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Why Didn’t the US Adopt the Metric System Long Ago?

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Why hasn’t the United States adopted the metric system for widespread use? I’ve generally thought there were two reasons. One is that with the enormous US internal market, there was less incentive to follow international measurement standards. The other was that the US has long had a brash and rebellious streak, a “you’re not the boss of me” vibe, which means that there will inevitably be pushback against some external measurement system invented by a French guy and run an international committee based in a Paris suburb.

However, Stephen Mihm makes a persuasive case that my internal monologue about the metric system is wrong, or at least seriously incomplete, in “Inching toward Modernity: Industrial Standards and the Fate of the Metric System in the United States” (Business History Review, Spring 2022, pp. 47-76, needs a library subscription to access). Mihm focuses on the early battles over US adoption of the metric system, waged in the 19th and early 20th century. He makes the case that the metric system was in fact blocked by university-trained engineers and management, with the support of big manufacturing firms.

The metric system is part of US policy discussions in the early 1800s, after it is adopted in France. Mihm writes:

By the 1810s, most commentators considered the metric system a failed experiment. One writer in 1813 noted that the French government, despite wielding considerably more power over their own populace than the United States could, nonetheless failed to secure adoption of the metric units. “The new measures . . . are on the counter . . . but the transactions are regulated by the old.” In 1819, a House of Representatives committee studying the issue concurred in this assessment, pointing to France’s failure to secure widespread adoption of the metric system.

Throughout the 19th century, there was an ongoing discussion about appropriate systems of weights and measures, and the metric system was part of those discussions. But the battle-lines for this dispute began to be clarified in 1860s. The growth of industrialization across the United States meant that there was also a movement across US industries and engineers to standardize measurements in areas like screw threads, nuts and bolts, sheet metal, wire, and pipe–so that it was possible for a manufacturing firm to use inputs from a variety of different suppliers around the country. confident that the parts would fit together. A similar movement arose in the railroad industry, standardizing axles, couplings, valves, and other elements so that rolling stock would fit together. This movement was led by a mixture of mechanical engineers and management experts, and it was based on the inch as the standard unit of measure. At least at this time, it’s fair to say that most people cared much less about measures of weight or volume.

But a number of scientists and social reformers preferred the logical organization of the metric system. Mihm reports that in 1863, “the newly created National Academy of Sciences recommended that the United States adopt the metric system. That same year, the United States participated in international congresses on postage and statistics that endorsed the metric system for both scientific and commercial purposes.” Federal legislation passed in 1866 to legalize the use of the metric system.

The struggle over how the US measuring system would be standardized then evolves from the late 1800s up through the early 20th century. Mihm lays out the details. For example, in 1873 the prominent educator and president of Columbia University, Frederick Barnard, founded the the American Metrological Society to push for the metric system. In 1874, a American Railway Master Mechanics’ Association instead pushed for the already-developed system of standardization based on inches. He said: “While French savants were laboring to build up this decimal system of interchangeable measures … the better class of American mechanics were solving the problem of making machinery with interchangeable parts.”

The dispute got a little weird at times. Mihm tells of the International Institute for Preserving and Protecting Weights and Measures, founded in 1879, which promoted “Great Pyramid metrology,” defined as “a belief that the Egyptians had inscribed the inch as a sacred unit of measurement in the design of their famed structures. … Over the 1870s and 1880s, pyramid metrology channeled much of the opposition to the metric system in the United States.” Lest this seem a little whacky to us, remember that this is a time when scientists and engineers were also exploring mesmerism and divining rods. To put it another way, being a logically rigorous scientist or engineer in one area does not rule out more imaginative approaches to other topics, then or now.

The central practical issue became what economists call “path-dependency.” Imagine two different paths for standardization. Perhaps in the abstract one is preferable. But if you have already committed to the other path, and all your machine tools and existing equipment are based on that alternative path, and all your workers and suppliers and customers are using that other path–then the costs of transition to the other approach are formidable. Indeed, the longer you wait to make the switch, the more committed you are to the path you are on. For example, if you have laid down pipelines for water and oil measured in an inch-based system, as well as set up train tracks and rolling stock based on that system, then you are going to have physical equipment for an inch-based system around for decades.

The metric issue kept bubbling along. “In 1896, the House of Representatives considered a bill that mandated the immediate, exclusive use of the metric system in the federal government, with the rest of the country to follow suit a few years later.” It almost passed, with relatively little attention, but was concern that the risk of disrupting industrial production in an election year wasn’t a political winner. When the US Bureau of Standards was created in 1901, the administrators preferred the metric system, but engineers and big companies pushed back hard.

By the early 20th century, remember that this argument had now been going on for decades. US industry had already felt firmly committed to an inch-based system of measurement back in the 1860s and 1870s; by the early 1900s, the idea of redoing all of their capital stock in the metric system seemed crazy to them. Indeed, US manufacturing was so dominant in the world at this time that US companies routinely exported inch-based equipment to companies in countries that were nominally on the metric system already. Some US manufacturers even argued that the unique inch-based measurement system helped to protect them from foreign competitors.

Bills for the metric system kept coming up in Congress in the early 1900s, and being shot down. Mihm writes:

In 1916, these efforts culminated in the creation of a new anti-metric organization known as the American Institute of Weights and Measures. … Much of its success can be attributed to a sophisticated public relations campaign. It placed advertisements and editorials in industry journals; successfully lobbied hundreds of trade associations, chambers of commerce, and technical societies to go on the record condemning mandatory use of the metric system; and obsessively monitored legislation on the local, state, and national levels. When the group identified a bill that endorsed mandatory metric conversion—or merely contained clauses that opened the door to greater reliance on the metric system—it mobilized hundreds of industrialists, engineers, and managers to defeat the legislation with letters, testimony, and editorials. By the 1920s, its membership rolls included many of the most important firms in the nation as well as presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Steel Manufacturers, the American Railroad Association, and other national organizations. These organizations had a stake in standardization, actively joining government-sponsored efforts to bring further uniformity to the nation’s economy over the course of the 1920s. As inch-based standards governing everything from automobile tires to pads of paper became the norm, the prospects for going metric became ever more remote. Only in scattered pockets of the business community—the electrical field, for example, and pharmaceuticals—did the metric system become dominant.

We have now reached an odd point in the US experience where two measurement systems co-exist: the inch-based traditional system, along with pint and gallons, ounces and pounds, is how most Americana talk, most of the time, in ordinary life, but the metric system is how all science and most business operates (with the exception of the building trades). Many Americans step back and forth between the two systems of measurement every day in their personal and work lives, barely noticing.

Some readers will be interested to know that this issue of Business History Review has othre paper about standardization. Here’s the list of papers. The introductory essay by Yates and Murphy is open access:

The post Why Didn’t the US Adopt the Metric System Long Ago? first appeared on Conversable Economist.

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DGA51
5 days ago
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I have hopes that I will think in metric before I die.
Central Pennsyltucky
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Pisses Me Off

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Okay, so I have a real problem with all these people who let Trump act like a banana chomping dictator who put three generational-lasting tools on the Supreme Court while they knew full well that Trump was insane and wanted to get us all killed.

And the first time they open their mouths about it is when they think they could make a damn dime off writing a book.  The towers of whiney little self-important twits started with Bob Woodward and then the latest – and there’s bunches in between – is Mark Esper.

Esper’s tell all for some dollars book could make your spine replace an ice machine with Trump’s ideas of smart use for the military, all of which are unconstitutional. You know what ought to be unconstitutional? Covering for a president who wants to shoot protestors or bomb Mexico.

Why the fool tarnation didn’t you guys tell us this stuff while he was president?  Oh, they come up with a collective conditioning rinse of “I would get fired and the person after me could be worse.” No, you are worse. You. You are the bottom of the barrel of worse. You should be fired. And maybe shot.

Trump’s answer to Esper?

“Mark Esper was weak and totally ineffective, and because of it, I had to run the military. I took out ISIS, Qasem Soleimani, al-Baghdadi, rebuilt the military with $2.5 trillion, created Space Force, and so much more.”

Looking at the level of courage Esper had, Trump might be right. I dunno.

I’m sick of all of them. And I’m not even counting the guys who knew damn well that Trump was going to try to overthrow the government with violence. Oh, there’s a special place in hell for those guys.

Okay, I’ll try to calm down.

 

Or maybe not.

 

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DGA51
8 days ago
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Central Pennsyltucky
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Here’s My Question

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So, we have a winner in the Indiana Republican primary …

A Lebanon man accused of killing his wife in March and dumping her body in a creek is among the candidates to advance in a local election after Indiana’s primaries Tuesday.

Andrew Wilhoite, who’s suspected of fatally striking his wife with a gallon-sized concrete flower pot, secured a spot Tuesday as one of three Republican candidates in the race for a seat on the Clinton Township Board.

And then the next day he dumped her lifeless body off the side of a bridge. Wanna hate him some more? She had just completed her last chemotherapy.

Keep in mind that Republicans knew this before they voted. It happened in March and .

Here’s my question.  What the hell did the other two Republican primary candidates do that made Republican voters prefer a wife killer?  Suggest that Donald Trump couldn’t beat Abraham Lincoln at Wordle?

 

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DGA51
10 days ago
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Township level politics are weird.
Central Pennsyltucky
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A Mosaic of Missing Motherhood (a Poem)

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A Mosaic of Missing Motherhood (a poem)

Written and performed by Jayne Marie Smith

Posted by Sojourners on Friday, May 6, 2022

My motherhood is not seen on TV

It's the tears and talks

behind the signs and the walks

on the evening news.

The postpartum depression

referred to as “baby blues”

And loving another mother’s child

even when they’re rude.

It’s having to be something you never wanted to be.

It's the staying, standing, and stares

behind the label "mama bear"

that ignores all the fears you have to bear.

It's trying to meet your needs

and special needs

And having no paid family medical leave.

It's raising kids in a world you don't understand

with words you don't understand

because you left the familiar to come to this land.

It's nearly dying at childbirth

for a child that has the nerve

to not even look like me.

Just like your picture of motherhood doesn't look like me

It’s not haggard and abused like Hagar

Fragile and high risk, like Elizabeth

Hiding my child from violence like Mama Moses

It’s not impoverished like the widow begging Elisha for providence

Nor dark and foreign like the mother ignored,

begging Christ for her child's deliverance.

My motherhood is nameless - to you.

Yet, the Bible says honor me - too.

But you can't honor

and keep us unseen.

Every missing complexion and condition

from your mosaic of motherhood

Needs to be celebrated

As scripture commands

Honor your …mothers

That your days may go well

and be long in the land.

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DGA51
10 days ago
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Honor all mothers.
Central Pennsyltucky
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Mark My Word: He’s Gonna Blame It On Mexicans

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As you know, it was been disproven that The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), has diddle squat to do with either electric or reliability. Winter before last, most of Texas suffered below freezing temperatures for 3 to 5 days without electricity.

I know you yankee people are snorting and giggling, but Honey I don’t even own a heavy coat. I have a sweatshirt and a couple of sweaters.  That’s it.

You know how many coats you own? That’s how much air conditioning I own.  At least for now.  Scorch is coming to Texas.

 

 

That’s a little toasty for mid May.

So EPCOT is so busy butt covering that their friction alone is raising the temperature 3 degrees.

ERCOT said in a statement Tuesday evening they will “deploy all the tools available to us to manage the grid reliably.”

ERCOT said they are coordinating with the Public Utility Commission, generation resource owners and transmission utilities to ensure they are prepared for the extreme heat.

Yep, that’s exactly what they said before the freeze.

Greg Abbott knows that even 5 hours without electricity during a heat wave will cost him the election, so I suspect he’s bought a bunch of new hamsters to turn the wheel.

 

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DGA51
11 days ago
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Texas plans for unseasonable heat
Central Pennsyltucky
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May 1 Flashback: ‘Disobedience’

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'Civil disobedience' is impossible when a law does not compel you to do anything.
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DGA51
16 days ago
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Central Pennsyltucky
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