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Alexander Graham Bell address to Congress

The following article, Our Heterogeneous System of Weights and Measures by Alexander Graham Bell, appeared in the March, 1906 issue of The National Geographic Magazine, and consists of an address by Mr Bell to a House committee in support of a bill to switch to the metric system. (The bill did not become law.)

National Geographic

Our Heterogeneous System of Weights and Measures

An explanation of the reasons why the United States
should abandon its obsolete system of
inches, tons, and gallons

By Alexander Graham Bell

The following pages contain an informal address to the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the U.S. House of Representatives on February 16 [1906]. The bill under consideration reads as follows:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the first of July, nineteen hundred and eight, all of the Departments of the Government of the United States, in the transaction of business requiring the use of weight and measurement, shall employ and use the weights and measures of the metric system.

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by L. N. Littauer, Representative from New York, and is known as “the Littauer Bill.” Dr. Bell's address is published here through the courtesy of the chairman of the committee, James H. Southard, of Ohio.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell, ca. 1914–1919

This is one of the briefest bills I have even seen — only five lines — but it is pregnant with consequences to the people of the United States. It means very much more than appears upon its face. This is a mandatory bill requiring the use of the metric system in the departments of the government, but of course Congress would not pass a bill of this kind unless as a step toward the introduction of the metric system generally in the United States. So that this really means, if you pass it, that you have decided to abolish the chaotic systems of weights and measures we now have and substitute the metric system not simply for the government departments, but for the whole of the United States. This bill is simply a logical step in the consummation of the greater plan, and I hope it will pass.

It is obvious that our present system of weights and measures is in a very chaotic condition. It certainly is not right that a coal company should be able to pay their miners by a ton of 2,240 pounds and then sell their coal by another ton of 2,000 pounds. But even the pound itself varies in weight according to circumstances. Some of our people employ a pound of 16 ounces, others a pound of 12 ounces; so that it is necessary in business transactions to have a definite understanding as to the kind of pound we employ — whether avoirdupois or troy weight. The ounce, too, varies. Our apothecaries use an ounce of 8 drams, whereas there are 16 drams in an ounce avoirdupois. Thus the avoirdupois pound consists of 16 ounces of 16 drams each, equivalent to 256 drams, whereas the pound used by our apothecaries contains only 12 ounces of 8 drams each, equivalent to 96 drams.

In a similar manner we have different kinds of bushels and gallons and other measures in common use by different sections of our people; and if there is anything that is clear it seems to be this — that we need uniformity in our system of weights and measures.

Of course, it matters little what system may be employed by an individual, so far as he himself is concerned; but the moment he has dealings with other individuals the necessity for uniformity and a common understanding arises. The right of the individual to choose his own methods of measurement must give way to the convenience of the community of which he forms a part; in a similar manner the right of sections of the community like apothecaries, silversmiths, etc., to have their own peculiar system of measurement should give way to the right of the community as a whole to have uniformity and a system convenient to all.

Every state in the Union might with perfect propriety have a different system of weights and measures if there were no interstate transactions or mingling of people from different parts of the country, but the interests of the nation as a whole demand uniformity throughout the length and breadth of the land.

In achieving such a result the United States might very well establish a peculiar system of its own, without reference to the usages of other countries, if we formed an isolated people, having no dealings with the rest of the world; but in making a change — and the necessity for a change is very obvious — it would be advisable to adopt a system that would not only be convenient for our own people, but would also be convenient for the other peoples of the world with whom we carry on trade and commerce.

No one doubts that the metrical system is superior to the crude methods of measurement we employ. It is therefore useless to expect that foreign countries employing the metrical system will ever change to our methods of measurement; from which it follows that if international uniformity is to be secured it is we who must give way. We must either adopt the metrical system or some other system — not our own — which may have some chance of international adoption.

At the present time, however, the metrical system is the only system known that has the ghost of a chance of being adopted universally by the world. As a matter of fact, it is now international in character, for practically all of the civilized nations of the world have already adopted it with the exception of the English-speaking peoples, who employ an admittedly inferior system.

The metrical system was legalized in the United States in 1866 and is already in use by a portion of our people, thus adding to the existing confusion. Our scientific men especially employ it, almost universally, and merchants having dealings with foreign countries are obliged to use it to a greater or less extent. Our imports from non-English-speaking countries are largely expressed in metrical measures, and in exporting to these countries our merchants must adopt the metrical system or be placed at a disadvantage with competitors who already employ it; for people accustomed to the metrical system will not take the trouble of translating our measures into their own system in order to understand what they are buying, if they can obtain the same goods elsewhere expressed in the measures with which they are already familiar. There can be no question that in competing with metrical countries for the trade of the countries already employing the system, our commerce is seriously handicapped by the inconvenient and antiquated systems of weights and measures in use in the United States. This means that we are at a disadvantage everywhere in the world excepting in dealing with Great Britain and her colonies.

A waste of labor

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Few people have any adequate conception of the amount of unnecessary labor involved in the use of our present weights and measures. Scientific men and merchants may have the necessary skill with figures to enable them to use the metrical system, but how about the common people of the country? It is just here that the metrical system possesses special advantages — reducing to a minimum the amount of labor and skill required in the solution of the every-day problems of life involving the use of figures.

The people of Great Britain, having no practical experience by actual use of the advantages of a decimal system of measurement, may have difficulty in realizing the amount of unnecessary drudgery through which they are obliged to go in order to obtain a solution of the simplest arithmetical problems, and they therefore have some excuse for remaining in the rear of progress; but the United States has no such excuse to offer for her hesitation in joining the majority of the civilized nations of the world in the adoption of the metrical system. We already have a decimal system of money, and our people are therefore prepared to appreciate the great saving of labor involved in pushing the decimal principle into all our methods of measurement. We would not, if we could, go back to the old pounds, shillings, and pence of our ancestors, for we can realize through our every-day experience with dollars and cents the drudgery we are saved in all financial calculations, and are therefore prepared to appreciate, by analogy, that corresponding benefits would arise from our adoption of a decimal system in our weights and measures.

Let us compare for a moment the arithmetical processes involved in calculating by the old method of pounds, shillings, and pence with the simpler process employed when we deal with dollars and cents and then apply the results to the metric system of weights and measures. Take any problem that may occur to your mind. Let us take, for example, the figures 1906, which express the present year. Now if we had 1906 pennies and wanted to find out how many pounds, shillings, and pence this amounted to, we must divide 1906 by 12 to find the number of shillings, and then divide the product by 20 to ascertain the number of pounds; but the moment you adopt a decimal system of money like our own this kind of drudgery becomes entirely unnecessary. No calculation whatever is required in order to reduce the figures from one denomination to another — we simply shift the decimal point. We know at once, without calculation, that 1906 cents amount to 19.06 dollars.

In a similar manner, in using the metric system we know without calculation that 1906 centimeters amount to 19.06 meters, and that 1906 grams amount to 1.906 kilograms. No calculation is involved.

Now compare this simple process with the laborious processes involved in the use of the ordinary measures of length and weight. Take 1906 inches — how many feet and yards? We must divide 1906 by 12 to find out the number of feet, and then divide the product by 3 to ascertain the number of yards. Or take 1906 ounces — how many pounds?

Mr Chairman [James H. Southard, Rep. from Ohio]: What kind of ounces?

We have three kinds of pound

Mr Bell: Yes — what kind of ounce, for we have more than one. And what kind of pound — avoirdupois weight, troy weight, or apothecary's weight? In one case we may have to divide 1906 by 16, in another by 12; but the point I wish to make is this: that a calculation of some sort is involved in the mere process of translation from one denomination to another in the same kind of measure, while by the metrical system all this kind of labor is saved — we merely shift the decimal point.

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The amount of labor saved in calculating square measure and cubical measure is still more remarkable. Try square measure first. Take the figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6: 123,456 square inches, how many square feet? I will not try to work it out, but you must divide this number by 144 to get the number of square feet. You will probably require paper and pencil to perform the computation; but on the metrical plan the solution is so easy that any intelligent person can arrive at the result mentally without any calculation whatever. 123,456 square centimeters is equivalent to 12.3456 square meters.

Even should we forget that there are 10,000 square centimeters in a square meter, a moment's thought will enable us to recover the knowledge. The merest tyro knows that a meter consists of 100 centimeters (the name “centimeter” itself meaning “one-hundredth of a meter”), so that a square meter is a surface measuring 100 centimeters one way by 100 centimeters the other. 100 times 100 is 10,000, the figure 1 followed by four ciphers, which means that we must shift the decimal point four places to the left to ascertain the number of square meters.

How much water in the reservoir

Now try cubical measure; take any problem that comes to the mind. Suppose we have a rectangular tank or reservoir of a certain length, width, and depth — how much water will it hold, and how much will the water weigh?

We begin of course by multiplying together the length, width, and depth to ascertain the cubical contents. This kind of calculation must be performed, whatever the system of measurement employed, and I shall simply say that the computation is much simpler on the metrical plan than on the other because no non-decimal fractions are involved. If the length, breadth, and depth be expressed by an exact number of feet, the labor involved in this portion of the calculation will be the same in both cases; but as a general rule in such computations one or more of the dimensions will not be exactly in feet, but may be four feet “and a half,” or 3 feet “4 inches,” etc., and we then find it advisable to reduce the whole to the lowest denomination used — say cubic inches. In such a case the metrical system has greatly the advantage. But after the whole computation is over and we have ascertained the cubical contents in the lowest denominations employed, the problem is solved if the metrical system is used, whereas much labor is required on the present system to put the answer into final shape.

A labor-saving device

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We shall take a specific case, and in order to show the ease with which the problem can be mentally solved on the metric system with the very largest figures, we will take a sum involving nine figures, thus running up into the millions. Having measured our tank or reservoir and performed our initial calculation, suppose we find that the tank contains 123,456,789 cubic inches of water.

How many gallons have we there? And how much does the water weigh?

I will not attempt to work the result out to its final conclusion even with the aid of paper and pencil, for I must confess that my memory does not hold the exact number of cubic inches contained in a gallon and I have no means of recovering this knowledge excepting by reference to a printed table. Then again my memory does not retain a distinct impression of the relation of weight to volume of water on our present system. The problem is therefore absolutely insoluble to me at the present moment. I must consult some reference book for the information that would enable me to work it out. But put the problem in metrical terms and the problem is solved as soon as you have ascertained the cubical contents in any of the metrical denominations you prefer; the translation of the result into other more convenient denominations of the metrical system requires no calculation and is a mere question of putting the decimal point in the proper place.

For example, suppose we find that our tank holds 123,456,789 cubic centimeters of water. How many liters have we there, and how much does the water weigh? The answer is 123,456.789 liters, weighing 123,456.789 kilograms.

Now supposing we forget for the moment that one liter of water contains one thousand cubic centimeters and weighs one kilogram, it is not necessary for us to consult a work of reference. A moment's consideration of the elementary propositions of the metric system will enable us to recover the knowledge for ourselves by mere mental computation. We cannot forget that one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram, for that fact lies at the root of the relation of weight to volume in the metrical system. We cannot forget that equally elementary proposition that a cube having a side of 10 centimeters has a volume of one liter, for this lies at the root of the relation of length to volume on the metrical system. If we do not know these facts, we do not know the metrical system at all.

A cube having a side of 10 centimeters has a volume of one liter; then how many cubic centimeters are there in a liter? Picture to yourself a cube of the required dimensions and mentally calculate the cubical contents. It is 10 centimeters long, 10 centimeters wide, and 10 centimeters deep. Multiply these dimensions together; 10 times 10 is 100, and 10 times 100 is 1,000. Here we recover the forgotten fact that a liter contains 1,000 cubic centimeters. But one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram; from which it follows that 1,000 cubic centimeters (one liter) weigh 1,000 grams (one kilogram). 1,000 is the figure 1 followed by 3 ciphers; and this fact directs us to shift the decimal point 3 places to the left in order to convert cubic centimeters of water into liters of volume or kilograms of weight.

Contrast the amount of labor involved in this simple process with that involved in ascertaining from the number of cubic inches of water the volume of water in gallons and its weight in pounds. Nothing, I think, can better illustrate the fact that the metric system is a labor-saving device of the greatest importance and value.

It is safe to say that after the metric system has been adopted by the United States and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ.

The experience of Dr. Bell's laboratory

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The laborious nature of the calculations involved in the use of our ordinary measures was forced upon my attention a number of years ago by the fact that I commenced to carry on in my laboratory a series of experiments with man-lifting kites — enormous structures, which had to be made very light in proportion to their supporting surfaces in order to carry a man up into the air. These kites cost several hundred dollars apiece to construct; and it was therefore found advisable, after repeated failures, to calculate beforehand what the weight of a proposed structure would be; and then calculate, from the total amount of silk employed and from the angle which the oblique surfaces made with the horizon, the amount of effective surface upon which the wind would act (the projection of the oblique surfaces on a horizontal plane). From these figures the ratio of weight to support surface for the whole structure was ascertained and the fact determined whether the proposed kite would fly in a moderate wind — before actually commencing its construction. The calculations proved to be so laborious that I found it simpler to translate the proposed measurements into metrical terms and then work out the solution on the metrical plan.

The translation of the ordinary measurements into metrical terms, and vice versa, involved considerable labor on my part, and it seemed advisable therefore to introduce the metric system into the laboratory and have all measurements made directly in metrical terms. The only question in my mind was whether ordinary workmen, carpenters and mechanics accustomed to the usual methods of measurements, could or would employ the metric system.

The result may be of interest to the committee as bearing upon the question of the ability of the common people of America to handle a new system of this kind. No difficulty whatever was experienced in the use of the system, and the total expense involved in the change amounted to a few dollars for the purchase of a set of metrical weights and measures. The same balances formerly employed were equally efficient in weighing by the metrical system, and even the old weights were utilized as supplementary weights, with their value in grams distinctly marked upon them. No change was required in the machinery and tools employed, simply a change in the method of measuring the output.

For convenience of reference a chart of the metrical system was hung up in the workshop, but no effort was made to have the men master the new names involved, excepting so far as they were introduced by actual use. The names of which the men were most afraid, like dekagram, hectogram, dekameter, and hectometer, were really not required at all in actual use. The only terms employed at first were meter, centimeter, and gram; but the necessities of the laboratory soon introduced millimeter, kilogram, and liter. In this connection it is rather interesting to note that the word “decimeter,” although understood, remained among the unused terms, the men preferring the expression “10 centimeters,” just as we usually prefer to call a dime “10 cents” rather than a dime. So, too, a cubic decimeter (or liter) was preferably called “a cube of 10 centimeters.”

So long as I did not ask my men to translate from one system into the other, all was plain sailing. They would have difficulty in translating from pounds and ounces into grams or kilograms, or from feet and inches into centimeters or meters; but in the actual measurement of length with a metric measure in hand, and in actual weighing with metrical weights, no difficulty whatever has been experienced.

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The use of the metric system in my laboratory has greatly facilitated all calculations and the men like it.

We are one of the last nations to adopt the metric system

The Chairman: It has been contended by one or two people at least who have set out to oppose the introduction of this system that in France and in Germany, where it has been used as long as anywhere, it is not really the system of weights and measures of those countries. You have been there?

Mr Bell: I have been in France; and so far as my observation has gone it seems to be in universal use there. I understand that it is also employed in Germany. In fact we are one of the last nations to take it up. I understand that nearly all the civilized nations of the world have already adopted the metric system, with the exception of Great Britain, the United States, and the British colonies.

The Chairman: Of course we realize that an argument can be made about the confusion which exists in weights and measures in this country in a great many different lines. For instance, in the United States Mint they have four standards of weights — apothecary's, avoirdupois, troy, and the metric measures.

Mr Bell: I do not think any system of weights and measures has any chance of becoming universal except the metric system, and its growth during the short time it has been in existence seems to indicate that it has such a chance.

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. Propositions foreshadowing its advent were under 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 [S. W. Stratton, Director of Bureau of Standards]: 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 investigation 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 considered by some international gathering, but it was not legalized in France until 1801, and many years elapsed before legal standards were prepared.

Our whole system of 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 application, and it is this: We employ a decimal system of arithmetic; from which it follows that a decimal system of measurement 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 10 figures: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. We then repeat these in groups of 10, advancing from 10 to 20, 30, 40, etc., up to 99. We then advance by groups of 10 times 10, namely, 100, 200, 300, etc., to 999; then by groups of 10 times 100, namely, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, etc., etc.

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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 calculation, by simply changing the place of the decimal point. Now the metric system 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.

Mr Bell: There is a simple relation between volume and weight: one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram. That fact remembered is the key to the whole subject.

Now if you want to calculate the weight of any other substance you have simply to express its volume in cubic centimeters and multiply that by the specific gravity of the substance. Here is a piece of steel 10 centimeters long, one centimeter wide, and one-tenth of a centimeter thick (one millimeter). What is its weight?

Now you first find out the cubical contents of this piece of steel by multiplying together the length, breadth, and thickness expressed in centimeters so as to have the answer in cubic centimeters. It is 10 centimeters long and 1 centimeter wide; 10 times 1 is 10. It has a surface of 10 square centimeters, it is one-tenth of a centimeter thick. One-tenth of 10 is 1; that is, its volume is 1 cubic centimeter. Now multiply this by the specific gravity of steel and this will give you its weight expressed in grams. The specific gravity of steel, if I remember rightly, is somewhere about 8; that is, a piece of steel weighs about 8 times its own volume of water. Eight times 1 is 8. This piece of steel then weighs about 8 grams.

Now this happens to be a very simple case; but the process would give you the weight in grams, whatever the dimensions of your piece of steel might be. If its volume should be one million cubic centimeters its weight would be eight million grams; that is, if I have correctly expressed the specific gravity by 8. If you wish to express this weight in kilograms, simply shift the decimal point three places to the left. A weight of 8,000,000 grams is equivalent to 8,000 kilograms.

The Chairman: The unit of length is what?

Mr Bell: One meter. A centimeter is one-hundredth part of that.

The Chairman: And that is equal to one liter, which filled with water is one kilogram, the unit of weight?

Mr Bell: The gram is the unit of weight; and one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram. The liter is the unit of volume. It is equivalent to a cubical space 10 centimeters long, 10 centimeters wide, and 10 centimeters deep. It therefore holds 1,000 cubic centimeters of space; and if filled with water, the water would weigh 1,000 grams (or 1 kilogram).

The fact that one liter of water weighs one kilogram is easily remembered; but if forgotten the knowledge is readily recovered from the basal fact that one cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram (the unit of weight).

The new names simple when understood

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To an American the metric system appears at first sight to be much more difficult of acquirement than it really is, on account of the un-English appearance of the terminology. After you have once mastered the meaning of the prefixes employed, the whole terminology appears to be beautifully simple and appropriate, the words expressing by their etymology the numerical relation to the units of the system.

Thus when we know that deka means ten, hecto one hundred, and kilo one thousand, we see at once that a dekameter means 10 meters, hectometer 100 meters, kilometer 1,000 meters. So with the multiples of gram: A dekagram means 10 grams, hectogram 100 grams, and kilogram 1,000 grams. So also, when we know that deci means one-tenth, centi one-hundredth, and milli one-thousandth, we see at once that decimeter means one tenth of a meter, centimeter one-hundredth of a meter, and millimeter one-thousandth of a meter. In a similar manner when we examine the subdivisions of gram we see that a decigram means one-tenth of a gram, centigram one-hundredth of a gram, milligram one-thousandth of a gram, etc.

The foreign words employed need be no bar to the use of the metric system, for they are really not necessary to the system at all — the English equivalents would do as well. It is convenient, however, for many reasons to have some means of expressing all these various denominations in specific words coined for the purpose, although the names are not all of equal importance. As a matter of fact, many of them are seldom used, and a few suffice for ordinary purposes. This greatly simplifies the nomenclature for English-speaking persons.

You will appreciate the point by reference to our monetary system. Our system of coinage provides for eagles, dollars, dimes, cents, and mills; but as a matter of fact, dollars and cents are sufficient for all ordinary purposes. We do not reckon money by eagles or dimes, and mills are hardly ever alluded to excepting by Congressmen and statisticians.

So, on the metric system, the terms kilogram and gram are generally sufficient to express weight; and the other terms provided, which Americans find some difficulty in remembering, are really of little importance because so seldom used.

The meter and centimeter are generally sufficient for ordinary purposes, although millimeter is also needed for fine measurements, and kilometer for long distance comparable to our mile, though little more than half its length.

The liter is necessary also in expressing volumes; but the multiples and subdivisions of it are not much used. These give you what may be called the basal points. It is not really necessary to use the other names, although advisable to possess them in case of need for special purposes.

The Chairman: Just as you would remember pounds and quarts and dollars and cents.

Mr Bell: Exactly.

The Chairman: When you know the value of anything expressed in one denomination you know it in all, by looking at it.

Mr Bell: Yes. And you are relieved of the enormous and unnecessary labor of calculation involved in the use of our present measures in merely translating from one denomination of the system to another.

The Chairman: Now, for the purposes of actual measurement, something has been said about the inch being a more convenient unit than the centimeter.

Mr Bell: I do not see any reason why an inch should be more convenient than a centimeter, excepting that we have become accustomed to it. Usage will familiarize us with the centimeter, and then our judgment will probably be just the other way.

The Chairman: Some of those who oppose the introduction of the metric system say that, so far as its actual use is concerned, there is no difference between the two systems, and others say that the inch is a more convenient unit; that the meter is not a convenient unit. There have been suggestions that it ought to be 40 inches.

Mr Bell: Is not the fact of the matter this: That anything you are accustomed to is convenient?

The Chairman: Yes; I think so.

Our foreign commerce would be helped tremendously

Mr Bell: The metric system is already in extensive use. It has stood the test of a hundred years, and has displaced the older systems in most of the countries of the old world. The metrical units have proved to be very convenient there, and they will be equally convenient to us when we become accustomed to them and use them.

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If we employed them, we would have the same system that is in use in most of the foreign countries with which we trade. The trade and commerce of the United States would then be enormously facilitated by reason of the fact of our using the same weights and measures employed by the people with whom we deal.

We cannot expect a Frenchman or an Italian to translate from pounds and ounces into kilograms and grams, etc. — to go through all this drudgery of translation — simply for the purpose of understanding the value of what he buys from us. So, of course, if he can get the things he wants from a country that already uses his own system of weights and measures he will do so in preference to buying from us, and American trade will suffer. In my opinion, the trade and commerce of the United States will be very much promoted by our adoption of that system of weights and measures which alone has any chance of becoming universal — the metric system.

The trade of Great Britain is already suffering from the competition of metric-using countries, and if we also adopt the system it will not be long before she follows our example. Then the metric system will become in fact the international system of the world.

We are better prepared to make the change than the British because we have already become accustomed to a decimal currency, and can therefore appreciate the benefits we derive from the application of the decimal principle to monetary affairs. I am hopeful, therefore, that our people may be made to see by analogy that we would derive similar benefits from the adoption of the decimal principle in our system of weights and measures.

Would new tools in our workshops be necessary?

The Chairman: A good deal has been said on this point: We have been told that if we adopt the metric system it will necessitate the use of new tools and new workshops and thereby become a matter of great expense to our manufacturers.

Mr Bell: That is a matter for very grave consideration, and I think that the difficulty has been unduly magnified. While of course some of our more enterprising manufacturers would construct new machinery and tools specially adapted for metrical work, it does not necessarily follow that the old machines and tools would not be used for the purpose. The fact is that the change does not necessarily involve any change in tools or machinery at all — or at least not to any great extent. It is a question of arithmetic, not of tools or machinery. You can measure the work or output of the present tools and machinery just as well by the metric system as in the ordinary way. You can express the dimensions and weights of all the parts of the old machines, where required, by the metric system, and though the measurements might not be exact to a fraction of a millimeter or a fraction of a gram, they could be rated at their true metrical value, or at a closely approximated value in exact measure. It is only where very fine and accurate measurements are required that special tools would be needed.

The Chairman: In making a brand new machine you very often have to have special tools in order to economically manufacture the machine.

Mr Bell: Yes. Of course the change would lead to the production of tools and machinery specially made for the metric system; but whether these tools are specially for this purpose or not, they can be measured by the metric system.

The Chairman: You mean by that this, do you not, Doctor: That eventually it would come to be that they would manufacture in even metric sizes as they now manufacture in even sizes of the English system?

Mr Bell: Yes, sir.

The Chairman: But it would not be an impossibility or a very great inconvenience to manufacture by the sizes they already have?

Mr Bell: No. I mean it would not be necessary to throw away the machinery and tools they now have, because generally you would have a sufficient approximation to some exact metrical measurement for practical purposes. We can approximate say to a sixty-fourth of an inch, or a fraction of a millimeter, which would be near enough to precise figures ordinarily. The old tools and machinery need not be thrown away; they can be used during the transitional period at whatever may be their metrical value. A tool or machine has only a limited life. It may last, say, ten years, and then it must be replaced. After the adoption of the metric system the new machinery made would certainly be constructed to an exact metrical scale. The old machinery, however, so long as it lasted, would be measured by the metrical system, and you would simply rate it at its nearest equivalent in the metric system.

Mr Scroggy [Thomas E. Scroggy, Rep. from Ohio]: I would like to ask a question in that connection. This bill, as you must observe, uses the language that in the transaction of business requiring the use of weight and measurement the government shall employ and use the weights and measures of the metric system. That apparently is mandatory. Now could you suggest to this committee some amendment to that language by which the present tools, the tools now in use for manufacturing machinery that is now being manufactured, could still continue to be used, and at the same time adopt the metric system as contemplated by this bill?

Mr Bell: I do not think, sir, that this requires any amendment. The bill is only mandatory concerning the system of arithmetic to be used (the metric system), and leaves the question of tools, etc., open. It relates simply and exclusively to a method of measurement: The weights and measures of the metric system shall be used — that is all. It does not prescribe the kind of tools or machinery or limit it in any way.

Mr Scroggy: Do you think that the language would admit of the use of the present tools?

Mr Bell: You mean in the government departments?

Mr Scroggy: Yes.

Mr Bell: I have not hitherto given that point consideration, but I should think that it would. It simply refers to the measurement of them. Take the present tools and measure them in the metric system.

I thought you referred especially to outside firms undertaking business for the government, and whether they would be required to have new tools and machinery made in undertaking government work. I don't think they would, under the language of the bill. I have no doubt that some enterprising manufacturer would have metrical tools and appliances made for use in government work, though this does not seem to me to be required by the bill. The same remarks apply to the tools and appliances at present in use in the government departments themselves. I can see nothing in the bill to require their abandonment and replacement by tools specially constructed for metrical measurement. The present tools can be measured metrically, which is all that is required by the present bill, so far as I understand it. I do not therefore see why any amendment is required to permit the use of any kind of machinery that may be desired. The bill simply prescribes that in the transaction of business requiring the use of weight and measurement the departments of the government shall use the weights and measures of the metric system. Under this language I take it that you can use anything under the sun if you measure it by the metric system. You can use a pound weight if you please, if you put it down at 454 grams.

The Chairman: It would require the use of metric weights and measures, for instance, in the Treasury Department in determining our imports and things of that kind.

Mr Bell: Oh, yes.

The Chairman: There would be no difficulty about that, I should think.

Mr Bell: I don't think there would. Indeed, it might be possible that the labor of the department might be lightened, in fact, for I presume that goods imported from foreign countries employing the metric system are invoiced in the countries of their origin by the metric system, and the Treasury Department, or the importing merchants, at all events, would thus be saved the labor of translating the measures. The work of translation of the department would thus be limited practically to imports from Great Britain and her colonies.

The Chairman: Of course the equivalents of the metric system of weights and measures are enacted into law now.

Mr Bell: I believe so. I understand that the use of the metric system is already permissible in the United States by law. It is now competent for any one to use it legally who chooses. This bill takes the next step and makes its use mandatory upon the government departments; and of course if you take that step it means that you are going further with legislation in the future and make it mandatory for the whole country.

Mr Dresser [Solomon R. Dresser, Rep. from Pennsylvania]: Has there not been some objection made on account of land measurements?

The Chairman: The bills formerly introduced here have always contained an exception, and that exception was the government survey; but that work is so nearly completed now that I am told the author of this bill thought it was not worth while to except that from its provisions.

Mr Bell: Of course there is necessary friction in making the change, but this difficulty only belongs to the transition period.

The Chairman: I suppose there are about three things that the ordinary man or woman — I mean the man who has not any special use for weights and measures, but uses them ordinarily in trade — would have to remember, and that is the liter, the meter, and the kilogram; the liter, one-tenth more than a quart; the meter, one-tenth more than a yard; and the kilogram, one-tenth more than two pounds, about?

Mr Bell: Yes; that is a very simple way of memorizing the radical points.

A change would cause no serious annoyance

The Chairman: Do you imagine that there will be any serious annoyance, so far as what we call the common people are concerned?

Pull quote

Mr Bell: I do not anticipate it. We simply have to be bold enough to take the step. All the difficulties lie in the transition period. All the difficulties in the metric system are in translating from one system to the other, but the moment you use the metric system alone there is no difficulty. The workmen in my laboratory used the metrical weights and measures right off. I did not ask them to translate from one system to the other, for that would speedily have developed their limitations of education. I simply asked them to use the metric system, and they did it without difficulty. They now use meters and centimeters and grams and kilograms as if to the manner born, and they are simply common carpenters and mechanics. I consider them as an average sample of the common people. I do not anticipate any difficulty in the use of the metric system by itself; and if the government will lead the way, the change must and will come, and we will be brought into line with the progressive nations of the world, instead of lagging behind.

Mr Scroggy: Legislating for the future and not for the past generations?

Mr Bell: Yes, sir. Our forefathers legislated pretty well for the future in the adoption of the Constitution; and, later, Congress did well in abolishing the old system of pounds, shillings, and pence and adopting the decimal system for our money; and we will do well for the future of our country if we provide the metric system for the whole of the United States.

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