Would the New State of Utah Go Metric?

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, January 1996

When the forty-fifth star took its place on the blue field of the nation’s flag 100 years ago the most important fact for national political observers was that the new state would send a Republican delegation to Washington. To ordinary Utahns statehood meant many things, including the end of territorial status and the chance to make laws and regulations reflective of local conditions and desires. Most saw in statehood the possibility of great new things. One visionary group, the Utah Metric Society, hoped for nothing less than the institution of a “common and a common-sense system” of measurement and the end of “the semi-barbarous contrivances of the middle ages.”

George Q. Coray, secretary of the Utah Metric Society, set forth the aims of the group in an eight-page pamphlet. The goal was to convince delegates to the 1895 Utah Constitutional Convention to adopt the metric system as the legal standard for the new state. Coray, a University of Utah professor, began his career in education in 1892 as the school’s librarian, serving in that position until 1906. He was also the registrar during 1895–97 and while fulfilling these duties “developed the Department of Economics and Sociology, teaching those subjects for the first time at the University.” When Economics became a separate department in 1917, Coray retained leadership of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology until his retirement in 1926. He was known as a careful scholar and “a strong personality . . . [of] unflinching courage . . . [who could] command the respect even of those who differed from him.”

“The most important instrument in all business, public and private, is the system upon which the qualities of matter described as distance, volume, weight and value are defined,” Coray wrote. On the threshold of statehood, Utah had a unique opportunity to establish the metric system as its standard and thereby initiate a great social reform. Coray outlined the history of measurement systems, noting that the United States had abandoned early on the cumbersome system of English coinage for the decimal system and that leaders like Washington and Adams had campaigned for uniform weights and measures. He discussed the international convention in Paris that had concluded its work in 1875 with formal approval of the metric system. Great Britain and the United States opted to legalize use of the metric system without abandoning the old “barbarous” system. Colleges and universities in America were quick to adopt metrics in their scientific courses, but, Coray noted, “the merchants, manufacturers and tradesmen . . . [chose to] follow the dictates of custom.” Unwilling to assume the risk of adopting metric measurements individually, American businesses continued under the old system. They were unlikely to change until required by law to do so. The aim of the UMS was to require metric measurements in Utah commerce.

Coray then highlighted some of the absurdities of the old system with its “woeful lack of uniformity among the states.” A bushel of rye, for example, was expected to weigh 56 pounds avoirdupois in most states, but in California it weighed 54 pounds and in Louisiana 32 pounds. Oats were even more variable. In Maryland a bushel of oats weighed in at 26 pounds, while the states of Pennsylvania, Maine, and New Hampshire required a bushel of oats to weigh 30 pounds and Montana opted for 35 and Nebraska 34.

Some of the leading public figures in Utah advocated the adoption of metric measurement. Coray quoted some of their remarks. Heber J. Grant said he was “emphatically in favor of the metric system for the State of Utah. To oppose it would be like opposing the substitution of stenography and typewriting for the ancient long hand.” Officials of ZCMI and Auerbach’s department stores likewise endorsed metrics despite the temporary inconvenience of converting to it. Businessman J. E. Dooly’s reply was short and to the point: “Put me down for anything that will rid us of our relic of barbarism.” Clearly, he was not a man to dole out his approval by the firkin, hogshead, or troy ounce. Judges, lawyers, and educators joined in urging Utah to go metric. The University of Utah faculty issued a resolution stating that “the Constitution of the State of Utah should require that the metric system of weights and measures be taught in all the public schools of the State, and that the said system be made the legal system in all public business.”

C. C. Goodwin, one of the men listed in Coray’s pamphlet as an advocate of the metric system, presented the Utah Metric Society’s proposition to his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention, noting that it was “backed by some very accomplished scholars.” The effort to establish the metric system had mixed success. The Committee on Manufactures and Commerce did not recommend imposing the system on business, but Article X, section 11, originally stated: “The Metric System shall be taught in the public schools of the State.” Decades later this article was repealed. It had seldom been heeded anyway.

Coray believed that the metric system could not be introduced piecemeal in the state’s or the nation’s commerce, and, indeed, outside of the science laboratory or the physics classroom, the metric system was not very visible in Utah during the first century of statehood. But world markets and the ascendancy of technology have gradually made even those most reluctant to abandon feet and inches, ounces and pounds, aware of the convenience of decimal measurement. Most food¬†packaging, for example, now lists metric weight as well as avoirdupois. Gasoline pumps and cookbooks may be the last strongholds of the old system that Coray and others called “barbarous.”

See: George Q. Coray, A Question for the People: Shall the Metric System be Made the Legal Standard of the State of Utah? (Salt Lake City, c. 1895); Official Report of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention . . . to Adopt a Constitution for the State of Utah, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City, 1898); Ralph V. Chamberlin, The University of Utah: A History of Its First Hundred Years, 1850–1950 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1960).