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!



Return from TED – (Part 2): I made a presentation, albeit to a small audience

As I wrote previously, TED Active certainly was. In fact, it was exhausting. With about 50 different talks during the week (starting as early as 8:15 a.m. and running through 7 p.m.) it was difficult to keep up. I’m fairly sure not everyone managed to catch every talk. A few days I ago I received a link to the unedited talks so I can watch the ones I missed.

Of course, the picture I could find of myself has me resting my eyes. (Really, I remember this talk.)

Of course, the only picture I could find of myself in the Flickr feed has me resting my eyes. (Really, I remember this talk on extending human senses.)

On Tuesday (3/17) there was an opportunity to sign up for a fifteen-minute salon* on Thursday to either give a talk or curate* one. I really hadn’t intended on presenting anything myself but I went ahead and signed up. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say, but I’ve given talks on our metric system problems before—just not to an international audience—and would need a different take on what message I wanted them to leave the presentation with.

Name badges (with photo) were scrupulously checked every time you entered

Name badges (with photo) were scrupulously checked every time you entered the venue. They included a sensor that was read electronically.

Those who had signed up for the salons (there were five of us in all) received an email late Wednesday that if we wanted to have visuals, we needed to get them to the coordinator by 6 p.m. that evening. By the time I got back to my hotel room, I had about an hour to pull something together.

I was able to grab images I’d used for previous presentations, so I hurriedly pulled together nine slides including a cover slide titled: The United States and Metric System Adoption: What’s the Deal? I managed to submit them with 20 minutes to spare.

From then on, I skipped TED activities so I could rehearse for Thursday afternoon. (More than once I considered I must be nuts to present to people who been watching professionally-coached talks all week.) I had decided I’d talk for 10 minutes and then open it up to questions and comments. I really wanted to hear what people from other countries would have to say on the subject. I didn’t think I’d get a large audience since there were concurrent events taking place, however, I’d have a chance to answer a question I’d had for myself: “What could I say about why the United States wasn’t using the metric system?”

I’d designed the slides before I’d really had a chance to think about what I was going to say so I tried to pull together a cohesive message to go with the visuals. I knew I didn’t have time to get the presentation perfect but I decided to treat it like an audition for a TED talk so I kept at it. I knew the salon talks would be recorded and I might be able to leverage that if there weren’t any restrictions on use. (Oh, and as long as I did a halfway decent job.)

I was the first person to talk during the session and the audience had grown to about 30 people by the time I finished. My final slide was a call to action: If you’re American, please be aware of our situation and help us move toward metric adoption. If you’re not, please stop enabling us. If you are really worried about us “not getting” a weight or measure, don’t include our measures. Instead, use the metric measure and then tell us it’s “about the height of the Eiffel Tower,” or “about the weight of three medium apples,” and take away our crutch so we better realize we’re out of step. When I’d finished, the reception was quite warm.

There were three zones, the auditorium (cell phones off) and area outside of the auditorium (where I spent most of my time) and the lobby where talking was allowed.

There were three zones to watch the streaming  TED talks, the auditorium (cell phones off) and area outside of the auditorium (where I spent most of my time) and the lobby where talking was allowed.

At the end of my presentation I did have time for questions. The first one I got was “How long did you think it would take to convert?” My answer, based on various things I’d seen over the years, was that five years was a reasonable time frame.

Another person mentioned the fact that we destroyed a Mars orbiter back in 1999 due to the confusion of two teams using both metric and U.S. customary measures. It literally crashed into the surface of the planet. I’ve updated the full costs associated with the mission and it comes close to a $1 billion dollar loss.

A news release from the time noted:

The peer review preliminary findings indicate that one team used English units (e.g., inches, feet and pounds) while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation. This information was critical to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper Mars orbit.

I did specifically ask for feedback from someone who was in the audience for my whole talk. He told me he’d coached people for TEDx talks and the only thing he’d change was the visuals.

Hey, it was the best I could do in less than a hour.



* TED terminology