Friday A/V Club: Vintage Metric Propaganda to Warm Lincoln Chafee's Heart

Plus an anti-metrification argument from the Whole Earth Catalog's Stewart Brand


When Lincoln Chafee entered the White House race earlier this week, he declared that America should "be bold—let's join the rest of the world and go metric." Whether you love that idea or hate it, it was a jarring moment. Who expected a presidential candidate in 2015 to start talking about that?

It was not always thus. Here is The Metric Film, a vintage piece of metric propaganda from 1975:

If you were in a public school between 1975 and 1982—the years the feds were trying to push the country onto the metric system—you saw a lot of movies like this. (Most of the ones I remember involved a character called Metric Man, whose adventures can be revisited here.) You may find it fun to contrast the beginning of The Metric Film, which mocks the origins of the English customary measurements, with the section starting at 5:48, which gives us the absurd history of the meter.

When an anti-metric perpective appeared in these movies, it was generally represented by a caricature of a backwards-looking lout. (In The Metric Film, he shows up at 8:42.) If you're interested in hearing from an actual metric skeptic, here's what one of the most militant and articulate anti-metrification crusaders—Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brandhad to say in New Science magazine in 1980:

Crisis on Infinite Measurement Systems
Orsatti Productions

There is no doubt that metric—SI to aficionados—has its uses for science. It handles grand abstractions niftily, it micro-measures with subtlety, and it is planetary in usage. (Curious that international science research is reported in English and measured in French.) And it is somewhat adaptive to scientific advances, always ready to declare a new unit gratefully named after somebody or other.

But why, Oh new scientists, was science never applied to the business of conversion itself, or to the possible merits of customary measure? When the American General Accounting Office belatedly got around to estimating what it would cost for the United States to convert to metric, it concluded that it could not conclude, but for sure costs would be in the billions of dollars. Sound high? Our Defense Department has been trying to push metric ("100 per cent by 1990") as well as the misbegotten MX Missile System. When congress baulked at the cost of the MX, the Defense Department took metric out of the project and saved $25 million. The most recent announcement from the Pentagon says that it will henceforth follow rather than try to lead in matters metric.

The genius of customary measure, it turns out, is its highly evolved sophistication in terms of use by hand and eye. Convenient sizes, whole fractions, bodily-based—admirable. Metric works fine on paper (and in school) where it is basically counting, but when you try to cook, carpenter, or shop with it, metric fights your hand. In Japan, which has been trying to go metric for 40 years, architects design in metric and the contractors blithely build (even skyscrapers) by the traditional shaku-sun measure. (A shaku, interestingly, is almost identical to our foot.)…

Sometimes the ignorance of education metricators can take your breath away. A major plank in their platform said that metric would save 25 per cent of teaching time in arithmetic because "fractions will no longer be necessary." Presumably they hoped to abolish the idea of ratio.

I'm tempted to quote the entire article, but I'll stick to suggesting you read the rest here. Chafee is good on some of the issues—when it comes to amnesty for Edward Snowden, his forthright yes is more libertarian than Rand Paul's position—but on this topic, I'm with Brand. Where it makes sense to switch to metric, Americans have converted voluntarily. Where we haven't, we aren't just being stick-in-the-muds; the metis of the conventional system actually makes sense.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)