Why the Metric System Never Took Hold In America

Why the Metric System Never Took Hold In America
Posted on: July 28th, 2023

What countries don’t use the Metric System?

The metric system has been embraced by nearly every nation across the globe, with the notable exceptions of the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar. These three countries continue to use variations of the archaic British Imperial system for their measurements. This exploration delves into the reasons behind their resistance to change and poses the intriguing question, “Will they ever make the switch?”

A brief history on the Imperial System

The Imperial System has a rich and fascinating history that dates back several centuries. In the early years, from the 1500s until 1826, the United Kingdom relied on the Winchester System for its standard measurements. This system was established and standardized under the rule of King Henry VII, and many of the measurements we use today can be traced back to him. For instance, the yard is said to have been derived from the circumference of King Henry VII’s chest.

In the later years of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I sought to update and refine the existing system. She introduced her own set of standards, which were based on an ancient collection of bronze weights. These weights, known as the Exchequer Standards, have been dated back to the time of King Edward III. The integration of the Exchequer Standards helped to further refine the system of weights and measures in use.

By 1826, the United Kingdom decided it was time for another change, and thus, the Imperial System was born. This new system was essentially a combination of the Winchester and Exchequer standards, creating a more unified approach to measurement. The Imperial System was widely used throughout the British Empire and its territories, becoming the primary system of weights and measures for many years.

However, as the world moved into the late 20th century, a shift began to take place. Most countries around the globe started to adopt the metric system, which offered a more straightforward and internationally recognized method of measurement. The simplicity of the metric system, with its base-10 structure, made it an attractive alternative to the Imperial System. Today, the Imperial System is still used in a few places, such as the United States, but the majority of the world has transitioned to metric for consistency and ease of use.

What unit of measurement does the US use?

In 1832, the United States established its own system of weights and measures, known as the United States customary units. This system was primarily based on the customary standards that England used prior to its adoption of the Imperial System in 1826. While the U.S. customary units share similarities with the Imperial System, they are not identical, as they represent a distinct variation of the older English system.

During the transition to the U.S. customary units, some changes were made to the original system. Certain unit names were altered, and there were slight variations in the measurements themselves. These differences created a unique form of the system that was tailored to the needs and preferences of the United States and its territories.

Though the U.S. customary units have their roots in the English system that preceded the Imperial System, the United States does not use the Imperial System in its entirety. Instead, the U.S. has maintained its own version of the system, which has persisted over time despite the global shift towards the metric system. This means that while the U.S. customary units share some commonalities with the Imperial System, they remain a distinct and separate system of weights and measures.

What is Metric System?

The development of the metric system in France around 1799 was a result of the intellectual climate of the age of enlightenment. During this period, many traditional ideas and practices were being questioned and reevaluated in the pursuit of progress and rationality. Among these was the old way of measuring things, which was viewed as cumbersome and impractical, particularly for trade purposes. A more universal and simplified system of measurement was needed to facilitate trade and standardize calculations.

The French recognized that basing measurements on a fixed and consistent reference, such as the size of the Earth, would be a more rational and efficient approach. After spending seven years meticulously measuring their own country, French scientists and surveyors used these measurements to calculate the Earth’s dimensions from the North Pole to the equator. The resulting system was designed with the intention of being based on a constant measurement, making it easier to understand and apply.

According to the calculations, one quarter of the Earth’s circumference was intended to be exactly 10,000 kilometers. However, one of the astronomers involved in the project made an error in his calculations. Fearing backlash and resistance to the new system, he chose not to correct the mistake. As a result, the actual circumference of the Earth is 40,075 kilometers instead of the intended 40,000 kilometers.

Despite this minor discrepancy, metric has become widely adopted around the world due to its simplicity, ease of use, and base-10 structure. This global standard has greatly facilitated international trade and cooperation by providing a consistent and universally recognized system of measurement.

The Kilometer is based on the measurements of the Earth
The Kilometer is based on the measurements of the Earth

Once you divide the measurement down to meters or centimeters, the difference is negligible. It didn’t matter, and people eventually started to take hold of the new system. This change started slowly with adoption by a few surrounding European countries. But through colonialization, the system spread rapidly in the 1800s.

Basic Unit of Length in the Metric System

The basic unit of length in the metric system is the meter. It is the fundamental unit from which other metric units of length, such as centimeters, millimeters, and kilometers, are derived by applying a prefix that indicates a multiple or fraction of the base unit.

Metric System Definition

The metric system is a decimal-based system of measurement that uses standardized units for length, mass, and volume. It is based on the meter (for length), the kilogram (for mass), and the liter (for volume). The metric system employs a base-10 structure, making calculations and conversions simple and straightforward.

Metric in America

As of 2016, only three countries had not fully adopted the metric system: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States. While Liberia has mostly converted and already conducts trade using the metric system, the U.S. and Myanmar appear to be the last remaining holdouts for the foreseeable future. However, the situation may be more nuanced than it seems.

Over the years, there have been several attempts in the U.S. to transition to the metric system. Many of these efforts have been blocked by Congress or met with opposition from anti-metric groups. In the United States, people are passionate about their measurements, and the resistance to change is strong.

A significant push to adopt the metric system took place in the 1970s and 1980s. On December 23, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law, creating a board tasked with overseeing America’s conversion to the metric system. However, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan disbanded the board, citing concerns about the cost of the conversion.

Despite the official stance against a complete transition to metric, the gradual adoption of metric measurements in various sectors of American society suggests that the U.S. may be moving in that direction, albeit slowly and subtly.

How pirates stopped America from going Metric

In 1796, Thomas Jefferson, who was the Secretary of State at the time, recognized the need for a standardized system of measurement in the young United States. With various systems in use, trade had become a complex and challenging endeavor. Aware of the new metric system being developed in France, Jefferson reached out to his contacts there to learn more about it. In response, the French sent scientist Joseph Dombey to America, carrying with him a 1-kilogram copper unit as a representation of the new system.

Unfortunately, Dombey’s journey took an unexpected turn when a storm blew his ship off course, leading him to the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean in the 1700s. British privateers captured Dombey and his vessel, hoping to secure a ransom from France. Sadly, Dombey died while in their captivity.

The privateers auctioned off the contents of Dombey’s ship, and the copper kilogram piece eventually ended up in the possession of American surveyor Andrew Ellicott. The artifact remained within his family for generations until 1952 when Ellicott’s descendant, astronomer Andrew Ellicott Douglas, handed it over to the agency that would later become the National Institute of Standards and Technology. By then, however, it was too late for metric to gain a foothold in the United States.

Had the copper kilogram reached Thomas Jefferson, it is possible that the United States might have adopted metric. At that time, the country was struggling with a mishmash of different measurement systems, and the need for standardization was evident. Only three decades later, the U.S. ended up adopting the Imperial system, which means metric could have just as easily been chosen if circumstances had been different. The story of Joseph Dombey’s ill-fated journey and the lost copper kilogram serves as a fascinating reminder of how can history be shaped by chance events and unforeseen circumstances.

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