CLOSE
Original image
Carrie Swiggum

Meet the Sole Employee of the U.S. Metric Program

Original image
Carrie Swiggum

The U.S. Metric Program may be the loneliest office in Washington. Located about 30 minutes from the White House, its headquarters is in the much larger—and better funded—“measurement standards laboratory” at NIST (National Institute for Standards and Technology).

For years, Ken Butcher was the sole employee working for the Metric Program (there are now two employees). Charged with guiding the whole country through the gargantuan task of metric system conversion decades earlier, he admits progress can be measured in centimeters.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law. It made metric the “preferred” system, though using it was strictly voluntary. But if Russians could forgo the arshine (28 inches), surely Americans could learn to forget the gallon. Global trade demanded a standard and although late, the U.S. would not be left behind.

The Rise and Immediate Fall of Metric Gas Stations

As a young metric converter in the mid-1970s, Butcher was assigned to update West Virginia to the new system. He said almost as soon as the first metric gas station opened in West Virginia, his office—the one trying to help people swap gallons for liters—had to shut the station down.

When a retailer charged 35 cents for a liter of gas versus $1.40 per gallon, cars lined up around the block, causing other store owners to complain.

“They were losing so much business. Then they realized the guy at the metric gas station wasn’t pricing his gas the same way they were”—consumers were paying more and not realizing it. “They complained and pressured the state government to stop the metric system,” he said.

As the years went on, the Metric system wasn't only derided as confusing. It was a communist conspiracy! If the Americans converted under a multi-million dollar price tag, it was prime time for the Soviets to invade our weakened economy, according to the author of the 1981 book Metric Madness: Over 150 Reasons for NOT Converting to the Metric System.

Government downsized under Reagan and cut the U.S. Metric Board in 1982. Butcher was the only person left.

The Metric Movement Today

To be clear, Butcher said, the Metric Program doesn’t promote the adoption of the metric system. Even if they wanted to, they don’t have the resources. Many people over the years have offered to promote the metric system for $20 to $30 million of government money. He laughs.

Armed with a scant budget, Butcher said the extent of the government’s metric campaign is arranging workshops at Rotary Clubs and schools. Part of his job is educating skeptics that they do in fact use the metric system every day. He sometimes gets caught up in conversations where people learn where he works and then vow their loyalty to the inch-pound system. “Don’t need it, don’t want it,” a lady at Costco once said to him. But she was buying tires in metric sizes and didn’t realize it.

“My point is, we’re going to use it—we’re going to be using more and more of it,” he said.

So why make the switch? Safety, for one. Butcher said that there are an increasing number of truck drivers on the roads in the U.S. who grew up in Mexico, or Europeans who migrate to the UK. They are the ones who get stuck under bridges more often than others because they can’t convert 12’ 6” in their head before they hit the overpass.

He said the biggest reason why people haven’t switched is not the millions of dollars it would cost. "If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Original image
Courtesy of Freeman's
arrow
History
For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
Original image
Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Original image
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
arrow
History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
Original image
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios