The Metric System

Nov 11, 2012 by

This year, I am learning a lot about the world and also about America.  I have learned that there is a reason stereotypes exist, but also that it is never hard to find someone who breaks that stereotype.  I have also gotten a taste of how much America influences the world.  With English as the lingua franca of the world, and Hollywood the biggest movie producer, not to mention all the American companies that have become global companies (McDonald’s, anyone?), I rarely feel like I’m out of my element.  The world is more or less open to American influence, yet America can be closed off to influence from the rest of the world, even if it is a reasonable and logical influence.

The biggest example of the stubborn attitude of Americans is when it comes to systems of measurement.  Why aren’t we on the metric system yet?  It’s 2012 for Pete’s sake!  The metric system is simple, easily calculated, and used by the rest of the world for measurements.  How many meters are in a kilometer?  It’s easy to figure out.  But do you know off the top of your head how many feet are in a mile?  If you do, bravo to you.  I certainly don’t (it’s 5,280, I looked it up).

No, a switch to the metric system does NOT mean that we all have to buy new clocks

The metric system seems like something Americans should like:  it’s Enlightenment; it’s efficient; it’s the kind of hyper-rationalism that should appeal to industrialists.  But perhaps for us there is also the lingering feeling that metric is associated with the mark of the beast.  It’s a bit too French revolution, something that makes us fear a metric calendar with a ten month day and a ten day week where we will never really know when it is Sunday will become the rule of the day- or we will find ourselves in some bizarre Twilight Zone episode where all the clocks have been repainted with the highest numeral being ten. The world has largely been base 12 since Babylon. I don’t know why. But maybe for Americans there is something vaguely uncomfortable about breaking from tradition.

One of the most common questions I get from people here is how am I doing with dealing with the metric system.  The answer is that I’m getting accustomed to it.  I think it’s a lot easier to get used to than the US system.  Why don’t we just use it?  Are we really that attached to our outdated system of measurement?  A change to the metric system won’t mean an end to American independence and tradition.  A change to the metric system will show that we are willing to see things logically and are open to influence from other countries, aside from making our lives that much more simple.

A stereotype about Americans is that we are loud and ignorant about the rest of the world, and that we think we are the greatest country ever.  While it’s ok to think that we’re the greatest, it’s not OK to think that we’re so great that we couldn’t possibly benefit from anything that we didn’t come up with.  The rest of the world has some pretty good ideas too, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try them out.


  1. Vince Giglio

    When I was in eighth grade (1974-75) my teacher announced that by the time I was a sophomore in high school the United States would be on the metric system. I rushed home to wait for my dad to come home from work so I could tell him this cutting edge news. My dad was in the custom drapery business and used measurements in all facets of his trade. I was so proud to tell him this news scoop, and I thought it would be really helpful to him. Upon telling him, he said “I don’t think so, that will never happen”. It has been almost forty years, I am long past sophomore year, and my dad is still right. My dad’s thinking was that we would never change because the system worked, and if it isn’t broken there is no need to fix it. It may be more difficult to use our system, but it works. It is more than tradition. So much of our lives are centered on it, sports, manufacturing, and construction to name a few. I can not imagine it being fourth down and centimeters for a first down, or the bases not being 90 feet apart. We relate to and identify with these measurements and our identity is more important than convenience.

  2. Gerber

    well, it seems to me that it is not merely viewing ourselves as the greatest which keeps us out of the metric system. Let us assume that we willingly decided to change systems, imagine the logistical problems that that would cause. Every single freeway sign would have to be replaced, since distance on freeways is measured in miles. Tape measures would be replaced. The distance between beams in houses is rounded off to a certain foot distance, that would have to be replaced by a metric distance. Not just distance, but gallons to liters. When you buy a quart of milk, it will be a liter of milk now, or some other unit. This means that companies have to reset all of their containers and the machines that make them because they round their product to a full unit of measurement to be easier on their customers. Then you get to the problem of converting people to the process. You may say, “I am immersed in the metric system and it is easy to change for me”, but imagine how many people would have a hard time converting. Look at computers, many people don’t know how to use them still, and may never know. This problem is not unique to measurement. Look down at your keyboard. Have you ever wondered why it is that your keyboard is structured the way it is? It is not because it is the best way to structure the letter orders, but because it slows you down. That seems odd, but it is a carry over from the typewriter which couldn’t keep us with certain speeds of typing, and so had to be made to slow people down. However, now we have computers which don’t have that problem, the WHOLE WORLD should change to a more efficient arrangement, but they don’t. It is out there, but not worth the effort in the long run. Like the bullet train, these things cost too much for too little profit.
    And, this problem is not unique to America. I would agree that most of the metric system is better, until you come to Fahrenheit versus Celsius. Fahrenheit is relative to the human body, Celsius is relative to the boiling point of water. The human body is 37 degrees Celsius, 98.7 Fahrenheit. When dealing with bearable temperatures, the most common non-scientific (which uses kelvin) use for temperatures, Fahrenheit has the advantage of having a wider range of numbers to work with allowing for a more accurate conveying of temperature. Fahrenheit is better in use, why does the world not switch to Fahrenheit? It isn’t April Fool’s we don’t want to change to the Gregorian Calender, but our system is so dependent on these forms of measurement, the cost of changing for the convenience of a slightly easier system isn’t worth it.

  3. Shannon Malone

    I think the metric system is especially beneficial for scientific purposes for exactly the reason that you state: easy conversions. You can use dimensional analysis for everything in seconds. Not to say that you cannot use dimensional analysis with feet and inches but, like you said, no one knows how many feet are in a mile. But outside the scientific world it’s a lot easier for us to visual units like a foot, a cup, an inch. When you purchase fabric from stores like Joann’s they rarely get out a yardstick, they just use their arm to measure a yard. So I agree with the two comments above me, it’s just a more convenient system for the average American. However, American scientists must use the metric system so that they can communicate with the rest of the world. There is no way around that.

  4. Tim

    I my opinion, there is no rational reason for us not to switch to the metric system. (By the way scientists all throughout the world have already made the switch (that includes those working in America).) The rest of the American public has been very resistant to switching. Shannon mentions that things like a foot, a cup and an inch are easier to visualize. That is only true for us because we were brought up with the English system. If we were brought up with the Metric system that would not be true. Back when I was in college, I once had a friend who was trying to cook something, but was confused when he read that a cup of milk was needed. He told me he didn’t know what size of a cup to use. This proved to me that even some those brought up with the English system of measurement don’t really know how to use it.

    Now to respond to Gerber. First off, I agree that we should change our keyboards to a more efficient configuration and would support any attempt to do so. Additionally, while I do agree that all the freeway signs having to be replaced is something to consider (it most definitely will require some effort and cost money) I don’t think it is a sufficient reason for not switching. Replacing the signs would be a one time cost that would be well worth it in the long run, in order to be in-line with the rest of the world. Everyone using the same system would, in the end, be more efficient and less confusing.

    As far as temperatures go, I couldn’t disagree with Gerber more. The Fahrenheit scale has nothing to do with the human body, and just about everyone outside the US does report temperatures in Celsius. Just this past summer I was communicating on Facebook with someone in Mexico and the weather came up and he told me it was 36 degrees outside. My initial impression was how could it be so cold in the summer in Mexico, then I realized he was using Celsius, and 36 Celsius is actually a quite warm. If we would also switch to the metric system, there would not be this kind of confusion when talking to people in other parts of the world.

    Every day technology is making the world seem smaller and smaller, and mostly I think this is a good thing. However, to be competitive in an increasingly global economy, we don’t have the luxury anymore of using primitive and outdated systems of measurements.

  5. Gerber

    Tim you seem to misunderstand my Fahrenheit example. My intent is to say that Fahrenheit offers a wider range of numbers to use. Because it is a further distance between zero and the temperature of the human body, 98.5 Fahrenheit versus 37 Celsius, it offers a wider range of options in temperatures that are applicable to us. A wider range of numbers allows for a more precise number to be given without going into decimals. My point is Fahrenheit is a better tool because it can be more precise without breaking the number down into a decimal.
    As far as the signs go, I think you are underestimating what would need to be changed. As I pointed out, the beams in buildings are coded to be at a certain distance rounded off to a certain Foot. If we switch, you have to change those distances to a meter marking. Remodels would run into problems of their house not being up to code. Moreover, the way our properties are divided up is based on the English system. It is all in relation to a square mile. To change systems would mean either a changing in property ownership size or a very strange number for each unit of property. Finally, I do not see the massive difficulty that we run across with our current system. To change our system would overhaul our entire economy, every sign, every nook, every cranny, everything would have to be recalculated in terms of the metric system. For a massive nation such as ourselves, such an overhaul would need a greater reward than simply a simpler system. I mean, the cup example goes to show ignorance not the difficulties with our system. To the people that need these measurements, they know how it works. It is the common people who don’t use it often that would have problems. Chefs know how many cups, ounces, and so on go into a gallon. Surveyors know how many feet and yards are in a mile. The knowledge necessary is existent where it needs to be, but for common use, I don’t see problems to the degree that we need to overhaul the entire system.

  6. Heather Malone

    I would just like to note that in Europe a cup is 125 ml, while in America a cup is 240 ml. So I could potentially ruin a cake recipe if I didn’t know which ‘cup’ to use, even though I am no stranger to baking. There are also at least three different types of ‘miles’ and different states in the US use whichever one they prefer. This is not logical. This is not efficient. This is like holding onto a 15-year-old computer because it would be a ‘bother’ to move one’s files over to a new computer with a high-speed internet connection. All systems of measurement evolve and require re-calibration. It’s time for us to update.

  7. Gerber

    I am not denying that the metric system has an advantage over the English system. I am simply stating that you logic argument does not take everything into account. A better example would be upgrading from a HD DVD player to a Blu-ray player when you have every movie ever made in HD format. You have to replace every movie for a system which is only a little bit better. This system functions, if it didn’t our construction companies would be the first to complain. You are stating that there is some urgent need to update when, in reality, the only advantage it has is in learning the system. As far as the miles thing goes, the only point that that makes is that miles needs a standard measurement, a difficult thing to do in and of itself. You have not proven this dire need that is worth the upheaval it would cause to us, only slight advantages that MAY benefit us in the long run.

  8. Vince Giglio

    It is interesting that this article has solicited such a rousing response. I imagine that the direction the discussion has taken will end war, solve poverty, provide the basis for better government, and bring us closer to acting in accordance with virtue. This vigorous debate says much about our state of thought indicating what we find important. Have we missed the point? Should the debate center around the author’s statement; “[t]he world is more or less open to American influence, yet America can be closed off to influence from the rest of the world, even if it is a reasonable and logical influence”? The question is, if this is true why is it true? If we cannot discern the right question, how can we ever hope to reason an answer that moves us closer to human excellence?

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