rational metric quantities, and use them exclusively. Rules of thumb such as the one Martin mentioned can be useful during a transition when they are simple. But that 1973 conversion chart you posted is worse than useless.

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