We thought the metric system was just something pitched to — and largely ignored by — recent generations of schoolchildren. Wrong! It’s actually been pitched to and ignored by people for about two hundred years. There was even a law put in place just a year after Lincoln died to try to get Americans to go metric. By an act of Congress in 1866 (HR 596) — signed by President Andrew Johnson — it became “lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.”
But did that law change everything? As seen in this story from 1900, that’s a big no. And more than 100 years later, we’re still happily using our feet and inches, gallons and pints.
The metric system of weights & measures
The bill introduced by Congressman Shafroth providing that on and after January 1, 1903, the weights and measures in the metric system shall be the legal standard weights and measures in the United States is simply another in a long line of attempts to supplant the present awkward system by the easy and simple metric, or decimal, system. Though the bill has been reported favorably by the committee on weights and measures it has still a hard fight before it. The chances for its adoption are not the brightest.
In one sense, the United States may be said to have been even before France in the adoption of at least a portion of the metric system. In 1785, congress adopted the decimal system of money, with the dollar as the unit, whereas the metric system proper was not adopted by France until 1795.
The metric system’s basis
The basis of the metric system, the meter, was determined by two French astronomers and mathematicians and is exactly one-forty-millionth part of the circumference of the earth on the meridian of Paris. The meter is 3.37 inches longer than the American yard. It is the standard of the measures of length and all other measures are based upon it. Thus the metric unit of surface measure is the centare, which is one square meter. The unit of capacity is one liter, which is the cube of one-tenth of a meter. The unit of weight is the gram which is the weight of a cubic centimeter of water.
A standard meter was constructed in 1799 by an international commission representing France, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, Savoy, and the Roman, Cisalpine and Ligurian republics. It was made of platinum and was deposited in the palace of archives in Paris and was declared to be the definitive basis of the metric system forever.
Law in France in 1801
The use of the metric system was declared obligatory in France on November 2, 1801, but the French people were not prepared for so sudden a change, and in 1812 a compromise was adopted which lasted until 1837. In that year a law was passed making the use of the metric system obligatory and ordering its enforcement after January, 1840.
At present it is universally used by France, as well as by all European nations, except Great Britain — where it is allowed, but not compulsory. Russia was the last of the great powers to make the change, having put the metric system into force only a few weeks ago. On the continent the metric system has been adopted by Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and other of the South and Central American republics.
Metric system attempts over the years
As early as 1817, the subject of adopting the metric system in the United States was agitated. John Quincy Adams was appointed to investigate the weights and measures of the United States and he found that the standards of weight, measure, and capacity differed considerably in the different states and even in the same state. He reported fully on the result of his investigation and did not favor the adoption of the French or metric system because of the popular repugnance to a change and the inconvenience which would follow the adoption of a new system. At the same time, he declared his belief that the metric system was almost ideal and reflected the greatest credit on the men and on the age which had devised it.
In 1830, another investigation was made and it again was found that a pound or a yard in one state or city was often more or less than in another. As a result, the treasury department was authorized and instructed to have made copies of the standards of weight and measure then in its possession, a set of which copies were to be delivered to the governor of each state in the union.
In 1866, it was made by an act of congress lawful to employ the weights and measures of the metric system throughout the United States, and the secretary of the treasury was instructed to furnish the governor of each state a set of standard weights and measures of the metric system for the use of the respective states.
Under the regulations of the international postal convention, the metric system was adopted as the standard in all transactions between the nations which are members of the postal union, and accordingly the mail matter transported between the United States and fifty other countries — including even the mail sent between the United States and England — is weighed and paid for entirely in terms of the metric system.
In 1875, a convention was held by representatives of practically all the civilized nations, except England, at which a “scientific and permanent bureau of weights and measures” was established at Paris, the expenses of which are paid by all the powers party to the convention. Great Britain has since become a party to this conference and now pays its share of the expenses of the bureau.
One duty of the international bureau of weights and measures is to furnis exact and correct copies or duplicates of the standards of weight and measure to the several countries which contribute to its support. These new standards were supplied to the United States and were received by the president and his cabinet on January 2, 1890, and are now deposited in a fireproof room in the coast survey building at Washington.
In 1893, the secretary of the treasury ordered that thereafter the standard meter and kilogram, deposited in the coast survey building, should be recognized as the fundamental standards from which the customary units of the yard and the pound should be derived. It is therefore true that at present the United States is using a system of weights and measures which is based on the units of the metric system.
The metric system proper is now exclusively used by the United States marine hospital service, by the foreign department of the post office, by the United States coast and geodetic survey, to some extent in the mint, United States signal service, and United States census department.