John Michell explores the joyless history of the metric system
One of the first and best things Mrs Thatcher did when she became Prime Minister was to abolish the Metrication Board. It made her quite popular at the time. The MB was an unlovable alien, the scourge of traditional village bakers and none too scrupulous with its propaganda. One of its favourite tricks was to pretend that every country but Britain had ‘gone metric’, and that, if we did not do so too, we would somehow be left behind in the rush towards higher standards.
This was of course completely untrue. A few countries with weak national cultures, like Australia, succumbed to the metric fever, and others pretended to convert for the sake of French aid and culture grants, but the free people of the United States rejected the metric system out of hand. The distressing prospect of the entire world enchained and deluded by metrication was thus happily averted.
No one anywhere has ever voted for the metric system. Even in France, where the metre was imposed by the revolutionary government of 1795, it was so strongly resisted that police had to be sent in to smash up the pound scales of the market traders, sparking off widespread ‘metre riots’.
Unlike the foot, which is now recognized as the principal unit in Stonehenge and has remained unchanged over thousands of years, the French metre has been defined or redefined no less than four times . Originally, it was meant to represent a ten-millionth part of a quarter of the meridian, measured through Paris, but the 18th-century savants who undertook the measuring were empiricists, and instead of consulting tradition they tried to do the calculation for themselves. They got it badly wrong and the metre they obtained was much too short.
Quarrels about the length of the metre continued up to 1960, when an International Conference proclaimed it to equal 1,650,763.74 wavelengths, in a vacuum, of an orange-red ray of Krypton-86 atom. Thus the naked inaccuracy of the metre was decently wrapped up in incomprehensibility.
If only those savants had proceeded properly, following Sir Isaac Newton, they might have rediscovered the true, geodetic metre, commensurable with all the other measuring units of the ancient world. When Newton’s theory of gravitation required him to ascertain the dimensions of the earth, he studied the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple. As he well knew, the length of the polar axis and other geodetic measures were represented by the ancient cubit rods. Blinded by their secular science, the French failed to notice the fact that the average length of the meridian, as known to ancient science and confirmed by modern satellite surveys, is a tenth part of 12⁵ English miles.
The standard unit of ancient astronomy was the circumference of the moon (= 127 ft). The foot, mile etc. also refer to the dimensions and functions of our bodies, thus linking the human scale with the cosmic whole. The atheistic metre has none of these qualities. Ever fluctuating, based on no natural standard, it was designed to represent the triumph of scientific materialism over human convenience and custom. Thus in actual use the metric system is awkward and impractical. Tom Wolfe was no doubt right in blaming the inhumanity of 20th-century architecture on metrication.
Now that we are to lie in the same bed with the French, Dutch, Greeks and maybe the Turks, perhaps these dear old friends will Sllow us to free them from the metric delusion and gratefully readopt the civilized standards of weight and measure which we have preserved for the time when reality breaks in again and the desirability of true cultural standards is once more made apparent.