Long Jump in meters

Whenever I write a story on an American high jumper, long jumper or a discus thrower, I have to go through the painful back-and-forth conversion between feet and meters, inches and centimeters.

It used to be the holy grail in the United States and Britain to run a mile in fewer than four minutes, until Roger Bannister broke it, which broke the mental barrier and allowed others to blast through the four minute wall. Today, however, no one really cares about the mile, as the standard racing distance is the 1,500 meters, which is a little less than a mile.

Now, track and field in the US has generally gone metric. For example, the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hold the same distance running events that other countries do: 100 meters, 800 meters, 5,000 meters, 110 meter hurdles etc. In fact, the organization, USA Track and Field, adopted distances using the metric system in 1974.

They were ahead of their time apparently, because in 1975, the US Congress passed an act that states preference for the metric system of weights and measures, which was followed by an executive order from President Gerald Ford. Essentially, the entire world had already adopted the metric system. Politicians and businessmen alike wanted the US to get with the international game plan. However, for some reason, probably related to a tremendous resistance to change, the act and the order watered down by stating adoption was voluntary.

What was this resistance? Listen to this fantastic podcast on design, 99 Percent Invisible, and their story on America’s implementation of the metric system, titled Half Measures. History professor, Stephen Mihm is quoted as saying in the podcast that interestingly, uncommon bedfellows united to resist: astronomers, theologians and industrial engineers:

But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people, including and influential group of “astronomers, theologians, and cranks,” Mihm explains. “And keep in mind that those categories which we consider separate and distinct today were not at this time.” This group spun together scientific arguments with other wild and nonsensical ideas, and developed a theory that to abandon the inch was to go against God’s will. Converting to metric, they argued, would be tantamount to sacrilege.

But the real core resistance to metrication came from a different group entirely: some of the most innovative industrialists of their day. Engineers who worked in the vast machine tool industry had built up enormous factories that included everything from lathes to devices for cutting screw threads — and all of these machines were designed around the inch. The manufacturers argued that retooling their machines for a new measurement system would be prohibitively expensive. They also argued there was an “intuitiveness” to the customary system that made it ideal for shop work.

Imperial Metric Conversion for cooking
Imperial – Metric Conversion for Cooking

This reluctance for to fully shift to the metric system can result in engineering miscalculations, sometimes with tragic or costly consequences:

  • In 1983, an Air Canada Flight ran out of fuel mid-flight because the ground crew and the flight crew all calculated fuel requirements in pounds instead of liters, granted this mistake happened just after the Canadian government required conversion to the metric system. Fortunately, the pilots managed an incredible “dead-stick” landing, gliding safely to a nearby airstrip.
  • In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft because engineers in Lockheed Martin calculated thruster data in pounds to NASA while NASA engineers were making their calculations in metric units called “newtons.”
  • In 2003, a car on the Space Mountain roller coaster ride at Tokyo Disneyland derailed due to a broken axle, resulting in the injury of 12. Apparently, new axle parts ordered in 2002 were measured in inches as opposed to millimeters, making the new axles off spec.

In the end, there are bigger issues than the momentary confusion of trying to know how far 5,000 meters is in feet or miles. And to be fair, American institutions have gradually adopted the metric system due to its partnerships and obligations internationally.

And yet, the fact that America still clings officially to inches, quarts and Fahrenheit can be a pain. Don’t we know that we are shooting ourselves in the foot?

Lance Wyman
Lance Wyman

Lance Wyman was an aspiring graphic designer in 1966 when he learned that the International Olympic Committee and the Mexican Olympic Committee were looking to hire a team to create the emblem and associated design concept for the entire 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

He and his partner, Peter Murdoch, thought to themselves, why not us? They booked a one-way ticket to Mexico City, which is all they could afford, according to this brilliant podcast from 99 Percent Invisible, hoping to make a name for themselves.

Wyman_Mexico_68_Olympics_radiating

One disadvantage the two American designers may have had initially was that they had never been to Mexico, and knew practically nothing about the country’s culture or history. So they embarked on a crash course immediately. When they visited the Museum of Anthropology, examining the stone murals of the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, they were struck by the similarities in artwork centuries before to the 1960s, when op-art was a popular form of expression.

“I actually was floored by some of the early cultures,” says Wyman in the podcast, “because they were doing things that we were doing in a contemporary way with geometry and with graphics.” The podcast went to explain that the bold lines and bright colors and geometric shapes reminded Wyman of the kind of Op art that was popular among contemporary artists back in New York.

lance wyman peter murdoch
Lance Wyman, his wife Neila, and Peter Murdoch (1966)

 

Wyman thought that they should take advantage of the circles in the digits of ’68, which is the year of the Mexico City Olympics, and blend those circles into the five Olympic rings. Additionally, the techniques of op-art, also known as optical art, which uses techniques of contrast and geometry to create an illusion of movement, were employed as waves of lines surrounding the text and numbers. Those lines were based on a new font Wyman and Murdoch created, made up of three lines that always curved, but never bent.

Their design was so impactful, that the Olympic organizing committee began employing their design in collaterals even before they informed Wyman and Murdoch that they had won the competition.

But the reason why the 99 Percent Invisible podcast is so fascinating is that Wyman’s design concept was so powerful, it was co-opted by a group in some ways trying to undermine the Olympics. And Wyman didn’t mind.

Mexico was undergoing a significant socio-economic and political transformation, brought on by a stronger economy. But there was reason to believe that the fruits of the growing economy was not trickling down to the middle classes or the masses, or at least not fast enough. In Mexico City, anti-government protests were happening frequently enough in the summer of 1968, that the government began to get uneasy that their Olympic Games, scheduled to open in October of that year, were under threat.

As related in a previous post, a series of anti-government protests in Mexico City culminated in a protest where around 10,000 university and high school students met at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2. The government decided enough was enough, and sent armed troops through the crowds and opened fired. Only 10 days prior to the start of the Mexico City Olympics, dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands were killed that day.

As the podcast explains, students began to co-opt Wyman’s designs. One common image was one of a white dove that was ever present in Mexico – a white image on black. The students went all over town painting red splotches on the dove’s white breast as if it had been pierced by a bullet or a knife.

dove-protest-600x150

As this 99 PI article describes, Wyman’s designs were so universal they could serve both sides of the political war:

Despite his relative isolation at work, Wyman heard about the massacre. “When I heard about it and how severe it was it was a very difficult situation because I was working for the government and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he says. He empathized with the students and had mixed feelings about continuing his work.  But, in a way, he didn’t need to choose between the government and the protesters. His designs found a way to serve both sides.