Death by Inches

The battle over the metric system in America.

What ever happened to the metric system??
What ever happened to the metric system?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

In May of 1981, party people gathered for one of the nerdiest soirees ever to grace lower Manhattan. Billed as the “Foot Ball,” the event was an anti-metric shindig. Its revelers—including author Tom Wolfe and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand—had joined to protest the encroachment of the metric system into modern American life. They threw shade on the meter and kilogram, and toasted the simple beauty of old classics like the yard and the pound.

My first thought upon learning this intriguing fact from John Bemelmans Marciano’s edifying book, Whatever Happened to the Metric System?, was: I wish this party were annual, because I’d love to hang out with Tom Wolfe and talk furlongs. My next several thoughts were: Wait, what? Why would anyone hate the metric system? And huh, there was a concerted effort to kill it? I thought it just died of natural causes because, well, people are dumb about stuff sometimes.

I mean, path dependence can lead to all sorts of idiotic situations. For instance, the QWERTY keyboard was designed for a different age (to suit the quirks of telegraph operators), but at this point we’re so used to it that we’ve given up on switching to something better. Likewise, employer-provided health insurance was a historical accident, and pretty nonsensical from the start, yet somehow became entrenched in the American health care landscape and dominates to this day.

I guess I’d always assumed the “English customary measures” (the proper term for our system of inches, pounds, and gallons) were the same kind of deal. We’ve grown accustomed to speaking about our car trips in miles, and our football plays in yards, and Tommy Lee’s penis in inches, and at some point decided we couldn’t be bothered to change. That’s just the way we do it around here.

Turns out it’s not that simple. According to Marciano, there was a window in the mid-1970s when America was totally primed to go metric. President Ford signed an order, even. Elementary school teachers boned up on their decigrams and their hectares. It was all happening. “TAKE ME TO YOUR LITER buttons appeared on lapels,” writes Marciano, “and propaganda even turned sexy. … A poster was sold that featured a blond-haired beach beauty strapping on her bikini bottom with the slogan Think Metric above her and the numbers 92-61-92 below.”

But something went wrong along the way. By 1982, President Reagan had ended funding to the U.S. Metric Board, the main body charged with handling the switchover. The dream had dissolved. Long live the inch.

What happened? Well, to be fair, those anti-metric folks had at least one point in their favor: Customary measures make a lot more sense to us. We don’t have trouble visualizing the rough length of a foot because we have, um, feet. (My foot is 11 inches long. Pretty close.) A yard is the distance from your sternum to the tip of your outstretched hand. (Again, at 36.5 inches, I’m not far off.) These measurements endured for millennia with good reason. We get them intuitively.

What’s a meter? It was originally set equal to one ten-millionth of the length of a longitudinal meridian between the equator and the North Pole. Go ahead, try to picture that in your mind’s eye. Or don’t bother, because the definition completely changed in 1960 when the meter instead took its basis from the wavelength of krypton-86 radiation. Far easier to grasp. But hold on! It changed yet again in 1983, and now it’s the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second. Makes you want to stretch your arm out from your sternum and call it a day.

OK, so the meter is a bit abstract. But the truly important thing about metric is the concept of decimalization. Everything is divisible by 10. You just shift that decimal point and go from millimeters to centimeters all the way to kilometers. Our system is less efficient, like, by a mile; when a foot is 12 inches and a mile weirdly comprises 5,280 feet, it gets tough to do quick mental calculations.

According to Marciano, predecimal measurements are relics of a time when the average person didn’t know math. Most feudal-era folks couldn’t handle decimals. They weren’t capable of anything more complicated than doubling, halving, or maybe splitting into thirds. Thus the prevailing systems used divisions of 12ths (like inches in a foot) or eighths (like “pieces of eight” in an old coin), which made it easier to quickly separate out one-third or one-quarter of the total amount.

But decimalization has been in America for centuries—our currency is 100 cents to the dollar. And most of us can do decimal math these days. Anyway, we have calculators. So what’s our real beef with metric?

John Bemelmans Marciano
Author John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo by Andromache Chalfant

The truth is, the American objection to metric has always been, at its heart, political. It’s no shock that a conservative fellow like Tom Wolfe would become the customary measures’ knight in shining white linen. Those old-school measures are ancient and organic. Metric (or, as it’s officially known, the système international) is a modern invention imposed by big, bureaucratic governments. Metric’s origins are—sacré bleu!—French, dating to the 18th century, a product of the pie-eyed idealism of the revolutionary age. Enlightened intellectuals decided they knew best, and that metric could replace those displeasingly irrational, higgledy-piggledy systems of yore. To hell with any confused peasants who failed to adopt it. “To savants,” writes Marciano, “the fault lay not with the metric system but the people who refused to accept it. Any criticism—such as suggesting that the prefix system was too complicated for the average citizen—was met with harsh rebuke.” The elites were convinced that unified standards of measurement would promote smoother trade and bring the world together. And they weren’t wrong.

But that continental arrogance didn’t play as well in America. Particularly in wounded, late-1970s America, at a time when the economy was hurting and the nation’s pride had taken a few hits. The big push to impose metric under the Ford administration was met with resistance based in part on pragmatism (the taxpayer costs of switching; the general lack of enthusiasm in the populace) and in part on defiant nationalism. “There were those who considered metric conversion to be unpatriotic,” writes Marciano. No less a figure than the director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame declared metric was “definitely communist.” Stewart Brand decried the “despicable attempts by government to put an entire people on one ‘convenient’ system.” Tom Wolfe accused elites of kowtowing to fashionable Europe, sneering that “we’re still the most obedient little colonials when it comes to things intellectual.” In the end, the anti-metricians won.

Over the years, there have been many other utopian measurement visions that didn’t fare nearly as well as metric has. The first third of the 20th century, for instance, saw some quite serious efforts to rationalize our systems for dates and times. Think about it: The Gregorian calendar is a pain in the ass. Why are some months longer than others? Why’s your birthday on a Tuesday in one year and on a Friday in another? There are vastly superior calendar systems out there. (Though they tend to require the addition of a 13th month and a bizarre annual “blank day,” which doesn’t go on the calendar at all and, like, doesn’t exist, and we just chill out and have a holiday and pretend it’s not there.) Likewise, timekeeping as we do it now seems arbitrary and silly: Why aren’t there 100 seconds in a minute and 100 minutes in an hour and 10 hours in a day, to gain the benefits of decimalization? We could all stop dividing by 60, which, again, ass pain.

Perhaps the most intriguing attempt at system rationalization came in the saga of the “simplified spelling” movement. The notion here was to scrub English of silent letters and irregular vowel pronunciations, so that have would become hav and simplified would be simplifyd. Leading the charge was Melville Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System (another triumph of standardization), who hilariously demonstrated his commitment to the cause by legally changing his name to Melvil Dui. Dui got his funding from Andrew Carnegie, another true believer, and simplified spelling won support at one point from President Teddy Roosevelt. But the movement never totally took flight. Carnegie pulled his funding in 1915 with a poignantly spelled note: “I hav been patient long enuf.”

Every once in a while, you’ll still hear an impassioned plea to fix the crazy old way of doing things. Just the other day, Matthew Yglesias of Vox argued that we should have a single, global time zone, so there’d be no confusion over whether a conference call at 12 p.m. means noon in New York or noon in Los Angeles. (Not a new thought! This same idea was proposed in 1878 by a man named Sandford Fleming. He called it “Cosmopolitan Time.” Obviously, it didn’t take.) But by and large, we’ve settled into measurements complacency. Even the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter disaster—NASA’s unmanned spacecraft disintegrated due to an error introduced because its software used metric measures, while its ground crew used pound-force units—didn’t shake us from our doldrums. Maybe we just generally distrust grand ideas now. Maybe we fear internationalist, head-in-cloud visions. The era of big measurement is over.

Then again, perhaps you’ve noticed: You buy your soda in liters and your wine in milliliters. Your aspirin in milligrams. Your bullets in millimeters. Science and engineering are done in système international these days. Even weed is sold by the gram, not the “eighth.”

So don’t fret for metric. It’s won some battles while Tom Wolfe wasn’t looking. And it’s likely to win a few more. Give it an inch, it takes a kilometer.

Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet by John Bemelmans Marciano. Bloomsbury.

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