The Meter and Liter Don't Measure Up, Says Seaver Leslie, Who Wants to Give the Foot a Hand

updated 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

...I have promises to keep, And kilometers to go before I sleep.

Seaver Leslie, a 34-year-old New York artist with a cause, wonders who would ever want to read Robert Frost in a metric world. And who, he asks, would want an ounce of prevention to be worth .453 kilograms of cure? Or enjoy seeing the Dallas Cowboys start a drive at first and 9.144 meters?

In short, Leslie cannot fathom why the U.S. is inching toward the metric system. That is why, three years ago, he founded Americans for Customary Weight and Measure, which aims to cause a ton of trouble for the foes of the foot.

Almost six years ago President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, which asks Americans to switch to metric measurements in industry, government and education to help bring this country into statistical synch with most of the rest of the world. Today liters litter liquor stores, and many gas stations too. But cookbooks still call for lbs. and cups, and the misery of hot days remains measured by Fahrenheit. And while schools in virtually every state teach the metric system, and General Motors is already using it, smaller companies are balking at the inconvenience and cost of conversion to metric. The changeover has been slow because, as Leslie is quick to point out, it's voluntary. He suggests that no one volunteer.

To get that message across, Leslie threw a party called the Foot Ball in a landmark ferry terminal at the foot of Manhattan. Celebrity judges, including author Tom Wolfe and comedian Charles Rocket, pondered the pins of contestants to pick the "most beautiful foot," while fellow fetishists demanded: "Stand up for the foot!"

"The campaign is no joke," Leslie says. "It's a very human issue." Human because the traditional measurements were drawn from human appendages—the foot is about the length of a man's size-12 foot; the yard is either a man's stride or the distance from a tailor's finger to his nose; the cup is the amount of water that can be carried in cupped hands. "This is the system we grew up with," says Leslie.

The meter, on the other hand, is a scratch on a platinum-iridium bar kept in France. "The French never do anything practical," Wolfe sneers. "I know if they're keeping that rod, we're all in trouble." When the French 200 years ago decided that the meter would be precisely one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the equator, they thought it would be immutable. But after the earth's surfaces were found to fluctuate, the meter was redefined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths in vacuum of the orange-red line of the spectrum of krypton 86. "Hardly practical or poetic," Leslie notes.

Leslie, the son of a Maine country store owner and an architect mother, began his antimetric crusade after he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and went to study in England, where he met John Michell, the founder of a victorious antimetric organization there. Now, between teaching at his alma mater and Parsons in New York and painting at his Manhattan loft, he pushes his "popular rebellion" with interviews, letters to government officials and a newsletter, Footprint.

Leslie doesn't do all this just because he finds converting to metric expensive or inconvenient (two-liter Coke bottles, he complains, won't fit in refrigerator doors) or unromantic. He thinks metric is just plain arbitrary. "Just because the bureaucrats want a new system," he asks, "do the rest of us Americans have to be illogical too?"

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