Powell’s Books and the Metric System




Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A book lovers paradise.

Last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon for my daughter’s wedding. I’m happy to say that everything went wonderfully—even the weather—and I am more than pleased with my new son-in-law and his family. I welcome them with open arms.


Of course, while in Portland I had to make a pilgrimage to Powell’s Books being the media freak I am. My first day in town, I met with my sister and brother -in-law (also in town for the wedding) and we allotted a short period of time there before heading out for dinner.

It wasn’t enough time so I went back the next day as it was only a few blocks from my hotel.

By the end of the second trip, I had accumulated quite a few books, all of which related to this project and the early history of humankind so I could continue my research regarding our history with measures. I was bemoaning how heavy everything was going to be in my luggage when the cashier pointed out that for a flat rate (about $14, as I recall) Powell’s would ship everything to my house. That was the last thing I needed to hear (too tempting) so during my third trip there in as many days, I hauled back the books I’d already bought and acquired a few more. (Hey, great selection and a lot of used books—a bargain in my “book.”)

I had everything shipped to the house (it all arrived two days ago) with the exception of one book that I decided to take with me despite its heft (at around 1.63 kg or around 3.5 pounds).



This book will provide my ancient history dates since they vary greatly depending on the source

That book was The Seventy Great Inventions of the Ancient World, edited by Brian M. Fagan.


Why am I telling you this? Uncovering that history of our measures has been quite challenging. I already had a book called The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (along with countless other books for my research) but it didn’t contain the information I needed.

The farther you go back in time you go, the sketchier the dates get, which has been causing me problems.

I’ve been working under the hypothesis that routine measures likely arose once people transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and it made sense to erect permanent or semipermanent buildings. I’ve already illustrated, even one person building a small, grass-type hut immediately needed a measure to make a perfectly round circle for the outer wall. It then stands to reason that multiple people, building a more permanent structure over days, weeks, months or years, would have to have had some agreed upon length or, surely, uneven walls would not have withstood anything very well.


Gobekli Tepe in Turkey dates to 10,000 BCE

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe,_Urfa.jpg


The trouble is, the earliest cities of which we’re aware (Jericho in Palestine at around 9,000 BCE and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey at about 10,000 BCE) were already quite complex (see photo).

Smaller settlements prior to those were likely built near rivers and lakes for access to both water and the foodstuffs living in the water (fish, etc.). However, as the last ice age ended, water levels around the world rose by roughly 100 meters (300 feet) and those locations would likely be made of more perishable materials (wood vs. stone) and are under water if any evidence of them still exists at all.

Thus, my dilemma reconstructing our measurement history for the book I’m writing to go with the documentary.

Given that early dates for various things are all over the place, depending on the source, I’ve decided that based the vast number of contributors and how the book is laid out; Seventy Great Inventions will form the basis of my historical dates as I lay out that part of the story.

In future, if someone wants to take exception with my hypotheses, they can argue with me (though I’ll likely have evidence to back up my assertions) but if they want to argue dates, they can argue with the book’s authors.

I’ll continue to do research through other sources, of course, but Seventy Great Inventions will be my “go to” for dates.

Or at least that’s what I envision for right now.

Projects this large and complex can test one’s resources but so far, so good.

Thanks for reading this far!






Prehistory and the metric system       


First, I’m not implying that the metric system has been around forever—it hasn’t been, more like since around 1790—rather, I’ve been investigating where measurement standards might have come from prior to the development of writing. No one can say for sure when measurements started, all researchers can do is infer information based on archeological evidence.


A general view of the Uruk archeological site at Warka in Iraq. Image from the UK government

Most of the sources I’ve come across gloss over the prehistory of measures by pointing to the standards found in Mesopotamia and then move forward from there. Me, I’m more curious than that and thought it might be interesting to cover some ground that others might not have.

So here’s where I’m currently coming from: I believe there is an intersection between agriculture, the development of cities, architecture, astronomy and even the division of labor that related to the development of measures. I’ll go into these points in more detail in future posts while I continue to work on my metric system history book during my off hours from my day job.

Standards needed for permanent buildings

One of the oldest cities that has been documented is Uruk (from around the fourth millennium BCE.)

However, this site is very complex and it is unlikely it was the first attempt at a city but older, smaller, less-complex examples either no longer exist or have yet to be discovered. I posit that before these multi-people, multi-year building projects could begin, everyone had to agree what the standard measure was to be used, such as the much better-known cubit that was used in Egypt from around 3,000 BCE.

But let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back to around 9,000 BCE.

I’m starting from this date because it appears this was about the time that the last ice age ended and agriculture began. (The farther you go back in time, the sketchier the dates become so you might come across a source that differs from this. I had to start somewhere and I’m not in a position to argue with scholars who have spent much more time on these issues than I have.)

Back then, people were hunter/gatherers and if they settled anywhere, it wasn’t for very long and permanent structures were not needed. Some research I’ve come across indicates that people may have already domesticated some animals and they might have, for instance, moved sheep or other animals around with them.

I’ve also come across other information that the earliest agriculture may have been less planting of things in rows, as we currently think of such practices today, and more cultivation of helpful things.

Okay, so, it’s 8,500 BCE and near our settlement (likely near a water source) we come across some blueberry bushes. On either side of these food-bearing plants are some other plants that are less helpful since they flower but don’t provide sustenance.

It’s likely we figure out that by cutting back, or eliminating, the plants that weren’t so helpful and tending to the blueberry bush by watering, and possibly fertilizing, it a richer harvest results make the efforts worth our while.

Over time, it likely made sense that people started to transplant the beneficial plants closer to each other for efficiency. (There’s a reason you don’t keep kitchen equipment scattered around the house.)

Once the investment has been made in cultivating plants, it’s reasonable to expect that people kept closer tabs on their efforts and spent more time in one place, they’d want a home that would last more than a couple of seasons.

That got me thinking about how long buildings typically last. Once site I came across indicates that modern buildings can last more than 50 years. But, what about more “primitive” ones?

Modern, but primitive, hut

You too can build a primitive hut with minimal tools but lots of effort.

I found YouTube videos that show how to build circular dwellings from saplings and primitive tools in one case, and another video on how to build a wattle and daub hut, with the roof of the second building showing signs of rot only four months after construction.

Interestingly, in the first case, the builder needed to measure equidistant sides for the hut from a center post. In essence, he created a standard made from a sapling that might only be used for that one hut, but he did need a standard unit to make even a primitive building.

Had two people worked on the sapling hut, they would have both needed to use that same measure for the hut to have properly turned out.

Perhaps, in this case, as Protagoras of Abdera indicated thousands of years ago, man is the measure of all things…

I’ll write more next month and in the meantime, I’ll slog through more research on the ancient world and possibly confuse myself.




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…


National Metric Week is Coming: Can You Help?

The logo for this year's National Metric Week

The logo for this year’s National Metric Week

Believe it or not, we actually have a National Metric Week in this country. It’s always the week in which October 10th falls (As in 10/10). This year it’s the week of October 6-12. The annual recognition of the importance of the metric system in the United States is promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

From the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Part of its formal position on the subject of metric system adoption reads in part:

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics supports efforts by the U.S. government to make a transition to the metric system (SI) as the nation’s primary measurement system and to reestablish the U.S. Metric Board to support and encourage the use of the metric system. However, the Council recognizes the leadership responsibility of schools to ensure that all students have experiences that enable them to measure in both the metric and the customary systems as well as to solve problems related to measurement in either system.

The second part of that statement wouldn’t be necessary if we had converted to the metric system during one of our several attempts in the past 200+ years. (And yes, there was more than the one in 1975.)

If the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics think it’s important for our children to covert to the metric system (how I read the above statement) then it must be pretty important because these are the folks who teach our children math!

As if that wasn’t enough, I located the following in of the 2013 version of the National Education Association Handbook under its “Resolutions” section:

B-57. Metric System
The National Education Association believes in the adoption of the International System of Units (SI metric system). The Association advocates that the SI system be taught at all educational levels. Page 238.

And here’s what the National Science Teachers Association has to say to say on the subject (in part):

The efficiency and effectiveness of the metric system has long been evident to scientists, engineers, and educators. Because the metric system is used in all industrial nations except the United States, it is the position of the National Science Teachers Association that the International System of Units (SI) and its language be incorporated as an integral part of the education of children at all levels of their schooling.

Metric system conversion is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) issue

As I’ve pondered our metric system history issues for more than a year, I’ve come to the conclusion that conversion to the metric system is fundamentally an education/STEM issue. For those of you not familiar with the STEM acronym STEM, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

It’s a concept I’m very familiar with since I’ve been writing about regional STEM issues for the national laboratory where I work for many years.

Students well-grounded in STEM fields are critical to our country’s future

As if the above wasn’t enough, here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about STEM education in our country:

The United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators. Yet today, that position is threatened as comparatively few American students pursue expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—and by an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects. President Obama has set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital fields.

Further down on the same page it states:

Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.

Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. The United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. In our competitive global economy, this situation is unacceptable.

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

This is a pitiful situation as far as I’m concerned.

Plus, STEM Careers Pay Well

The U.S. Census reports the “Per capita money income in the past 12 months (2011 dollars” is $27,915 in our nation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, here are the pay ranges for some STEM careers and many of them only include those for people with bachelors or masters degrees.

Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations                      $32,760 to $107,420
Architecture and Engineering Occupations                              $37,900 to $114,080
Computer and Information Technology Occupations               $46,260 to $100,660
Math Occupations                                                                     $70,960 to $99,380
Physicians and Surgeons                                                         $189,402 to $407,292

The bottom line: Resources spent learning U.S. customary units in our schools is a waste of time and our children need to be well versed in the metric system to get high-paying careers in science and medicine.

I urge you to take advantage of national metric week this year to acquaint yourself with the metric system (if you’re not already familiar with it) and set a good example for those around you. Measure using those “other” marks on your rulers for a change and take a look at the milliliter side of your clear class measuring vessels the next time to pour in your ounces and cups.

It’s really not that difficult and, in fact, no country that has converted to the metric system has wanted to go back to its old way of doing things…something to think about.

For additional Metric Week resources, visit the U.S. Metric Association’s pages and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.


Words on a Word

[Note: I haven’t reposted my blogs before but I really like this one and it feeds nicely into one I have planned for later on. My apologizes to the four people who read it originally…]

And the word is: mumpsimus.dictionary

That’s right, mumpsimus. If you are pro-metric, you REALLY need to learn this word. You’ll find a few slightly different definitions on the Web, but the one I like best is the one in the wikitionary:

Mumpsimus: A person who obstinately adheres to old ways in spite of clear evidence that they are wrong; an ignorant and bigoted opponent of reform.

(http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mumpsimus Includes a pronunciation aid.)

I just came across this word for the first time (I think) earlier this week since I subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Day.” It arrived Wednesday. Should have had a pretty bow on it.

As soon as I saw what it meant I was thrilled. A perfect word to describe those who understand the metric system and still don’t believe we should adopt it as a country.

Granted, there are lots of folks who don’t really understand what happened to the metric system in the United States and why the impact of our getting behind the curve on this issue is so egregious. I don’t blame them. You don’t know what you don’t know. I’m also relatively sure that once they realize what’s happened, they’ll want to do something about it.

It’s the people who understand that they are holding themselves and others back and don’t care (or actually like being obstinate) who deserve the word mumpsimus.

Mumpsimus.  Mumpsimus. Mumpsimus.

(I’ll readily admit that I had to practice to get it right…Totally worth it.)

Another thing I really love about it is that since it is mostly unknown, it could be disarming under the right circumstances.

Witness the following dialogue that is taking place in my head:

Anti-metric individual: “There’s no reason we should abandon a measurement system that’s served us for more than 200 years.” (Or feel free to insert the anti-metric reference of your choice.)

You: “So, I take it you’re a mumpsimus?” (I’ve seen it listed variously as both a noun and a verb.)

Anti-metric individual: (You should at least get a moment of stunned silence.)

Here’s why: odds of knowing the word—almost nil. If the person has any intelligence he or she will be hesitant to either agree or disagree with your supposition since it’s an unknown. And even any if individuals on the other side of the argument know what the word means, I conjecture that rare is the person who would want to admit to being “ignorant and bigoted.”

Of course, the REALLY ignorant and bigoted people will most likely continue with their anti-metric rant since they weren’t really listening to you anyway: that’s how they got ignorant and bigoted in the first place.

I really think the pro-metric movement should embrace this word. It’s perfect for our cause.

It even comes in a giant economy size for your larger anti-metric-type gatherings: mumpsimuses.

Happy wording,


And the Winner Is: Results of the American Culture/Metric System Poll

I could write almost endlessly about how to interpret the results of the metric system and our American culture poll but while I’m not a woman of few words, I do like to cut to the chase. To be clear, I knew going in that the results of the poll would be unscientific. However, I did ask questions that could reveal information that might be useful to me moving forward with the project.

I thank all of you who took time to respond and help get the word out on the poll. I greatly appreciate what you had to say.

1) Most of the people who responded to the poll already use the metric system. (66 percent)

Current use

This did not surprise me. Most people in this country have totally lost sight of the metric system so a poll on a subject would most likely interest those who already use it. And, as I’ve observed in the past, this blog has a large international following so that was reflected in the responses. What was heartening to see was that of those who don’t currently use the metric system, a majority thought it would be easy to learn. And right they are—if one is open to learning it. I applaud their adaptability, it’s a quality much needed in today’s world.

This leads the second thing I learned/confirmed with the poll…

2) By a 2 to 1 margin, it was thought resistance to the metric system was more laziness than due to potential problems conversion itself might cause. (26 percent versus 13 percent)

Why don't we use the metric system?

Okay, I’ll admit that the word choice for the most popular suggestion was somewhat loaded. I could have phrased it more gently but I think it somewhat gets to the heart of the matter. (I’m certainly lazy in some ways.)  Plus, if people didn’t like any of the answers I supplied, they were free to write in their own through the “other” category I included with all of the questions. And, in the interest of full disclosure, since it appears readers can’t view the write-ins (first time I’ve used this poll tool), all of them are at the bottom of this post for your inspection.

The answer to the other question in the poll is somewhat more problematic.

3) Almost half who responded to the poll indicated metric adoption would need to be forced, either through federal mandate (24 percent) or removal of U.S. customary units from products sold in this country (23 percent).

What it would take to adopt

Here’s what’s problematic about this: federal mandate is a viable, real-world option but I’m not sure how the second selection could be adopted as a practical matter. Sure, the federal government could require the removal of customary units (but that would be the equivalent of federal mandate) but short of that, removal of non-metric units would have to be voluntary. Some companies would like to go in that direction—but others would likely need to be forced by consumers—to get to the 100 percent mark.  Since the second option excludes government requirement that would take quite a forceful groundswell. Could happen, but unlikely—too much work. Still, I wanted to get a sense of whether people thought that approach could work, and they think it has potential.

Those are the surface findings. You are free to consider the data yourself and comment on it. After you look at the write-ins below (and look at the full responses in my previous post), you’ll have access to all the same information I do.

Speaking of write-ins, I want to highlight one of them that shows what this movement is up against. This is verbatim except for the quotation marks:

why to change it if the old one worked good so far?

I can only hope that was a joke.



Question on why Americans don’t use the metric system
– American exceptionalism
– Misguided legislative priorities
– It would be really expensive to change it. (Ie. Signs, teaching, books.)
– The advantages aren’t worth upfront cost, in money and inconvenience, to switch
– Fear of change.
– It was promised that we’d be using SI within a decade, but Govt did nothing
– The change is not Something that us required to improve
– non-metric habits
– republicans
– Structure of American Government
– It hasn’t been forced on us
– All of the above
– it works- we have always done it this way.
– There is no “burning platform” to change
– Fear
– US Congress would not agree, because of big business influance and pressure.
– why to change it if the old one worked good so far?
– Arrogance!
– Lack of strong leadership that understands the implications of not changing
– Lack of metric education in the schools, Americans don’t understand it is easy.
– Education was too stuck on teaching conversion factors , not how to use metric.

Question on what it would take for Americans to adopt the metric system
– Complete decimation of the economy at the same time the metric world is growing.
– Repeal all regulations relating to units of measure
– get rid of republicans
– It has to be necassary
– It’s already happening; just look at the selection at Home Depot. No rush!
– nothing I can think ot
– Stop teaching STEM classes in English units
– Economic incentives
– Heavier teaching in grade school
– Convert American football to metric

Question on current use or difficulty to learn
– I already use it (i’m a scientist)
– I’m a physicist. I use it every day. But 14,000′ peaks are better that way.
– I know it well, but it would take a while to feel comfortable.
– I use the metric system at work

A Poll on American Culture and Metric System Adoption

In the year since I conceived this history of the metric system in the United States (June 15th was the first anniversary, by the way) I have been perplexed at the resistance we Americans have had toward its adoption. While I believe I have a better understanding now, you can help my research by answering a couple of questions.

If you could please help spread word of the survey, I would appreciate it since a more robust response is a better response. Thank you!

I’ll let this survey run for a week and I’ll report out along with my other observations once I’ve got the results.

Share this poll please!



Wrapping My Mind Around U.S. Metric History

When I decided to document U.S. metric history, I knew it would be a huge undertaking for me personally but I also hoped that it could have a positive impact on a wider world. Since I have taken on huge projects before and they’ve turned out quite well that aspect didn’t scare me.

What has turned out to be daunting has been trying to assimilate the vast amount of research that I’ve had to collect and go through. I now have a broad mental outline of the entire history of the metric system from prehistory to today but I will need to continue to refine the story as I deal with precise plot points in its history.

Interestingly, information has come from different sources depending on the time period. Ancient and more recent history on measurement systems has mostly come from books:Lots of reading

The Story of Measurement
, Andrew Robinson (217 pages)
The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, Edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew (236 pages)
The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World, Ken Alder (350 pages)
A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement, Ian Whitelaw (157 pages)
Smoot’s Ear: The Measure of Humanity, Robert Tavernor (192 pages)
World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, Robert P. Crease (276 pages)
Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy, Andro Linklater (263 pages)

Of course, the definitive piece for the U.S. history of the metric system up until 1968 is:

The History of the Metric System Controversy in the United States. (“This document reviews the debate between 1790 and 1968 on the question of the adoption of the metric system of weights and measures by the United States.”) U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards. (268 pages)
This report has made up the bulk of my research from our country’s early history through the last attempted implementation with the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

Other sources include newspaper and magazine articles. The oldest newspaper article I have is one from the New York Times and is dated 1877. It is titled “The Metric System” and begins with the lines:

Nothing more clumsy and inconvenient could well be devised than the dozen or more mensuration tables of arithmetic, which are a terror to childhood and almost impossible to retain in memory for life. There are in use lines, barleycorn’s, inches, nails, ells, quarts, quarters, gallons, pecks, bushels, coombs, minims, noggins, kilderkins, firkins, barrels, butts, pipes, puncheons, tierees, hogsheads, seruples, carats, grains, drams, pennyweights, and many others.

(Apparently things were even more confused back then than they are now but we still didn’t have the wherewithal to change.)

I also have information from sources such as the L.A. Times and countless magazines. In the age of the Internet, I also have my fair share of information from Wikipedia and various blogs. My guesstimate of the full amount of books and other information that I have for this project is about 7,000 pages but that’s probably conservative. And new information is coming in all the time.Lotsobooks

In fact, one of my most recent acquisitions is a book on the implementation of the metric system in Australia (which I think I have indicated in the past is probably the most metric of any of the previous British Empire entities) titled For Good Measure: The Making of Australia’s Measurement System. (It was sent to me on faith alone by a gentleman there who advanced the book to me prior to receiving payment for it. Thanks Peter.)

Ultimately, what I ended up doing was dictating relevant passages into a Word document that will now form the backbone for my outline. Even this is an extensive document but at least it’s providing me with a jumping-off point. It was the only way I could figure out how start to pare down so much information into something that was usable.

You have to start somewhere, even if it’s the most tedious thing in the world to do.


Is It Time to Embrace the Enlightenment of the Metric System in the U.S?

As I studied the history of the metric system in the United States, I found I had to understand and put into context the history of measurement itself.

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

While the metric system we know today began around 1790, no one knows the true age of measurement systems since they began prior to written history. Based on archeological evidence, some think measurement standards advanced to allow the construction of special buildings to the “powers that be” but surely, travel and trade had a hand as well though evidence is less readily available. However, thousands of years later, it’s the buildings (such as the pyramids) that still stand, testaments to the precision and consistency it took to build them.

And while measurement systems have developed throughout human history, I think one of the important things to recognize is that the metric system grew out of a global social movement called “The Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason.” It was truly a historic advance that has led us (for better or worse) to our modern world.

While I’m sure there are many who could write more gracefully on this topic,­ the Enlightenment represented a move away from superstition (as in it is important to be indoors at dusk to avoid the evil vapors) and toward skepticism and the development of the scientific method. (Just imagine a world in which cell phones and demons that make milk go sour sit next to each other on the philosophical shelf.)

And while the United Kingdom, France and the United States all considered moving toward a metric system at this same 1790 juncture, only France was able to make real progress while the U.S. and U.K. continue to struggle with the metric system to this day.

The reason France was able to advance was probably three-fold:

  1. It had a tradition of proudly of leading the way (much as we think of the United States today);
  2. It had a huge proliferation of French measurements (an estimated 250,000 of them) that made it, perhaps, the most unwieldy system in the world; and
  3. It had an opportunity to throw away the past in the wake of the French revolution.

Of course, we took some advantage of our own revolution to introduce metric money or the 10 dimes and 100 pennies we have in our current dollar (for which Thomas Jefferson was responsible). Still, it was apparently our rapid expansion and efforts to “get the job done” in our early history and involvement of those who were less about enlightened thinking and more about speed and greed that laid the foundation for our current metric-hampered society. [see note]


I still marvel that a country as advanced as our own, that bases its progress on scientific advancements (which uses the metric system), and on international trade (which needs the metric system), and seeks the best education for our children (yeah, we haven’t done the best job here but I’m pretty sure no one is sitting around saying, “Gee I hope our children grow up stupid.”) still can’t pull together the political will to move metric system adoption forward.

There are positive rumblings, however, with a recent White House petition and Hawaii (last to become a state and therefore less entrenched in our reluctant past?) pointing toward metric reform (http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2013/bills/HB36_.HTM).

The latter states, in part:

The purpose of this Act is to establish the metric system as the official system of measurement in the State and to require its use in public documents, public records, and public school instructional materials beginning in 2018.

It also highlights one of the issues we’ll have to confront in a move to the metric system: state’s rights. When we drew together to defend against the British, we became the United STATES of America rather than the UNITED States of America. It forms the some of our basic political ideology and haunts us at the same time.

Still, Hawaii is breaking out ahead and sets a shining example for the rest of us. The state deserves our support and, hopefully, sheds light on a future where the rest of us can follow both at a state level as well as nationally.



Note: Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. Andro Linklater. 2002. Walker Publishing Company, Inc, New York.

Be Careful What You Wish For

When I finally made up my mind to pursue making a documentary on the history of the metric system in the United States, I had a sense there was an underlying current of interest. After all, the subject of using the metric system in this country pretty much died when we disbanded the U.S. Metric Board way back in 1982, but I also knew there were other baby boomers who were told it was coming (and became familiar with it in school) but were never quite sure what happened after that.

This 30 years of neglect has meant that there was been no crystallization point for this interest so it’s been left to individuals who feel strongly about it to do what they can in ways that make sense to them. I don’t know that I can become the rallying point for a pro-metric movement, but I sure as heck want to try to raise awareness of this issue within a wider audience and try to move it forward with what skills I have.

Since I started researching, tweeting and blogging, I’ve also become more aware of some of these 21st-century metric pioneers. One person who has been a source of information and inspiration is the Metric Maven (http://themetricmaven.com/). Even though we don’t always see eye-to-eye, at least we’re moving in the same direction. I’ll list some of the other folks in upcoming posts but, right now, I want to turn my attention to something that happened this week before I bore you to death. (Too late?)

I was in the process of updating someone on the project via email when I saw that I gotten 77 hits THAT DAY. (I had previously gotten 84 for the week, and I thought THAT was real progress.) By the time I went to bed the number was 150 and when I woke up the next morning, it was 250. The activity was centered on a post I had written a couple of weeks ago on “Why I like the metric system.” There was also a comment where someone had taken exception to something I had written. I went ahead and approved the comment for posting before I went to work for the day. (You can look at the comments on that page if you are interested in this exchange.)

Apparently, someone under the moniker Metrication  (http://www.reddit.com/user/metrication) had posted the above-mentioned blog on Reddit (http://www.reddit.com/), and it was driving people to this site. By the time the blog reset itself to zero that evening, I had received 463 hits. I received another 50 or so the next day. (Totally skewed the scale for my stats, I can tell you [see below]. Everything else looks puny now, not that I’m complaining.)

Current statistics by week

What this tells me is that people are interested in this subject or my blog wouldn’t have gotten all that attention. And that was for a fairly bland essay. Just imagine what this subject might attract with something that’s actually interesting! It is my sincere hope that over time, and through the documentary, that I’ll have some more interesting things to say. I hope you’ll stay tuned.

So, thanks Metrication for helping confirm that people are interested in my subject matter so the next time a hit a stumbling block, I’ll know I need to power through it to tell what I consider a profoundly interesting and important story.

In related news, I have a meeting on Friday with the person who I hope will be doing my animation. It’s critical to the piece but expensive. How else can I adequately convey that a meter was designed to be 1/10,000,000 of the distance between the North Pole and the equator? A “talking head”? My mantra has always been: “Talking heads are boring.” After more than a couple of seconds, people need to see something else even as the interviewees continue to speak. In some cases, it’s going to be animation to visually illustrate the point they’re verbally making.

They’re really are times when you get what you pay for.