Whither the metric system?

The US was one of, if not the, first country to adopt a decimal monetary system, way back in 1786-1792. So why are we the very last industrialized country on the planet still using a pre-18th century system of weights and measures?

Decimal currency systems have swept over practically the entire world. (The only exceptions in Wikipedia are two African countries whose currencies are purely local.) Why is that? Because it’s far simpler to deal with a currency that uses base-10 arithmetic! If you need to add up the total cost of several items, just add them up! No hassling with base-12 (Brit. pence per shilling) or base-20 (Brit. shillings per pound) or other non-decimal systems.

Americans have been using decimal currency for centuries, so perhaps we take the simplicity for granted. But why are we putting up with the ludicrous, arcane system of weights and measures we have been saddled with? 3 teaspoons per tablespoon, 2 tablespoons per ounce, 8 ounces per cup, 4 cups per quart, 4 quarts per gallon (wow, some consistancy!), followed by various multi-gallon measurements. This system is crazy! It uses bases 2, 3, 4, and 8, just for volume! I admit, you can divide a gallon into integral thirds, but you have to go all the way to teaspoons to do it! (4 qt*4 cups*8 oz*2 tbsp*3 tsp/3=256 tsp=1 qt+1 cup+2 oz+1 tbsp+1 tsp) That took me a while to figure out, and I don’t even want to think about actually measuring such a quantity!

We are stubbornly holding on to this messed up system due to cultural inertia, and because the US still uses it, several other countries that do business with the US are still supporting it in their import/export markets. We have committed (several times!) to convert to the SI units that the rest of the world uses. It will greatly simplify life for Americans as well as the rest of the world when we finally accomplish this goal. Not only that, but it will also be good for the import/export business of this country.

I can already hear somebody complaining, “What about my recipes? They use teaspoons, et al.” To this, I have only to point to my wife and kids–whenever they want to multiply or divide a recipe, they come ask me how many tablespoons are in a cup. I’d be willing to bet that many people under ~45 couldn’t give all the basic units of the American system, along with how many sub-units (and sub-sub-units, etc) comprise them. It might be an interesting online quiz. Hmmmm…

About Jim Vanderveen

I'm a bit of a Renaissance man, with far too many hobbies for my free time! But more important than any hobby is my family. My proudest accomplishment has been raising some great kids! And somehow convincing my wife to put up with me since 1988. ;)
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One Response to Whither the metric system?

  1. gometricamerica says:

    I completely agree with you jim. I am all for the swift transition to the SI in America. If you would be willing I’d like to post a letter that I have composed to be sent across the country to try to expedite the US transition through Congressional Action. Please send this to everyone you can and together we can make a change for the better.

    Dear Fellow Americans,

    My purpose today is to ask you all to think about continuing our transition into full use of the metric system of measurements. Metric units (SI) are based on the 10 or decimal system, thus they are simple and easy to use. Many industries have made this very simple change and we can see those changes everywhere. The tires for our cars are in millimeters, the medicines we take are in grams, and even the groceries we buy are already in or soon will be in metric sizes. I think it is in our interest to embrace this great system further and join the rest of the world. Our world wide neighbors are already steeped in the metric system so our business in the world economy will get easier. As a result our overseas market share would explode as we will be using the same units. Other markets will be more likely to buy American as the measurements would not be foreign to them. Our most visible changes will be other units that we use everyday. For instance, we will buy our fuel by the Liter our hottest days would be in the 40’s our speed on the roads would look faster and the distances we drive and fly would look shorter

    Did you know that when your news service gives out weather information it has been converted from Celsius? When you are flying and the pilot reads the temperature at the destination it has been converted from Celsius. Most digital thermostats in peoples’ homes have an option to operate in Celsius, I know mine does. I find that 24 to 26 degrees is quite comfortable. Our normal body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to start using Celsius instead of the “F” scale?

    Did you know that auto manufacturers already make most of the odometers in metric units for overseas markets and can install them without trouble in new cars for the US market? In fact most cars already have the speed scale reading both units. The gas stations have digital pumps that can be switched to liters in a matter of minutes. Even the price at the pump would look lower.

    We already have hardware and tools that are available in metric sizes. I just bought a tape measure that offers both systems and found it very simple to read the centimeter scale.

    The U.S. Government already uses the metric system as it is our preferred system of measurement. All of our US units are actually SI based. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 has made our conversion a voluntary matter. That means it is up to we the people to ask for this change and make it happen. We can ask for metric products and buy metric whenever we can. Write to our representatives and ask to make the change mandatory. Educate yourself and others while using the system daily.

    The change is already well underway and would make our country look a little different but not fundamentally change anything except our well-being and competitiveness in the world. I urge all of us to


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