Friday, August 21, 2009

Weighty issues : 1890

Ann Althouse started a discussion on the kilogram, so I investigated the topic. It turns out people have been trying to get America to adopt the metric system since the days of George Washington. America could even have been the first country to adopt it.

This is from a paper presented in 1890, describing Congress's constitutional power to determine legal weights and measures, which it had never gotten around to doing up to that point:
"And yet, so important is this question of uniformity in the weights and measures in use among the people that the power to establish fixed standards for them was expressly conferred upon the Congress by the Constitution of the United States. Section 8 of Article I. of that instrument, in enumerating the special powers expressly reserved for Congress, places the power to establish fixed standards of weights and measures next after the vital powers to lay and collect taxes for the support of the national government, to borrow money on the credit of the United States, to regulate commerce, to provide a uniform rule of naturalization, and to coin money."
The taxing and borrowing parts they had gotten around to, but not the establishment of a fixed system of weights and measures.

Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson!) had even suggested the adoption of a decimalized system of weights and measures before the French had come up with their metric system:
"Thomas Jefferson, while Secretary of State, prepared, at the request of Congress, several reports on the subject. Mr. Jefferson had, as the representative of his country, resided in Paris during the great Revolution. He was of course inspired by the nobler ideas of that stirring period, one of which was a universal language of weights, measures and money, in perfect harmony with our arithmetic. About the 20th of May, 1790, he had finished a report containing the description of a new and decimal system of weights and measures constructed by himself, which was the first decimal system of weights and measures ever devised and in every way as meritorious as the Metric System subsequently perfected in France. This report was submitted to the House of Representatives July 13, 1790."
Even George Washington pushed for a system to be adopted, but it went nowhere:
"Our first President said in his first message: 'Uniformity in the currency, weights and measures of the United States is an object of great importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to.' But a century has passed, and the matter has not been attended to."
Because Congress hadn't decided on a system, the Treasury Department tried it's best to set provisional standards. Of course the states were free to make their own adjustments:
"We have already referred to the fact that the Treasury Department regards the bushel as the volume of 77.6 pounds of water, while several of the states declare that it is 2150.42 cubic inches. But the same states and, in fact, nearly all states and territories, have further passed laws fixing the contents of the bushel by weight of certain commodities, and their standards differ widely. A bushel of apples in Maine is 44 lb; but in Wisconsin 57 lb; a bushel of barley in Louisiana is 32 lb, but California law makes it 50 lb ; a bushel of buckwheat is 40 lb in Dakota, but it takes 56 lb of it to make a Kentucky bushel; a bushel of clover seed varies in different parts of the country from 45 to 64 lb, oats from 26 to 36 lb, rye from 32 to 56 lb, potatoes from 50 to 60 lb, and salt from 50 to 80 lb...."
In 1866 Congress passes a law making it legal to use the metric system. They also legally defined metric measurements in terms of American weights and measures. But since there were no legally determined American weights and measures the law perversely made all American weights and measures based on the metric standards:
"By act of Congress approved July 28, 1866, it was declared "lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the Metric System." (R. S. Sec. 3569.) The same law (R. S. Sec. .3570) undertakes to fix the values of the respective metric units, which are well understood throughout the civilized world, by stating their equivalents in terms of the weights and measures in common use, which are not understood. The whole world knows what a liter is ; but nobody knows except by tradition and usage what an American quart is, dry or liquid. Yet, American law fixes the value of the liter by declaring it to be 0.908 dry quart or 1.0567 liquid quarts. It would have been more to the purpose to fix the value of each quart in terms of the liter."
The author of the paper makes this prediction:
"The ultimate adoption of the Metric System seems inevitable."
And this now funny observation:
"I believe that this Nation has it in its power to decide now upon the immediate establishment of the Metric System throughout the world ; for if this country should set the date for its adoption by our people in relation to imports and exports, the postal service, inter-state transportation, etc., Great Britain and Russia must soon follow the example."
America could encourage Great Britain to adopt the metric system!

--From Proceedings of the American Pharmaceutical Association--

1 comment:

Trooper York said...

Ann Althouse hates chubby people.