The Concerted Campaign to Kill the Metric System in America

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 8 2014 7:11 AM

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.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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.

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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.

140807_BOOKS_MetricSystem-COVER

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.

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