Please Help Support a New Documentary on the Kilogram

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

All but one unit of the metric system can be scientifically derived. For instance, anyone anywhere can currently define a meter with the right equipment. This is important because any measurement standard that relies on a physical tool (think yardstick in this country and a meterstick elsewhere) means it is vulnerable to variability based on the material it’s made from—and every material is subject to change. Such differences can come from use (some of it gets worn off, making it shorter or lighter or accumulates dirt, making it longer or heavier) or even temperature. Optimally, you want a measurement standard that never changes under any circumstances.

The international standard for the length of the meter (for instance) is 1/299,792,458 of the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in one second.

If you can measure that (and laboratories around the world can), you can define the meter without any other external reference.

The outlier within the metric system is the kilogram. By definition, a kilogram is the weight of a piece of special metal kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures located outside of Paris called the International Prototype of the Kilogram. (It is equal to 2.20462 lbs for those still using U.S. customary units.) Periodically kilogram standards held by metrology centers from around the world are brought together to ensure their consistency against this single cylinder of metal kept carefully preserved for that purpose.

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Work is currently underway for the development of a scientifically derived kilogram and while it’s not quite there, it’s getting close. When that happens, the kilogram will no longer require a physical standard or be subject to environmental fluctuations. This is a good thing.

It is this history and ongoing scientific work that is the subject of a documentary called State of the Unit: The Kilogram. Amy Young, who has been working on this project for two years, needs help raising completion funds for her project and I’m asking you to help.

To learn more about the documentary, its background, the people involved and for your chance to contribute, go to

This is the sort of project that will help raise awareness of the metric system in this country (though not the direct purpose of Amy’s efforts) and for that reason, I’m putting my support behind it.

How much support? While my own project has certainly taken its fair share of my resources, I’m contributing to the project. I ask you to consider doing the same.

The Kickstarter campaign for State of the Unit ends on Friday, May 17 at 5:33pm EDT. Amy’s goal is to raise a modest $26,800 to help her complete the project that she already has spent so much of time and money on. Unless she raises the full amount, she’ll get none of it. She’s close but the deadline is looming fast.

Please consider helping her further this important work.

I thank you in advance for contributing to metric system understanding and education in whatever ways you can.


(Note: Revised on 5/12 at 8:20 p.m. to correct a typographical error.)

Why I Like the Metric System

I must like the metric system or I wouldn’t be at work on a documentary on the subject of its history here in the United States. However, that doesn’t explain why I like the metric system.

It’s not because I like numbers, in fact, math has never really been one of my strong suits. I’m more of a words kind of gal.

Over time, I found that I was getting involved in activities outside of work that used metric units. One was beading and jewelry making, which frequently had supplies  listed in millimeters. I ended up asking my daughter to buy me a caliper as a gift to use for things like figuring out just how big a 14mm by 10mm stone really was.

That metric use was forced on me.

At about the same time that I starting beading, I started working with essential oils for their medicinal properties. (Must have been in a creative period back then.) Again, many times I was forced to deal with metric units since many of my supplies used milliliters for quantities and I’d have to perform conversions so I knew how much I might be buying.

When making mixtures, I began by using my familiar units of teaspoons, tablespoons and partial cups. I suspect at one point, while I was measuring in one of my liquid measuring cups,  I ended up using those little milliliter lines already on the container since they were closer together and seemed a little more precise. And then, over time, I began to realize that it was easier to figure out percentages of essential oils to other ingredients using milliliters and grams.Image

I don’t know about you, but I can conceptualize a milliliter much easier than I can 1/5 or .20 of a teaspoon. (Technically, a teaspoon is 4.9289ml.) [*Please see note below] When dealing with essential oils, you’re usually dealing with very small quantities so milliliters were just much easier to work with in my mind (and on paper) than the much larger units used in our traditional system.

I just kind of evolved into it naturally and once I’d decided it was such a better system, I incorporated it into the essential oil classes I had started teaching. I guess that’s when I originally went on record as pro metric. That was about four years ago.

I’ve come across statements that say our students waste two years of their school lives since they don’t use the metric system. I suspect that number includes both having to learn both systems (most students learn metric units at some point in their education) but also having to use a system that isn’t very easy to manipulate since the units don’t logically relate to each other.

Isn’t it time that we reconsider how we are handicapping our children not only in how they relate to the rest of the world’s population but also how they relate to the world itself?

Note: An astute reader brought to my attention that the Food and Drug Administration defines a teaspoon as 5 ml so not even our government can agree what we mean by our own measures! For more, see the comments. [Amended 11/20/12]

Hunting for Wild Experts

Since my metric history documentary will be interview based, it’s important that I have the right people to interview. I have some sectors already represented but I still have others I need to find. Right now, I’m looking for experts in the areas of American culture (to help explain why Americans have been so resistant to the adoption of the metric system in general during the last 200+ years) and another who understands the culture in America during the 1970s (which I believe could have played a contributory role in our failure to adopt during our last big push in the mid 1970s).

One of my thoughts was to locate authors who had published books on the subjects I need covered, thinking that not only would they be documented experts in their respective areas, but it also might also be worth their while to appear in my documentary so that they can “plug” their books. (Cross marketing is a good thing.)

I did locate one author who has a book out on American culture and emailed him a couple of weeks ago. He did respond to me pretty quickly but said he didn’t know much about the metric system and indicated “I suppose there is some vague hand-waving that can be done about American insistence that we know best, but nothing specific.” Oh well, at least he got back to me.

At that point, I continued to search for current books on Amazon that covered the topics I needed covered, but in multiple cases where I thought I had found possible authorities (based on their published books) I was unable to locate any contact information for them after multiple search attempts on the Internet. I did locate contact information for one woman, but unfortunately she’s now publishing children’s books, so I didn’t think she was the best person to approach for my project.

One I realized I was going down a blind alley, I decided to take another approach. I did an Internet search for colleges and universities with strong American Studies programs. I will now start to look through the faculty lists etc., beginning at the most prestigious ones like Harvard and Yale, in an attempt to locate someone who has the background that I need and is willing to talk on camera about why as Americans we tend to push back so hard on something like the metric system. (Granted, frequently during past Congressional hearings on the topic many, many people have gone on the record taking the pro-metric position but others have dug in their heels and done everything in their power to resist, often even while admitting that the metric system real advantages. This perplexes me.)

The U.K. Metric Association was nice enough to retweet my request for experts but I never heard anything. Cheers to the U.K. Metric Association for trying to help me with this.

So, if you are (or hope to be) a published nonfiction author, you won’t be interviewed and have an opportunity to plug your book if no one can find you once it’s out. Have someone try to track you down through your Amazon listing (though I certainly used many more attempts than that) and if you can’t be found, you probably won’t be. Just a thought.


A Little More Research


Well, I carried out my research, as promised last week, to see if I could find any general American history books at the library that referenced the metric system. I exhausted the section and was only able to find one reference. The other sections bore no direct relation (as in history of American wars, etc.).

I found the mention in the bound issues of American Heritage magazine shelved with the books. I would have totally missed it had not the librarian brought over the index that covered most of its years (The index was in the reference section, so it wasn’t shelved there). I had passed the metric item over because the piece wasn’t listed in the index. The item in question is on page 112 of the August/September 1979 issue but the index only goes up to the “Postscripts” section on page 110. Curious.

The one-page piece is called “Presidential Measures” and relays how various presidents felt about the metric system including correspondence from James Madison to James Monroe on the need to “establish universal standards” of measurement and that our third, fourth and fifth presidents would have been happy with the (then) current trend toward the metric system. I’m not sure the editorial feeling about the situation was as strong.

While there, I asked for an interlibrary-loaned copy of For Good Measure: The Making of Australia’s Measurement System. This was recommended to me by the Metric Maven ( as apparently Australia has it’s metric act very much together. Only four copies were found at other libraries in the United States and since buying a copy through Amazon is $88, I opted to have them get me a copy that I will have to use within the library’s confines. (Thanks Mesa Public Library!)

The amount of material I have to read is staggering, to say the least, and I suppose I could rely on others for their expertise (and I will) but I feel it’s important that I have a really good grounding in the subject matter or how can I tell a compelling story that does the subject matter justice?

G’Day everyone

Good News, Bad News

Good news: I’ve found the company that I want to do the animation.

Bad news: It’s going to cost more than I anticipated.

At $50-$100 per second (yes, that’s per second) for basic animation, I realized almost immediately that I’d either have to cut back on the animation I’d planned or raise more money than I initially envisioned.

I’ve decided to do both.

Animation will be critical to help the viewer follow some fairly abstract concepts regarding measurements on a grand scale. And while I plan to have quite a few interviews throughout the piece, my decades old mantra is “talking heads are boring.” It’s okay to show people talking on camera part of the time, but it can get old really fast.

At least this has helped me rule out some other things I’d been thinking about, like pop culture clips related to the metric system…I just won’t be able to afford them. I’ll also need to be more creative about how I tell the story. I won’t be able to use animation as a prop to throw up on the screen during less interesting parts of the story, I’ll only be able to use it when it’s really crucial.

From a donor standpoint, I want to have a price point that seems reasonable. Fundraising is going to be difficult enough without a budget that at first glance seems gilded.

I had also thought about using a professional service for the final editing, but at $200 an hour, it will be cheaper to buy the equipment/software I need and perform the work in house. That’s okay. Editing is one of my favorite parts of the production process. It’s when you finally get to see all the disparate parts of the production finally come together into a cohesive whole. My rule of thumb is to allow eight hours of editing for every 15 minutes of final product. And that’s after you’ve already figured out where all shots go and how long you want them to be. That probably seems like a long time and maybe it will be faster with all digital production, but making sure that everything flows together in the right way and layering on music and any sound effects takes time and attention.

Now to hunker down and read my source materials. In my next post, I’ll try to give you an idea of what I’ve been try to absorb.

I also want to get the work started on the logo, so that’s also on my agenda.