2022-05-30 James Vincent Weights and measures

James Vincent (@jjvincent): I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist: since I’ve just written a whole book on the subject, I want to talk about the history of anti-metric sentiment — how it connects to political power, republicanism, the French revolution, conspiracy theories, and Brexit. A THREAD:

One thing that needs to be understood first is that, for millennia, control over weights and measures has genuinely been a huge deal for nations — not just for the practical benefits that standardized units provide, but as a symbol of sovereignty.

For most of history, ensuring people had access to consistent units of measure is as important as maintain roads or punishing criminals, and laws on the matter crop up in all sorts of important political documents, from Magna Carta (see below) to the US Constitution. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530902302751698944/photo/1

To stress: this goes DEEP. Here is the top of the Code of Hammurabi stele, one of our oldest law texts. King Hammurabi stands before the sun god Shamash who hands over a ring and a rod; symbols of divine wisdom that are often read as measuring tools — a ruler and a boundary rope. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530902631329275907/photo/1

Ensuring consistent measures was important to keep people happy, and often done by placing standard units in public places. Another example: here are standard sizes for roofing tiles, loaves of bread, and bricks, carved into the walls of a medieval Italian marketplace. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530902769263071233/photo/1

I don’t want to get too waylaid by the gorgeous cultural history of measurement, but suffice to say there’s a reason a “ruler” is both a piece of wood with regular interval markings and someone with the power of life and death over their fellow humans. To rule is to rule.

So: deciding who controls measures is important, and this is demonstrated no more clearly than with the creation of the metric system during the French Revolution. Here are the original meter bar and kilogram, which I saw in the Archives Nationales in Paris https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530903327445245953/photo/1

The metric system was created to solve practical problems. Most notably: a profusion of units in Ancien Régime France that were exploited by the nobility and that stymied trade. But it was also a profoundly political project: intended to embody republican virtues.

Instead of measuring length using the pied du Roi (literally ‘the foot of King’ – a unit dating back to Charlemagne) French revolutionaries introduced the metre (derived from Enlightenment science and defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to North Pole).

Metric units were part of a revolutionary remaking of the world that was supposed to shape the thinking of ordinary citizens. You can compare it to the introduction of the Republican calendar, which replaced Gregorian months to remove religious influence from everyday life. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530903705993850880/photo/1

Instead of a temporal order marked by saints’ days and Catholic festivals, the calendar was oriented around republican virtues. Out with a 7-day week that pivots on the church-going Sunday, and in with the 10-day décade dedicated to symbols of the natural world.

In the 19th century, this political engineering was not lost on observers in the UK and US debating the issue of metrication. Forces opposed to metric units began to portray them as a foreign and atheistic imposition on the natural order of the world.

A great example of this sentiment comes from the US-based International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Weights and Measures: an anti-metric pressure group that wrote pamphlets, gave speeches, and lobbied politicians against adopting metric units.

The group’s motivations are revealed wonderfully in their theme song: “A pint’s a pound the world around.” Verse 4 in particular shows their xenophobia and religious zeal: “Then down with every ‘metric’ scheme / Taught by the foreign school." (Sheet music enclosed!!) https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530904185549598722/photo/1

The religious aspect of measurement may be surprising, but for much of its history, anti-metric sentiment has been intertwined with a belief that Imperial units have been divinely bestowed on mankind by God. Pounds and ounces are a “sacred heritage.”

The proof for this theory was usually based on pyramidology — the pseudoscience that holds that measurements of the Great Pyramid at Giza encode sacred & scientific truths. In essence: adherents believe God designed the pyramid to communicate his favored measures to the world. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530904319289081857/photo/1

Other arguments used by anti-metric groups were based on the idea that the metric system was part of a plot to bind nations into a single world order; or that metric units benefited capitalists while hurting the ordinary worker. The shades of Brexit are hard to ignore! https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530904456304463873/photo/1

Ultimately, these were not the reasons the UK and US avoided metrication at this time (there were many practical inducements; most notably, the countries’ huge capital investment in non-metric machine tools) but the influence of these arguments is absolutely felt today.

Check out this 2019 video of Tucker Carlson, where the metric system is decried as “tyrannical,” “inelegant,” and “the original system of new world orders.” Carlson and co are clearly trolling, but they obviously believe these arguments still resonate! https://twitter.com/TPMLiveWire/status/1136641876596011008/video/1

Which bring us to the UK, EU, and Brexit. I won’t labour over the UK’s history of metrication, but in brief: we did it to ourselves. Industries began voluntarily metricating in the 1960s and since then only a few domains (notably: retail and road signs) have remained non metric.

However, in 2000/2001 the issue of metrication came to public attention with the appearance of the “metric martyrs” — a group of market traders who were prosecuted for, essentially, failing to sell fruit and veg in metric and imperial measures. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530904799893458945/photo/1

The case attracted huge amounts of media attention, with protests amplified by UKIP & Nigel Farage. The metric martyrs made the abstract “EU question” tangible — an issue of everyday significance, that, like medieval bread measures, was measured in front of your eyes. https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530905134930313217/photo/1

A judge later called the fruit at the heart of the prosecution as “the most famous bunch of bananas in English legal history,” while political commentators have identified the case as the “starting gun” for Brexit: an event that galvanized previously indifferent voters.

For research for my book, I hung out with a guerrilla anti-metric group who go around the country restoring metric signposts and road signs to imperial units. I even rode along for one of their “raids” (see below). Clearly this an issue that gets to people! https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530905668600971265/photo/1

So, my opinion on the news that Johnson wants to “reintroduce” Imperial measures is that it’s blue passports all over again: a symbolic throwback intended to reassure the base during a crisis and distract political rivals. In short: it’s business as usual.

But the history of anti-metric sentiment is truly wild and pricks many conservative sore spots — from fears over loss of political sovereignty, to a general feeling the world is moving on and left you behind. The tories know what they’re doing with this stuff.

Vanity or not, people care about measurement. And — though I would say this — I think the whole thing shows the significance of this topic in our lives. Units of measure aren’t just practical tools: they’re cultural and political objects and deserve to be better understood.

(For the record, I’m not “anti” Imperial measures. They’re part of our cultural history —no-one wants to banish pints from pubs! But I also think it’s right to phase them out as habits change, and having a global system of measurement is incredibly useful.)

And here comes the inevitable plug. If you enjoyed this thread and want to know more about the fascinating history of measurement, my book on the subject is out June 2nd and I’d love it if you wanted a copy. Pre-orders are here: https://linktr.ee/BeyondMeasureBook. Thank you for reading!! https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/1530906227605217280/photo/1