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!



The Metric System and Our English Roots

When I mention converting to the metric system in this country, aside from its immediate rejection by some because it represents change and change is almost automatically considered bad for our survival (see my previous post on “The Metric System as Predator”), one of the reasons brought up to reject it is our English past.

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011 (White

As Americans we tend to identify strongly with our British history even though we wouldn’t be a country today unless we’d fought so hard against English rule. We like our association with our Anglo-Saxon roots but we tend to like them on our own terms. It’s one of the reasons we follow the royal family’s every move in the tabloids even while we hold a love/hate relationship in everything from British music to international politics.(There’s contrasting dislike of the French but I’ll save that for another column.)

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: the Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens sums it up as:

The odd combination of rivalry and alliance, collusion and suspicion, was to be the pattern of Anglo-American relations for many years—until the entente of 1898 in fact—and in some reminiscent forms even after that.1

(Yeah, I admit it, I had to look up entente.)

It wasn’t that long ago that President Obama also spoke of our strong kinship while addressing the British Parliament (4:27 into clip):

I’ve come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known. It’s long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom share a special relationship.

Ironically, it was that break with our royal past that opened the door for us to become the first country in the world with decimalized currency (Thank Thomas Jefferson for our 10 dimes and 100 pennies) even while we still struggle to integrate the rest of a measurement system that no other country would think to give up. (No country that switched to the metric system has ever switched back.)

When people raise this idea of embracing our imperial past two things immediately jump into my mind.

  • The metric system was officially adopted in the U.K. in 1965 but its adoption remains “soft” and there are some imperial units still in use. When I asked the head of the U.K. Metric Association about this state of affairs, Robin Pace responded “Because you don’t use it. ”So, Britain is more metric than we are and it’s reasonable to say that we’re holding back both England and Canada from full adoption. That prompted my column on our bad international example for both the U.K. and Canada.
  • If people want to argue that giving up our current units is somehow abandoning our legacy, then I say let’s embrace it all the way and recover our lost measurement history and bring back the hogshead, chaldron, scruple, minim and perch to name a few. If we want to be ridiculous let’s be ridiculously ridiculous.

This grasping at our history seems somewhat ironic to me since we no longer use the “Imperial” units in this country we originally brought over; we currently use “U.S. Customary” units. Thus, our units don’t perfectly align with any other country in the world. The Imperial liquid ounce is 28.4131 mL, while the U.S. fluid ounce is 29.5735 mL.

It doesn’t initially sound like a lot but with large amounts it can really add up, particularly if we’re talking about prescriptions.

Came out earlier this month

Came out earlier this month

By the way, just got a copy of John Marciano’s new book: Whatever happened to the metric system. I’ve just started it but it’s getting some attention in the media. Based on previous communication with the author, I knew it wasn’t going to be pro-metric but frankly, anything that gets the discussion back on the table after 30 years works for me.



Notes: 1Location 1798 on my Kindle.

American Metric System Hypocrisy?

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

May 20 will be the 139th anniversary of the United States as one of the original signatory nations of the Convention of the Meter also known as the Treaty of the Meter. On that day the world took a leap forward and officially recognized the need to protect and improve the metric system (or SI as it is known on the rest of the planet), through the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). It is an intergovernmental organization that comes under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). On that day in Paris there was agreement on how the organization would be financed and managed, with member governments acting in common accord on all matters.

Ahem, then there’s the United States saying one thing and doing another


yet, I’m still buying my hamburger by the pound, gasoline by the gallon and fabric by the yard. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty and that’s why I’ve been researching his topic for almost two years. I trust the documentary I plan to make will raise awareness of how far behind the rest of the world we’ve gotten and we’ll want to do something about it.

To commemorate this 139th anniversary, also known as World Metrology Day, I’ll give a talk at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 21 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. I’ll try to be both informative and entertaining.

Just so you know, the theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements and the global energy challenge” and is sponsored by the BIPM and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (BIML).

According to Stephen Patoray, the current director of the BIML:

While measurements are central to most basic decisions on energy usage, there are many other aspects of the global energy challenge which are much more complex:

  • global population growth;
  • emerging economies;
  • complex technologies;
  • increasing consumer demands;
  • higher quality of life;
  • etc.

According to the site’s press release:

World Metrology Day is an annual event during which more than 80 countries celebrate the impact of measurement on our daily lives.

Feel free to join in to spread the word about all the advantages the metric system has versus our cumbersome U.S. customary units.

While not new, I found an interview where Rachel Maddow celebrated World Metrology Day back in 2010. You can view the seven minute clip here.

I hadn’t come across this before and was surprised to learn that several scientists with the National Institute of Standards were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work with time and temperatures during the past few years including: David J. Wineland (2012), John (Jan) L. Hall (2005) and William D. Phillips (1997) (More on them here.)

It’s not too early to start planning for next year

I don’t know that we’ll be in a better position to participate in World Metrology Day by the 140th anniversary (2015) but hopefully we will by the 150th anniversary, or sooner, if enough people in this country decide to do something about it.



The MidSchool Math Conference

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

The next MidSchool Math conference is already in the planning stages

My presentation on Math and the Metric System: Using What’s Easy at the MidSchool Math conference went very well. The session had 50 people registered and while not everyone showed up, most folks did. Since the attendees were mostly math teachers I felt I had an opportunity to get them thinking about the metric system in new ways that they could take back their classrooms and hopefully their lives. The group was receptive and had lots of questions for me. They were also able to interact and ask each other questions about their metric classroom experiences.

Hands-on opportunities

I had scheduled some hands-on exercises using length and mass to help them get used to applying metric units. While length didn’t present much of a problem, only a couple of people used scales in the kitchen. This gave them a chance to play with some of the equipment I brought. (Let’s face it, pretty much every ruler and tape measure today has both U.S. customary and metric units on them but most people are so familiar with measuring cups that it doesn’t occur to them to use a scale in the kitchen though it’s far easier.)

I also brought some metric-only rulers supplied by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (centimeters on one side, millimeters on the other) and they cleaned me out of those—which I consider a good sign.

Avoid conversions!!!

A couple of folks on the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) listserve who communicated with me prior to my talk wanted to make sure that I didn’t encourage conversions during my presentation. Not only was that explicit in my presentation—twice no less—but I also pointed out that I’d gotten that feedback from USMA to try to drive the point home. I think it worked.

After all, the metric system was introduced at a time of widespread illiteracy and even unschooled french farmers and tradesmen learned it easily enough. It should be a cinch for today’s high-tech Americans.

One attendee told me she thought it was the best presentation she’d seen so far (I was in the afternoon on the second day) but I have to say that the keynote speaker on the first day, Dan Meyer, was extremely good. He stressed the need to engage kids studying math in the classroom in three acts and bring them along for a story where they really want to figure out what happens. Let’s face it, everyone gets more interested if there’s a good story involved. I think the audience heard him.

Testing my story structure

For my part, I got a chance to try out part of my story structure for the documentary on an audience, hear questions and find out what parts of the narration were of the most interest by their level of attention. There’s just nothing better than trying out your material on a real audience. I’m very pleased with the results but I will continue to refine and expand.

Since I did attend a couple of sessions other than my own, I also had a chance to engage with additional teachers and all seemed very interested in what I’m trying to do. It was only one of the other presenters who gave me pause when he suggested that the next generation would take care of metric conversion in the United States. (Only other time I’ve heard that before [good idea but not now] was in John Quincy Adams’ report to Congress back in 1821—haunts us every time we get serious about metric adoption by the way…) I quickly realized that there was no point in arguing the issue with him but would have loved to point out that in the 30 years since the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded no “next  generation” has come along so far and perhaps he’s part of the “next generation” that should do something. Ah well, I tried to be as persuasive as possible under the circumstances.

As should always be the case, the teacher and learner roles got reversed during my session and I walked away with some additional things to think about and research.

For instance:

  • I’ve been told the military uniformly uses the metric system but others have told me that’s not true. True status will take some digging.
  • When converting from miles to kilometers, what happens to the mile markers since they’re currently used to help drivers know how many miles to their next exit?
  • What’s the best way to convert existing recipes into metric?

The cost of conversion

Of course, the biggest unanswerable question I get asked is how much would it cost to convert to the metric system in this country. I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on that since it’s been so long since the question was seriously considered.

Aside from the cost of conversion errors, and time savings in schools and elsewhere on an individual basis, imagine how much time it takes to design things for multiple countries with dual labeling—including the use of more ink to print both sets.

Converting to the metric system will have a mostly one-time cost while failure to convert to the metric system continues to cost us, and cost us and cost us…


2014 Will Be the Metric System Turnaround Year in the United States

Welcome to the statistical Annual Report via WordPress

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 34,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

This week’s post

While I feel I’ve made some real progress toward the background for the documentary, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. While I already have quite a few people and organizations lined up for interviews, there’s still fundraising (and everything that goes along with that), putting together promos with no budget other than what I can currently take away from my living expenses, technical considerations of equipment and software and a whole host of challenges including keeping up my full-time job as a writer/project managers for a national science laboratory. (There are no problems, only challenges, mind you.)

Progress is being made

In January of 2013 there were 431 visitors to this blog and last month (December) there were 2,952. That’s quite an increase, and for that, dear reader, I’m deeply appreciative of your scarce time and attention on what I consider an important and mostly overlooked topic.

However, singing to the converted is only going to get us so far. 2014 is going to need to be the year we both start to break through and media noise and get some real traction attached to this issue along with its implications for our future generations with regard to math, science and medicine. It’s not too late despite our very checkered past. It dates back to Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and, in part, helps make the whole story so dang interesting.

Let this become your mantra: We only have to solve the metric system problem once.

And it is solvable. How many other things can you say that about? Not education. Not healthcare. Not any variety of social reforms. But metric system adoption in this country, yes. And we really do need to treat it as a project and ensure that the structure put in place to carry it out is dismantled when it is time…but not before.

While others around the country are beginning to catch on through major media (Discovery News, Scientific American and the Smithsonian this past year) there’s still work I need to do, which will be quite laborious on my end, along with the need to engage with relevant people and organizations.

The folks on (and the reddit metric subpages) are already on board and they’ve driven a considerable amount of traffic to my site, including almost 2,000 hits in two days because someone posited the question “What’s something from another country you would like to see happen in your country?” It generated quite a bit of conversation on the the topic.

These bursts of interest give me hope that I’m on the right path and I’m happy to say I have a number of people who are helping me along. I’ll continue to rely on their support moving forward. I’m grateful to them everyday.

And remember that each and every one of you is making a difference as well. Allow me to press into service an old adage:

Many hands make light work.

I sure hope so. In fact, I’m counting on it.

My very best wishes during the coming year,


Why measurement systems (including the metric system) are important

Let’s, for a moment, set aside how important it is to get medication doses correct and ask the more basic question “Why does it really matter what measurement system we use?”

My answer to that question might shock you: Fundamentally, it doesn’t.

What really matters is that people working together use the same one. What the metric system has going for it is that it was designed for all of the units logically interrelate to each other. That last point is a big deal.

Metric measuring tape

Metric measuring tape

Back before the world was so integrated it was less of a problem if each little hamlet developed and used its own measures.

The way I like to put it is: “So how tall is it?” one peasant asks another.

“Why, it’s as tall as Larry’s door,” answers the friend. They’ve both been to Larry’s house and can use that as a point of reference.

To say that’s Larry’s door could now become the standard of length/height for that community really isn’t that far off.

Under this scenario, the only people for whom that would really cause a problem would be for the traders who’d have to learn multiple units to deal with multiple localities as they sold their wares. It was also a way of keeping outsiders out since their lack of familiarity with the regional units would immediately make them stand out.

For reasons that I’ll explore in my documentary, we continue to isolate ourselves, and handicap our children, through our lack of metric adoption.

The units we currently use in this country are not only a mishmash of almost totally unrelated units that were cobbled together but we’ve put ourselves totally out of step with the rest of the industrial world.

Metric units are streamlined and basic. Easy to learn and apply. That’s why almost everyone else in the world has adopted them.

While I have enlisted an American culture expert to interview to help address why we’ve been so resistant to such a change, I suspect that there are multiple reasons for our behavior on this issue in the past. The poll that ran on this topic previously to helped identify them.

Recycling our past

As we move toward metric adoption, we’ll find ourselves with items we no longer need. Mostly what comes to my mind are the measuring cups we use for dry ingredients in the kitchen (in a metric world, grams are the necessary and superior way to go). It’s also possible that people might still have liquid measuring cups without milliliters but they’d probably have to be pretty old or rulers (or tape measures) that don’t have metric measures on them. (Not sure what the cutoff date for such items might have been…the 1970s when we had our last metric push? Might need to investigate this some more.) Items like wrenches in U.S. customary units also come to mind.

Great idea to recycle tape measures--hopefully nonmetric ones.

Great idea to recycle tape measures–hopefully nonmetric ones.

Earlier this week I came across the above image of a clutch made from measuring tapes and got to thinking about what we could do with non-metric items we’d longer need. (I know I currently have a tape measure with inches on one side. It looks like the item above uses both metric and nonmetric.)

In the meantime, feel free to share your ideas of what other items we’ll need to try to recycle into something useful or interesting (maybe even beautiful) once we’ve adopted the metric system in this country and even your ideas of how to do it.

I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself and I have an idea for something to do with my dry measuring cups that just came to me so I’ll try to get that put together up for my next post.

Want to share your ideas of what other things we’ll not need in a fully metric world? Feel free to add them to the comments section.

Want to share an image of possible way to use old, nonmetric items using one of many reputable filesharing sites? (I’d recommend  Imgur or Photobucket feel free.* Or even post to my twitter account: Who knows, maybe I’ll add your ideas to my “Hall of Fame.”

I look forward to hearing from you!


Linda (milebehind@gmailcom)

* Just please don’t send me image files. I won’t open them for security reasons.

The clutch image from

Metric tape measure photo: Simon A. Eugster

Vote for Your Favorite Pro-Metric System Slogans

One idea that came concurrent with the inception of the project was T-shirts. Really. Not only as a way to raise money for production but with the notion that if people are interested enough to wear a pro metric T-shirt it might get other people thinking about the issue and raise awareness. Awareness is the first step to helping prepare for the change that needs to take place.

To back this idea up, allow me to quote the Heath brothers, from their bestselling book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: (Had to take some liberties with emphasis from the book due to the blog’s template.)

We all talk about the power of peer pressure, but “pressure” may be overstating the case. Peer perception is plenty. In this entire book, you might not find a single statement that is so rigorously supported by empirical research as this one: You are doing things because you see your peers do them. It’s not only your body-pierced teen who follows the crowd. It’s you, too. Behavior is contagious.

To help perpetuate peer perception, I’ve generated slogans I thought would work to spur metric adoption. I’m sure I’ll come with with more but here are some to start with.

I plan to make products available with them so knowing your favorites would be very helpful. Please take a moment to tell me which ones you like best. (I’ll roll out more as time goes on.)

Here’s an example of one of them translated into a design: (thanks to my multitalented daughter Laura):

What the slogans might look like

A slogan example

(Please note: For right now, please don’t send me your suggestions for new ones. There are legal implications and intellectual property considerations. May run a contest in the future once I’ve gotten the details sorted out so hold on to them until that time. In fact, try to think up more than the one that just popped into you head and write them down for future use. Thanks!)

May also have to change some a bit since Burma has now announced its intent to convert  to the metric system. But, hasn’t happened yet so I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Layout also gets complicated so I used colons where I thought some of the line breaks should be. Some are also a bit of an “inside joke” so ignore them if they don’t work for you.

I’ll leave the poll open for a few weeks since I would like lots of input. Feel free to share this with folks you know. Thanks, Linda

Note: Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway, 2010. Print. Page 227.

Researching U.S. Metric History at the Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building

Having worked on this metric system project for over a year in addition to my full-time job as a communications and marketing specialist, I needed to get away for a while. Am visiting friends in D.C. but still decided to get in some work and it occurred to me to visit the Library of Congress to see what it might have available on our national metric system history.

Granted, I’ve already done extensive research in this area and have thousands and thousands of pages of material via books, newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, etc. but that information only includes items entered into widely available online databases. Decided it might be worth my time to see what the Library of Congress had specifically. I had hoped the National Institute of Standards and Technology (our current keepers of the metric system) might have archived information on our metric past but was told that was not the case.

Researching at the Library of Congress

[Note: Items with “•” would apply to anyone who wants to research at the Library of Congress. FYI]

• First thing I found out is you have to register to even look at most of the materials. They take a photo and assign you a “Reader” number on a card that you have to use to get into various reading rooms and request information not on the shelves…and that’s the vast majority of it.

Underground passages

Navigating the underground passages between the Library’s main buildings

• For my purposes, I learned to navigate the underground passageways that link the three main buildings: the Jefferson (where most people go) as well as the Adams and the Madison buildings. The biggest advantage of learning how to use the tunnels: you don’t have to keep exiting one building and go through security again in another one. During the course of the day I ended up moving from building to building about five times so it made things much easier.

After an initial consultation, I was directed to the science department on the 5th floor of the Adams building.

I indicated to the research librarian that I was looking for information on the consumer side of metric adoption that would have begun around 1975 (when our last metrication bill was signed) to about 1982 (when the U.S. Metric Board was disbanded after President Reagan eliminated its funding).

I have lots of U.S. metric system information but I don’t have very much information in this area. Frankly, I’ve been curious about it since the few things I’d come across looked more like they were aimed at children rather than adults. Sure, it makes sense to have information for readers of all skill sets but writing everything as if the audiences are adults who barely understand the English language seemed like the wrong approach to me.

She very helpfully ended up giving me 46 pages of references that covered the time period under consideration and were more about metric adoption in general. That was okay by me. I set about going through the list to decide which things I wanted to see most.

• You can’t remove anything from the facility and printing costs 20 cents a page. Didn’t know it at the time but you can scan things from the printers onto a thumb drive but I didn’t happen to have one on me.

Under my current situation I thought I could take a look at some of the items and either try to buy them for my collection if they were critical and available (Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and Powells are among some of my favorite sites for such things) or trot back to my local library and try to obtain them through interlibrary loan and spend some more time with them there, possibly even photographing them for later use as visuals within the documentary (keeping copyright in mind of course).

I dutifully filled out some of the “call slips” then looked for new items and submitted those in an effort to be efficient and not have everything hit me at once.

LC desk

Working at the Library of Congress

• When you request your materials you indicate your seat/table number that’s located on a small brass plate associated with each chair for delivery purposes.

• Got the strong impression that they prefer the requests be made online (through this page) but since I only had a paper listing that would be difficult so I dutifully filled out the paper requests.

Ultimately I discovered that about a year ago large amounts of material was moved offsite and most of the items I wanted were no longer in the building. A different and very helpful librarian helped me request the records be delivered on Monday, and with the early drop off time, since my plane leaves at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

Have more to report from this trip. Please stay tuned. Thanks.


My Take on the White House Petition for Metric System Adoption—and its Failure

We The People

When I first heard about the petition for metric adoption on the White House’s “We the People” site at the end of last year, I was dismayed.

Yes I’m pro metric, as this page clearly shows, but now was not the time for such a petition and I knew it would fail to elicit any real political movement. Here’s my take on the situation:

• Not enough people are aware how out of step we have gotten with the rest of the world on this issue so there was no way in hell enough people were going to sign the petition for there to be a critical mass to get our government to take action. (I’m hoping to change that with my project but it’s not there yet.)

So let’s take a look at the number of people who signed the petition by the time the clock had run out on it (a petition has 30 days to meet the minimum threshold for signatures): 49,914 (I’ll round it up to 50,000 for the sake of convenience);

and the current population of the United States: 311 million (also rounding).

That means that as far as the White House is concerned, only .021 percent of voting Americans care about this issue. Frankly, a petition to reincorporate the hogshead measurement into our units would have been viewed with the same political imperative given the response rate.

White House

And I while I applaud the fact that the originator of the petition wanted to bring attention to this situation at the highest levels of our government, there may be a couple of adverse outcomes to this effort.

• The current administration has been forced to take an anti-metric-adoption position—formally.

Since there wasn’t enough political interest for the current administration to gain anything by taking up this gauntlet (I probably wouldn’t be writing this if millions of people had signed the petition) it was going to have to develop a reason not to respond positively—and it did. Interestingly, it evoked one of the same reasons that the anti-metric-adoption groups have used throughout most of our country’s history: the Metric Act of 1866.

The law (now almost 150 years old) makes it illegal to refuse to trade in the metric system.

The White House’s official response cites it this way:

Right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson signed legislation that made it “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.”

Thus, the argument becomes, “You’re free to use it, so go ahead. We already have a law on the books so no more is needed.”

The petition’s official response was: “So choose to live your life in metric if you want, and thank you for signing on.”

I would have preferred to get the administration to form a positive initial stance on metric adoption rather than try to get it to reverse the position it’s now formally taken but it’s not impossible to do so.

• The 50,000 people who signed the petition may take its “defeat” as a sign that things won’t change and get discouraged; I don’t want that to happen because I don’t believe it’s true.

As it is, our history with metric adoption is already as discouraging as it needs to be. As I’ve run through the storytelling in my head, and the fits and starts we’ve had with metric adoption, a case could almost be made that we—as a county—were “ordained” not to use it. I don’t believe that’s true but I hate to see more fuel thrown on that fire.

• It provides encouragement to anti-metric forces that will grow stronger in step with pro-metric forces.

I believe it’s time for us as a country to join with most of the rest of the world in metric adoption and as we see forward momentum in this area (the intent of the petition), an increase in the “pro” position will be met by those with the “con” stance. (I also think the pros will eventually greatly outweigh the cons this time around.) While I believe the cons have a right to be heard, I also would like to see the transition take place as smoothly as possible. This, I think, throws a bump in that road by supplying the opposition with ammunition.

• I must say I find the “bilingual” assertion made in the administration’s official  reply laughable.

The response asserts:

At the same time, if the metric system and U.S. customary system are languages of measurement, then the United States is truly a bilingual nation.

To me that’s the equivalent of endorsing idioglossia.

The linguistic definition of idioglossia is a private language that is used by a small group of people and is not understood outside of that group—it’s what some people might recognize as “twin speak,” or the “language” that some twins develop that only they know.

Within the world stage, only one country uses U.S. customary units (we subverted the “imperial system” many years ago) so we have in a sense, our own private language that 95 percent of the Earth’s population doesn’t understand that we use to talk to ourselves. Sounds like idioglossia to me.

One source I found (a book titled The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids by Jenn Berman) indicates that, in the case of idioglossia, “Most twins outgrow it by the age of four.”

So, as I read it, the government is endorsing the continuation of a private language (U.S. customary units) when most of the rest of world (except Burma and Liberia) have grown up and for the common good (medicine, science, international trade, general communication) have adopted the adult language of the metric system while we stubbornly cling to our “baby talk.”

I have more to say on this topic but that’s enough for this round.


U.S. Metric Adoption and Common Core Education Standards

One thing I learned soon after starting this project is that our country is less the UNITED States of America than it is the United STATES of America. Having rallied against the British and its centralized government more than 200 years ago, our founding fathers made sure our Constitution gave limited powers to the federal government and put considerable control into the hands of state government. This includes our education standards.

While one might think that the Department of Education helps ensure that our children receive at least some basic level of education throughout our nation, such is not the case. In fact, the Department of Education:

  1. Establishes policies related to federal education funding, administers distribution of funds and monitors their use.
  2. Collects data and oversees research on America’s schools.
  3. Identifies major issues in education and focuses national attention on them.
  4. Enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive federal funds.

You’ll notice that setting standards for what our children learn in schools is not within its scope—it’s up to the individual states to decide what children learn in what ways and even what constitutes a passing grade. (I don’t mean to imply here that the states are out to shortchange their children but they could if they so desired.)

While each state is able to set its own education standards, there has been progress toward the implementation of common, basic standards to finally provide some consistency in what’s covered within school classrooms across the country. The organizations behind this effort are the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.


The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt. The standards are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit bearing entry courses in two or four year college programs or enter the workforce.

Adoption_mapAccording to the website: “Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Common Core State Standards.” Those that have “not yet adopted” (the site’s wording) the standards are Alaska, Texas, Minnesota, Virginia, Nebraska and Puerto Rico. Work is still taking place for the standards and a visit to the Council of Chief State School Officers website shows that the publication Common Core State Standards: Implementation Tools and Resources is dated as recently as May 2013.

I’m happy to say that metric system is included in these standards.

Here’s what I found on the Common Core site for grades 2, 3, 4 and 5 under the sections called “measurement and data”:

Grade 2: “Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes and Estimate lengths using units of inches, feet, centimeters, and meters.”

Grade 3: “Measure and estimate liquid volumes and masses of objects using standard units of grams (g), kilograms (kg), and liters (l).”

Grade 4: “Know relative sizes of measurement units within one system of units including km, m, cm; kg, g; lb, oz.; l, ml; hr, min, sec.”

Grade 5: “Convert among different-sized standard measurement units within a given measurement system (e.g., convert 5 cm to 0.05 m), and use these conversions in solving multi-step, real world problems.”

From grade 6 and beyond, the “measurement and data” subheading no longer appears and other math concepts (such as probability) are listed.

So, at least the standards do include the metric system although it appears to be taught somewhat side by side with our U.S. customary units in at least grades 2 and 4. I suppose I could try to write something into the fact that for grade 3 the language says “standard units of grams, etc.” without mentioning U.S. customary units but I don’t think that buys much of anything. On the other hand, I could write into the fact that for grade 4 the wording “one system of units” could also mean that it could be interpreted to mean either U.S. customary or metric units could be used.

I’m writing about this subject for two reasons:

1. To raise awareness of the attempts to get some consistency within our country so we can best prepare our children for their (and our) future so that you can help support these standards—including when it comes time to press for elimination of U.S. customary units in favor of the metric system within the Core Standards, and

2) To make sure you know that while many powers were delegated to state control, Congress does have within its scope the ability to mandate our weights and measures. It states in the Constitution in Article 1, Section 8 that it is within the power of Congress:

“To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

The bottom line: I hope there will come a time in the future when this information becomes important.


P.S. I would like to thank any of my readers who helped back the Kickstarter campaign for the documentary on the kilogram. Amy met her goal and, as a result, has had the funds released to her to carry on her project. I wish her much luck and success with her efforts.