Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/May 1878/Metric Reform

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THE ultimate triumph of the metric system may be regarded as safe, beyond peradventure; no event still in the future is more certain. A universal system of weights, measures, and currency, is an imperative demand of advancing civilization; and this particular solution is worthy of the great problem, fit for all countries and for all time. It has the start, the prestige, the substantial merits, the already large adoption, which insure universality.

Its progress has in many respects been most gratifying. One nation after another has yielded to the arguments in its favor. Dr. Barnard's tables show that in Europe in 1872 France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Roumania, and Greece, had adopted it in full; Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, Turkey, Baden, Hesse, Würtemberg, and Bavaria, adopted metric values, and even conservative England rendered the system permissive. The whole map of Europe is thus riddled—little of it left; the rest is sure to follow. So in North America—the United States, Canada, and Mexico; in South America—New Granada, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Uruguay, Chili, and the Argentine Confederation; and, among other countries, British India, the French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies, and Japan, are numbered. Thus, nearly all the most advanced nations of the earth are committed to it, and its universality is but a question of time. There will be no steps backward now, but only forward.

All this seems highly satisfactory and encouraging, and it may be asked, "What more could be desired or expected?" But there is another side to the picture.

Among the common people its progress has been as conspicuously slow as rapid among the nations. The statistics of its actual use, could they be had, would be heartily discouraging. In some way, and for some reason, upon the common mind it does not take hold. Indeed, in a discriminating view, its reception, even among the nations, compares unfavorably with that of many other inventions and devices of modern times: steam, railroads, telegraphy, photography, already cover the earth—all of later date than this system.

With all its admitted merits, the activity of its friends, and the co-operation of governments, the metric system makes no headway among the masses of mankind. As yet but a barren triumph has been achieved; the consent of the government, and not of the people, is the assent of the parents, but not of the maiden. Permission to woo is all we have obtained.

Even in France, although the system was provisionally established as early as 1793, and made obligatory, a full generation ago, in 1840, yet the want of real progress may be seen in the following statement ("United States Dispensatory," Wood and Bache, edition of 1870, p. 1737):

"Though the decimal system of weights and measures was established by law in France, it was found impossible to procure its general adoption by the people, . . . . If they adopted new weights, they gave them the names of the old weights . . . . So that three systems are now more or less in use in France—the original poids de marc, the decimal system, and the metrical pound, with its divisions."

If such be the case in France, the birthplace of the system, what elsewhere? In the United States its use has been authorized for more than ten years; yet how many business men in the United States avail themselves of their legal privilege? How many druggists and physicians? What merchant uses the metre? What surveyor computes in hectares? What farmer measures corn in a hectolitre? Who weighs by kilogrammes, or buys wood by the dekastere?

The words are strange and the things unknown among men of business.

It is worth while to inquire into the impediments. Among these certainly cannot be numbered the merits of any existing system of weights and measures. Take the English tables, for example; they are utterly barbarous—the whole scheme confusion worse confounded; no one defends it as it stands. But there is nevertheless an impediment connected with this no-system which has been a serious bar to reform—a vague hope that somehow something might possibly yet be made of it hereafter. This indefinite hope is totally fallacious. There are two tests—the decimal scale, and a proper interrelation of the tables. The English method wants both. Nor can it be altered so as to conform to either.

Take, for example, the leading table of all, long measure, and apply the decimal test; it cannot stand it at all. If you keep the yard, for example, you can keep no other denomination—not one—for no other is decimally related to it; away go the inch, 136 of a yard; the foot, 13 the rod, 512 yards; the rood, mile, and league; the prime, 112 of an inch; the second and third, the fathom, the chain, link, etc., and all the promiscuous tribe of unrelated units. So it is impossible, if you choose the foot, to keep anything else. Indeed, make your own selection of a unit, and only that selected unit can be retained.

It is the same case with all the other tables; though, instead of one table of weights, you have three—apothecaries' weight, troy weight, and avoirdupois. Yet, among them all, there is not one single denomination decimally related to any other—not one of the ounces, drachms, scruples, or pennyweights. Even the so-called hundred-weight is not really 100 pounds, but 112.

It grows worse and worse as you study the uncivilized, unkempt system. If the decimal test did not at once and forever dispose of it, the second test would, viz., hopeless want of proper relations among the tables. Our proper attitude toward the present English tables is that of wholesome and final despair!

Addressing ourselves to the task of reform, we proceed to remark what the metric system, in substance, will do. It stands the two tests, perfectly; indeed, it was made to order for that very purpose. To provide a system with a proper scale and relations was the work undertaken by Science, and that work has been diligently and well done. Its merits are great and substantial; so full is it of practical utility as well as theoretical beauty, that President John Quincy Adams did not hesitate to pronounce it "a greater labor-saving machine than steam itself."

Our object, however, is not to make an argument in its favor, but to inquire into the impediments to its progress. These, though not obvious, are certainly formidable, as is shown by results. There are two sets of conditions to be fulfilled which may be distinguished as the natural and the human conditions of the problem. The difficulty is not to be found in the non-fulfillment of the former; as has already been remarked, the natural conditions have been well met by Science. But, after all the successful work laboriously done upon these—chiefly in the verification of the units—the hardest part of the problem yet remains, viz., such an adaptation of the system to mankind that the peoples to be benefitted shall adopt and use it in the daily business of life.

Nor are men of physical science, as such, specially qualified for this task. To adapt the system to man requires a different sort of observation from theirs, for which there are no instruments, but only the patient observation of the ways of this fastidious creature. The huge inertia of this ponderous mass of humanity, as results show, is yet to be overcome. Until this adaptation to man is complete, the problem is not solved.

Were a Pacific Railway begun upon the wrong general line, the best remedy would be a change of location. In our present problem the human conditions furnish guiding principles—the great salient points of our Pacific Railway—more stubborn than Nature itself. The system is for man—not man for the system; and, if the two do not tally, it must yield, not he!

What modifications of the metric system are needed to fit it for common use?

Roughly, directness and simplicity. In aiming at these we should study actual human experience. The currency system of America furnishes invaluable guidance. One of its chief lessons is, that men like not many denominations.

In our decimal currency, five denominations are proposed—mills, cents, dimes, dollars, and eagles. Of these but two are practically used—dollars and cents. Had the other three been omitted, we should not have missed them.

Look at bank-bills. There is the $10 bill, the $20 bill, the $50 bill. Technically, by the tables they should be bills for 1, 2, 5 eagles. Not so, in fact. Never yet did bank in America promise to pay to bearer, on demand, one eagle! So with fractional currency. You see 10-cent pieces, 50-cent pieces, but none for 1 dime or 5 dimes. Dollars and cents suffice.

"What of all this?" you may ask. Much. It is the embodiment of the ways of men: it is full of practice and suggestion to those who have eyes.

According to the tables, a certain sum is 253 eagles, 5 dollars, 4 dimes, 6 cents, 3 mills. Never was it so called. What says our curt mankind? 2,535 dollars, 46 310 cents. The mind scants denominations. It seldom uses more than two, if it can help itself.

On broad principles, indeed, it might be asked, "Why have denominations at all?"

Number, whole and decimal, with one unit for each subject-matter, is adequate to express any quantity whatever. No second denomination is essential in any table. Any weight, for example, can be expressed in pounds and decimals of a pound, without reference to other units. The largest quantities can be so expressed, and the smallest. In currency we express a national debt reaching to billions in the selfsame unit which is used for small daily transactions, say in dollars or in francs. This shows the unlimited capacity of number for exact expression without any table of denominations at all.

Indeed, in England and America it may safely be said that a single denomination in each table would be better than the present method with its irregularity and confusion, better for mental grasp of the quantity expressed, and better for calculation. A clearer idea is obtained by the expression 13,518.6 lbs. than by its equivalent in numerous denominations, 6 tons, 13 cwt., 3 qrs., 17 lbs., 11 oz., 5.6 drachms.

We would not be understood to limit a system to one denomination, or even to two. Yet two well-chosen units in each table, as compared with the present English system, would be a decided improvement. Suppose we had pounds and pound cents, yards and yard cents, etc., corresponding with the dollars and cents of currency; they would furnish incomparably superior advantages to the existing methods.

We will not, however, discuss the exact denominations needed for each table, and the maximum and minimum for each; nor the scale, whether it should be strictly decimal (a denomination for every 10), or one for every 100 (the cental scale); or eclectic, varying with the subject-matter. We will, however, remark that in nearly every table the number of denominations can be reduced, not only safely, but advantageously.

Our object, however, for the present is to suggest principles, not to elaborate details; too many denominations perplex, instead of aiding, the mind.

Besides the units of a system, the names are to be considered; this leads us to by far the most important subject of discussion—

Nomenclature.—Let us with this begin a lesson derived from the actual observation of human habits. The case of the French has been already cited: they adopted the new units, but rejected the new names. This is very suggestive. In the United States a similar instance occurs in the names of coins. We still have, in many parts of the country, shillings, sevenpences, thrips, etc. In New Orleans we get bits in change. In the great commercial city of New York prices are still given, and goods marked, in shillings, viz., 6 shillings a yard, not 75 cents; ten shillings, not $1.25.

What is the lesson from all this? Plainly, that new words are harder than new things. How much easier, too, were the names of the new coins than the long and learned names of the metric nomenclature!

"None of your Latin for me!" begs the Frenchman, unfamiliar with that tongue. "Especially, none of your Greek! It is enough if I accept your units; pray excuse me from your names." And even the French Government, which attends to everything, has had ill success in this. The Englishman finds in French forms and accents additional impediments. Unless corrected, he would, to begin with, mispronounce fully half the words; knowing barometer and thermometer, he would be sure to say "ki-lom-e-tre" also.

Seriously, it were easier for the learned to acquire a nomenclature founded on Hottentot and Sanskrit, dressed off in Kamchatkan forms, than for the unlearned to acquire one in Latin and Greek with French forms; the learned have some familiarity in dealing with new languages to start with. The metric words are ferœ naturæ to all people, and will not domesticate. To the common people they are simply outlandish, and "neither have the accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man."

Broadly, a system of weights and measures furnishes no case for learned nomenclature. The system is intended for wholly untechnical uses and people, while the words are adapted only to the learned, and even for them are too stiff for daily use. It is clearly a case for easy and familiar names.

More results hinge on the nomenclature than on any other feature of the system; yet it has received little real discussion; it has been simply taken for granted on its looks and outside. Indeed, it has been the boast and pet of the whole metric system, unsuspected as really the chief clog upon its progress. Brought to the tribunal of fair criticism, it is thoroughly unphilosophical, and needs to be remodeled in the light of modern investigations into the first principles of language, all of which principles it violates.

Take the first word of the first table—millimetrewithout explanation, aliunde, it conveys no information even to a learned man. Metre is merely a measure, not any definite measure, not even necessarily a measure of length. Nor does it at all, of its own force, tell how long.

Milli, the prefix, means a thousand; but by explanation, not by its own force, is made to indicate the 11000 part. After both these explanations, leave the most learned man alone with it, and he is entirely at a loss as to the actual length of the 11000 part of a metre. He can form an idea of a half, a fourth, or other like fraction, but of the 11000 part none, unless by a long process, or by being told.

Again, the nearer alike things are, the greater the difficulty of distinguishing them. Every one has observed how hard it is to recognize people in uniform. Upon this obvious principle the uniformity of the metric names in sound and general aspect is a serious practical hinderance. To an Englishman they are like a party of foreigners: they all look and jabber alike; he can hardly tell them apart.

It is unfortunate that in the metrical household every family has the same Christian names. We can imagine some wag proposing middle names just to break up the monotony. When you hear deci, your active mind, always anticipating, calls up a member of each family, and you think of deci-gramme, deci-metre, deci-arc, deci-stere, and deci-litre.

All this is diametrically wrong. Really, one is tempted to remark that the metric nomenclature got, indeed, upon exactly the right road, but took exactly the wrong end of it. It struck out toward the hard, the learned, the abstract, instead of the easy, familiar, and concrete. Observe how terse and expressive, and how perfectly distinct and unlike, ordinary words are—God, man, world—each freighted with meaning, and, in English, all frequently in one strong syllable. Take the objects in this room—desk, books, chairs, sofa, pen, ink, paper, knife—how thoroughly unlike, how instantly expressive, and nearly all monosyllables!

The great trouble with these metric words is that they will not nick; otherwise myriametre would cast a syllable a day, and soon become short and easy. That is a way the English have. But these words will not nick at either end, head or tail. Ingenious efforts for nicking have been devised by Prof. McVickar and others, which may help men of learning; but they presuppose too much familiarity already for common people.

And, after all, the true point has been missed, which is not sameness of words, the world over, but merely sameness of units; the object being not to save translation, but to save calculation. Even natural units need translation, and the artificial units we devise might be content to get on a footing with natural ones. How small a purpose, indeed, would be served if the names of the measures were the same, but of the numbers not the same, nor of the things measured! Such are some, by no means all, of the incurable faults and defects of the metric nomenclature.

The obstacles to metric reform have been chiefly artificial. Like little David in Saul's armor, the system has been weighed down with superfluities. A simple illustration may be given of its highly artificial character. A sufficient table of currency would be—

100 cents make a dollar.

What would this become, subjected to nomenclature? For dollar, we should have to substitute some Greek word, say argurion, or argur. But give the benefit of familiarity by keeping the word dollar, the above table, metricized, would assume this form:

10 millidollars make a centidollar.
10 centidollars make a decidollar.
10 decidollars make a dollar.
10 dollars make a dekadollar.
10 dekadollars make a hectodollar.
10 hectodollars make a kilodollar.
10 kilodollars make a myriadollar.

What is needed?—The utmost simplicity and straightforwardness. The system should carry no dead weight. Starting with no superfluous units, these units need—

Names.—And here comes in the process of "conscious word-making," the conditions of which have only recently been much studied. The department of science which qualifies men to suggest suitable names or principles for their selection is not physical but linguistic.

The extraordinary vitality of old words was observed by Lord Bacon with his usual practical sagacity. Even in philosophy, addressed to the learned, he remarks, "I am studious to keep the ancient terms . . . though I sometimes alter the uses and definitions." Again, with unwonted earnestness (still referring to language), he declares himself "zealous and affectionate for antiquity." Taking pains to explain the modifications of meaning, he retained ancient terms, knowing how bewildered men become with a strange vocabulary, especially when, as in the metric nomenclature, a great batch of new words is thrown upon them at once—long and strange, and slow to yield their meaning.

These sagacious anticipations of Bacon have been abundantly confirmed by modern observations. Prof. Whitney, whose works exhibit great good sense and clear-headedness as well as ample learning, uses such expressions as these, showing the habits of mankind in the formation of words, "Stretch a familiar name to cover it;" i. e., a new idea. Again, he speaks of "new applications of old (word) materials," and of "the short cuts" which language frequently makes.

One pregnant sentence we will quote in full: "We have had to notice, over and over again, the readiness on the part of language users to forget origins; to cast aside, as cumbrous rubbish, the etymological suggestiveness of a term, and concentrate force upon the new and more adventitious tie."

How much "cumbrous rubbish" impedes the metric names!

The principle on which names should be given is sufficiently clear. The names should simply answer the natural questions: "How long is it? How big square? How heavy?" etc.

To illustrate by long measure—the base-unit is now called the metre—"How long is that?" is the first question. A pace, a long step, a stride, would answer the question; probably, in England and America, despite all objections, a new yard, or a long yard, is the best name. The new would be dropped in due time (as in new style and old style), and the name becomes simply yard.

To proceed with the table. Each and every unit in each table should have its own strong, independent name, instead of a name referring to the base-unit, so called. The actual relation between the units is important; but to express this in the name is worse than superfluous, it is a mere incumbrance. There is no danger of forgetting the decimal scale.

The metric tables provide names for—

11000, 1100, 110, 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 metres.

Some of these we would omit, and perhaps provide others not given, beginning with the 110000 part, for microscopic uses.

What should the name be? It should suggest the length intended, say, a hair's-breadth, or a leaf's-thickness; soon, by shedding, a hair or leaf.

The name of the 11000 part? Still suggestion—say, a pin's-breadth (soon, a pin), a straw's-breadth, a narrow braid, a coin's-thickness, or a card's or knife-blade's. The words "breadth" or "thickness" would serve the purpose of explanation at first, and then shed, leaving only pin, straw, braid, knife-blade, card, etc.

Some such name would serve—not, millimetre in Latin and Greek; not, even metre-thousandth in Greek and English; not, any name expressing a numerical relation to some other unit. If any numerical relation at all, not to a unit at 1,000 removes. Finally, not a fractional relation, if any, but one expressed by a whole number. All these negative limitations are full of matter.

The next name—the 1100 part—might be nail's-breadth, nail.

The next, now decimetre, hand.

Then, the new yard, or long yard, finally to become yard.

The fifth unit, 10 metres, half-chain. Really no name needed.

100 metres stone's-throw; bow-shot throw, cast, shot.

1,000 metres a short mile, new mile. An accidental association would make the word kile serve. The learned would know the Greek derivation; the unlearned would remember it by the rhyme. Numerous illustrations occur, equally casual. The objection is not to Greek, but to the want of some familiar association, no matter how trifling.

10,000 metres a great league, or double league.

Observe that each unit thus named is as much a base-unit as any other.

Had the units of the old English system been properly related, the names were all right. Each name could stand alone! Twelve inches did not make one "duodecem unciæ" but one foot; three feet, not the Latin for three feet, but a terse English word, one yard (i. e., a shoot or switch—the first yard-stick). Five and a half yards made (the scale being all wrong, but the name all right) one rod, pole, or perch.

The following brief table might approximate to a sufficient one for linear measure:

  100 hair's-breadths make 1 nail's-breadth.
  100 nail's-breadths make 1 long yard.
1,000 long yards make 1 kile.

Soon to dwindle to this form:

  100 hairs make a nail.
  100 nails make a yard.
1,000 yards make a kile.

For astronomical purposes we might add:

10,000 kiles make 1 great quadrant.

Of course, the above names are not suggested as final, but only as illustrative. Again, the actual lengths would be perfectly definite, and the modes of verifying fixed by science.

If any object to the omission of the millimetre, how easy to say ten hairs! The cental scale usually suffices—witness "ten cents" vice a "dime."

Ah! but how meagre and shabby is this in comparison with the beautiful and learned nomenclature, with its long words, rolling ore rotundo from learned lips!

Alas! that system is too pretty for use—like a mowing-machine, gilded and decorated, which cuts too high, and passes above its work, leaving no grass in its trail. This humble blade is intended to cut low; it must even scrape the ground, and rake the very dust, rather than not mow. Plain, ignorant people are to be reached; children, servants, the dullest plodders, are all to use whatever names we adopt. We do well to be humble. The lofty, high-sounding names heretofore proposed have gained no currency; they have been "stifled by general neglect."

But how about universality?

A ready means for this is found in notation.

Universal symbols are as easy as a universal nomenclature is difficult. Take, for example, the nine digits. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Japanese, look at the figure 3; they call it by different names, each in his own mother-tongue, but they all think of the same thing. The thing, the thought, the mark, are all the same—the words differ. So is it with the notes in music, the symbols in algebra and geometry, etc.

A notation may be devised which addresses the eye, and is self-explanatory. The base-units may be represented, for example, as follows:

That of length, by a straight line, graduated, to distinguish it from minus.

Surface, by a square.
Solid cube or block.
Capacity cup.
Weight pound-weight.
Money coin, stamped.
Angle two lines, meeting.
Time waving line.

We only suggest, and do not expand.

The substance of the foregoing suggestions, summed up, is as follows:

Adhering to the metric system as a basis—its modification by the following features:

1. The entire abandonment of the present elaborate and ingenious system of nomenclature, and of any attempt at universality in the words employed to designate the units of the system.

2. The expression of each unit by each nation in its own vernacular tongue—the units themselves being the same everywhere, but the expression in language adapted to the familiar tongue of each people.

3. A common notation as the means of universality, instead of a common system of names, the units and their written expression being thus universally the same, while the spoken expression conforms to familiar national usages.

4. The words selected to express the several units to be suggestive of easy standards of comparison with familiar objects.

5. The notation also to be suggestive to the eye, as the nomenclature heretofore in use was to the learned ear, but not to the unlearned.

6. The number of denominations to be reduced in conformity with an observed tendency among men to use numbers instead; oral expression to be simplified; and a suitable actual system of notation suggested.

7. The transition to the new system to involve the least practicable loss of familiarity—either with familiar objects or familiar names.

These modifications adapt the metric system to the needful human conditions. Accepting its solutions of the natural conditions, they conserve all that is really valuable, and reject only what is cumbrous. The metric nomenclature is quite as unphilosophical as the English scales; both are fit only for decent burial. The real desideratum is to reduce to a minimum the difficulty of introducing the new units. Can the transition be better effected than on the foregoing principles?

This ponderous and scattered human family—a huge class of grown pupils, not gathered into school-room, nor used to formal instruction—complains of its lessons; it begs for a less task. We propose to excuse you from your Greek and your Latin, and from French forms, from long words and hard names, from the queer pronunciations and the wrong accents. We let you off from half the units, perhaps two-thirds, and furnish you with familiar standards of comparison for those which are left, and give you English names to boot—Anglo-Saxon when possible, short, terse, and significant—though we take care, on our part, to have them properly related, not leaving that matter to you.

What! not yet satisfied? Unreasonable mankind! let us convince you that this is the least cost you can pay, and insure the desired benefit.

Scarcely another so important reform awaits the human family. But it will not take care of itself. We have referred to two aspects of progress—progress among governments, want of progress among the people. The latter is incomparably the more important. The one is semblance, the other substance. Until the metric system is used, it is not a labor-saving machine for service, but a mere toy to look at—an anticipation, a dream, not a reality and a possession. And such it is now.

We must not rely on a change in human nature, but must adapt our system to it; otherwise, indeed, mankind may, perhaps, in the distant future, wear out to the system, like a Chinese foot to a shoe. Should we await this slow and painful process, or should we not rather adapt the shoe to the foot?

Can we look forward to a time when these long foreign words shall be as familiar to every child in Christendom as the words foot, yard, bushel, pound, now are to English ears? And yet this is the proper standard of familiarity; it must be absolute and unhesitating. Do the long words, indeed, deserve to be as familiar? Are they formed to be? No; we must reach the mother-tongue of each people.

Nor can we afford to wait, to bring the matter home.

Can the English and American peoples—the two most commercial peoples on the globe—be content, on the one hand, with permanent isolation, founded on inferiority? or, on the other, can they ask mankind to accept their system, forsooth, as worthy of universal use? Will England, for example, ask America to return to £ s. d. and qrs.? Or America, for very shame, present her compound reduction tables for the admiration and universal adoption of all nations?

Let not the friends of metric reform be deceived with vain hopes. Government work, and the work of colleges and schools and scientific associations, all put together, are not equal to adaptation!