National Geographic : 1906 Mar
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE THE REASON WE DID NOT ADOPT THE METRIC SYSTEM WHEN WE ADOPTED DOLLARS AND CENTS It has always been a matter of wonder to me why the United States, when it changed from the old system of pounds, shillings, and pence to the present dollars and cents, did not at the same time go the whole way and adopt the metric system of weights and measures. The answer, however, is simple. The metric system had not then been invented, or rather had not anywhere come into use. Proposi tions foreshadowing its advent were un der consideration, but the metric system as we know it did not appear until after the passage of our coinage act of 1792. It was only adopted by France about the beginning of the nineteenth century, and if I remember rightly-and if not Mr. Stratton will correct me-the first standard kilogram and the first standard meter were not deposited until 1830. Mr Stratton:* It was just about the time that we made the change in coinage that they were considering this system. Congress directed John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State, to make an in vestigation in regard to the matter, and he did so, and he made a report in which he called attention to the fact that the metric system was then being developed; and he advised us to watch it closely, and he said that it was in his opinion a thing we ought to adopt if it proved successful. Mr Bell: In 1790 Jefferson advised a decimal system of weights and measures and suggested the length of a second pendulum as a unit. The Chairman: Of course he could not recommend the metric system because it had not been invented. Mr Bell: No; it was not introduced until later. Some action was taken by France in 1795, and in 1798 it was con sidered by some international gathering, but it was not legalized in France until * S. W. Stratton, Director of Bureau of Standards. 180I, and many years elapsed before legal standards were prepared. OUR WHOLE SYSTEM O ARITHMETIC IS DECIMAL There is one other point to which I desire to call attention, which seems to me to lie at the root of any proposed change in our methods of measurement in the direction of simplicity and ease of appli cation, and it is this: We employ a deci mal system of arithmetic; from which it follows that a decimal system of meas urement will be more easy for us to handle than any system in which the units of measurement do not progress by tens. Our whole system of arithmetic itself is decimal in character. In counting we employ o1figures: o, I, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. We then repeat these in groups of o1, advancing from 10 to 20, 30, 40, etc., up to 99. We then advance by groups of o1times o1, namely, Ioo, 200, 300, etc., to 999; then by groups of Io times Ioo, namely, 1,000, 2,000, 3,ooo, etc., etc. From this peculiarity in our method of numeration it follows that any system in which the units of measurement advance by tens is specially suited to our system of arithmetic. It enables us to change from one denomination to another in the system, as desired, without special calcu lation, by simply changing the place of the decimal point. Now the metric sys tem is a decimal system of this character. It has already found favor with the world at large, and I think America should adopt it and make it her own. It really is astonishing, when you come to work out complicated problems involving cubical measure, specific gravity, and the relation of volume to weight, how much labor of calculation is saved by the use of the metrical measures. The Chairman: If you will point out what that relation is specifically, perhaps it would be interesting. The members of the committee may understand, but I would like to see it. 164.