A Watched Pot Never Reaches 100 Degrees (Celsius)

"As I recall, King Henry's arm was about this long."

The most reliable way to kill off a good idea is to have a committee study it.  There are thousands of illustrations of that truth, but just to pick one, how about the effort to convert U.S. weights and measures to the metric standard?

There had been sporadic attempts to do that since Thomas Jefferson recommended it in 1790, but the idea to change to meters and grams didn’t gain serious momentum until the late 1960s.  That’s when the U.S. Metric Study was authorized, establishing a 45-member advisory panel to the Department of Commerce.  A committee of five can be unwieldy, but forty-five?  It must have taken months just to find a mutually-agreeable time for them to hold a meeting.

After three years of study, the advisory panel concluded that it was in fact a good idea, and recommended that metrication be adopted… over a decade.  That leisurely pace gave the U.S. Congress time to study the idea some  more, which of course meant more committees.  Eventually Congress somehow passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

The stated goal of that act was “to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States”.  The act also handed that job to another committee; this one was called the U.S. Metric Board.  It held meetings and listened to testimony and took things under advisement and the committee members deliberated.  Their deliberations almost always ended in deadlock.

On one side — the side that favored changing to the metric system — there were scientists, multinational corporations, educators, and to some extent the military.  On the other side were consumers, who loudly complained that they found the metric system confusing.

By contrast the U.S. system, rooted in the British Imperial system, was so logical and easy to understand, you see.  In the Middle Ages, an inch was established as the width of a man’s thumb, or of three barleycorns set side by side.  A foot was — well, you know, the length of a human foot, or roughly 36 barleycorns.  And what could be simpler to grasp than the concept of a yard, since it represented the distance from the tip of King Henry I’s nose to the end of the middle finger on his outstretched hand?

A mile was a little trickier, since it had originally been a Roman unit of measure.  If you can picture the length of 1,000 paces by a Roman legion — considering that a pace has two steps, so is roughly five feet — then you can picture a mile.  If that’s too difficult to comprehend, remember that in 1592, Parliament simplified things by standardizing the length of a mile as eight furlongs. 

You can see why consumers wanted to cling to that system, when the alternative required something far more complicated and scary:  moving a decimal point!  The conversion plan languished in committee, and eventually the committee — the U.S. Metric Board — was itself disbanded in 1982.

As a result, Americans were spared the inconvenience of having to change their treasured proverbs and folk wisdom to sayings like, “Give her a centimeter and she’ll take 1.6 kilometers”, or “28.3 grams of prevention is worth roughly 454 grams of cure.”  The meeting is adjourned.


One response to “A Watched Pot Never Reaches 100 Degrees (Celsius)

  1. I think Time magazine has taken over the committees’ work. They keep sneaking the metric measure in parentheses, thus lousing up the prose flow:
    “It’s a short hop from Yuckibad’s town square to the nearest KFC, but it’s the most dangerous three miles (4.8km) in Frightistan.” They haven’t yet written “A miss is as good as a mile (1.6km),” but it’s coming.

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