Memorable metric moments

April 26, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

LAST WEEK, my daughter Deborah called from Paris to inform my wife and me that she had delivered our first grandchild, a boy.

"And how much did he weigh?" I asked with no little excitement.

"Four kilograms," came the reply.

"Wow," I reflected, trying to buy a little time to convert the metric number into pounds and ounces. "And his length?"

"About 53 centimeters," was the proud response.

To be sure, I researched the matter afterward, finding out that Lance Alexander Galletti was a heavyweight at eight pounds, eight ounces and measured about 21 inches.

But all this cross-cultural metric reckoning wore me down, bringing out the historian in me. Can we really say, I thought, that we've come a long way from the days of antiquity, when a warrior chieftain determined weights and measures for his tribe by the length of his hand or the width of his palm?

The Egyptians made volume and weight a bit more uniform by the use of standard goatskins, baskets and seashells. They also introduced the cubit, the distance between the king's elbow and end of his middle finger. That was usually about 18 inches, but not always: a cubit in the Great Pyramid at Khufu was about 20.5 inches.

The Romans did much to tighten up matters. An inch, at first a thumb's breadth, was defined as one-twelfth of a foot. A mile was 5,000 feet or 1,000 paces, with each pace five feet.

When the Romans occupied what is now Great Britain, they took their feet-and-inches system of measuring with them, but then the British added a few wrinkles. In the 1500s, a mile became 5,280 feet, which suggests that English thumbs and feet perhaps were a bit shorter than their Roman counterparts.

Enter also the British yard, originally a double cubit. According to tradition, a yard was defined by Henry I as the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his thumb -- a measure still used by seamstresses.

As we know, the colonies followed the English system. But with independence, Congress was given the power "to fix the standard of weights and measures." Congress did little on this weighty matter until 1830, when it directed the secretary of the treasury to determine the degree of uniformity in U.S. customs houses.

Then in 1836 Congress reaffirmed tradition and set more precise standards. But the metric system, created by France in the Despite years of trying, progress on metric conversion is still measured in inches

1790s, was inching its way around the globe. In 1866, Congress gave states the option to adopt the metric system. But even after the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in 1875 gave its approval to the metric system, Congress balked.

In 1893 Congress again reviewed the situation, keeping the English system but deciding that the yard and pound would be derived from the meter and kilogram. There were still slight discrepancies between the number of millimeters in a U.S. inch and that of other countries. That was finally corrected in a scientific agreement signed in 1959.

During President Gerald Ford's administration, a new push was given for Americans to adopt the metric system, but after FTC dozen years or so, the commitment has been lukewarm at best. And frankly, I'm delighted, because some of the nation's most hallowed traditions might be jeopardized.

Take sports. Who wants to know the height of a baseball player in meters or the weight of a nose guard in kilograms? A 450-foot home run in Camden Yards makes no sense when converted to meters, and a Louisville Slugger isn't a Louisville Slugger unless it's measured in inches. Denver's Mile-High Stadium would have to get a little bigger with a kilometer-measuring system, to say nothing about what would happen to the name of the Indianapolis 500.

Just think of the harm that could be done to the nation's great adages through application of the metric system. Try converting "penny wise and pound foolish" to a metric masterpiece. Or what about "water, water all around and not a milliliter to drink?" Children would have to read nursery rhymes that don't have a rhyme for a metric reason: "There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked kilometer. . ."

What would happen to 19-inch TV sets, 3-by-5 index cards, 2-by-4s in the lumberyard and the borrowed cup of sugar by which one family in a Hollywood movie got to meet another one? And what about songs, such as the ever popular refrain, "I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck."?

No, I'm not at all sad about the fact that the U.S. has resisted becoming truly metric. As for my new grandson, I'm delighted. And in my scheme of things, no matter his French manner of reckoning, he's without doubt my favorite half-pint.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington, D. C.

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