Our founding fathers were Penny Wise. They created the world's first decimal currency.

Sadly, we remain Pound Foolish. The rest of the world uses simple metric systems of measurement, while we Americans continue to struggle with yards, pounds, and tablespoons.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Time to wise up, America!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Metric Grandfather

Excerpt of my grandfather, Howard Richards, Jr.,
 the Secretary of the American Metric Association, testifying before a
congressional subcommittee in 1921 about a bill that would
have adopted the metric system as our national system
of weights and measures.
I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Richards. And not just because he was my grandfather!

If a farmer spent a week working with grams and kilograms of feed and seed, he'd be familiar with them within a week. No problem. Same for meters and kilometers of fencing. Grandfather had plenty of supporting documentation: letters from the PTA, from many industrial companies like US Steel, from a general, and testimonials from a variety scientists, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, all supporting the Metric System and saying that it would be simpler and more cost effective in the long run. 

But then, as now, congress did not want to "force" anyone to do anything. Well, we do have to pay taxes, whether we like the way they're spent or not. Men do have to register with the Selective Service when they turn 18, and go to war if they're drafted.  And someone once decided what our customary units of measurement would be. There are lots of offices in Washington, DC and throughout the 50 states where such things are regulated. How much gas is in a gallon? The government decides!

If gas was sold by the liter, I think I could master the change within a week. And every penny of increase would seem like a really big deal! If the speed limit signs changes to kilometers per hour, I'd just check the gauge that's already in my car, and feel like I'd just been told to drive really fast! If bananas were sold by the kilogram, I'd figure it out. Maybe I'd carry a conversion chart for a while, to make sure the prices seemed fair. But pretty soon, I'd be a master at living metric.

My grandfather, Howard Richards, Jr. is sitting next to his
father, Howard Richards. My dad, Owen Richards, is wedged
 between his father's knees.

Not because my grandfather was the founding secretary of the American Metric Association in 1916. Not because I'm especially good at math. But because we humans adapt to change. That's what makes us remarkable creatures!

My grandfather was born in 1877. In his lifetime, cars replaced carriages, electricity replaced oil lamps, and plumbing moved indoors. He died of post-surgical infection in 1940, just before penicillin began to be mass-produced. He'd be amazed at all of the advances in medicine, technology, and communications. But how dismayed he would be that the United States of America was still foolishing measuring in pounds, inches, and pints. 

Penny wise. American money was the first decimal system of currency in the world.
Pound foolish. Our customary system of weights and measures is archaic and complex.

1 comment:

  1. We can adapt! I love the rich history here, both because it's my family and because it's been so long coming!