In the United States, Congress took a stab at introducing the metric system in 1975 with the Metric Conversion Act. The act said adopting the metric system would be strictly “voluntary.” There were no surprises when no one showed the desire to volunteer. The United Kingdom began switching over to the metric system in the 1960s so that it would be in sync with the rest of Europe.
While the rest of the world uses centimeters, we prefer inches. They use meters and we like our 36-inch, 3-foot yards. A foot equals 0.3048 meters. A yard equals 0.9144 meters. In 1793 the meter was defined by French scientists as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. It was a dimension that was arrived at by using mathematics without the aid of GPS.
ON THE other hand, the length of a foot was originally determined to be equal to the size of the foot of King Henry I of England. When his rule began in 1100, he decided to standardize this unit of measure based on the length of his somewhat oversized clodhopper as the official length. Also, the width of a man’s thumb determined the distance of an inch. This method seems a little less scientific and a lot less accurate than the metric system.
AS AMERICANS, we have always enjoyed doing things differently than anyone else. Not only do we not use the metric system, but we also do weird things like write dates with the month before the day, something no one else does. After winning the Revolutionary War, a dictionary was published and filled with words deliberately spelled differently from the British spellings. We also prefer a different temperature system than most of the world.
IN 1793, then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson sent a note to some buddies in France requesting a standard kilogram weight that could be used to adopt the metric system in the United States. A scientist named Joseph Dombey was promptly dispatched to America carrying a small copper cylinder with a little handle on top. It was around 3 inches tall, about the same width, and weighed exactly one kilogram. However, before reaching the United States, Dombey’s ship was blown off course by a storm and he ended up captured by pirates and died while in captivity. The metric system was doomed in the United States from then on.
THERE ARE only three countries in the world that still use the Imperial System of measurements today (inches, feet, miles, gallons, ounces, etc.): Liberia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the United States.
THE USE of this archaic system of weights and measures by the country of Liberia comes as no surprise since it is a nation created by Americans who believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States. Even their constitution and flag are modeled after those of the U.S.
Myanmar uses the system simply because they were under British rule from 1824 until after World War II, during the time the Brits were using imperial units. Their government says they have no time to focus on units of weights and measures due to the intense strife that has continued in their country from their independence until now.
OF ALL the industries, construction has been the slowest to adopt metric units. Two by fours are still two by fours, although they really aren’t two by four anything. They are one and a half inches by three and a half inches. Many immigrants in the construction trade seem to have little trouble learning the increments on a 25-foot Stanley. It is obviously easier to learn to read a measuring tape than to read our language.
WE MAY not notice it, but we all use the metric system every day. For example, we say, “He makes over $100K per year.” We use the letter “K” because it is commonly used to denote “thousand” in the metric system. Some still say “$100G” with the “G” meaning a grand which was a code word for a thousand dollars used by the underground in the early 1900s.
SHAMPOO BOTTLES and other products are labeled with both ml and fl oz. Another example is the popular-sized two-liter soft drinks. The half-liter water bottle has now replaced the 16-ounce. You can’t buy a quart of wine anymore. You must ask for the 750-milliliter size. But Americans don’t like to buy liters of milk, so for now we still are able to buy it in divisions of the gallon, like quarts and pints. The same goes for gasoline although fractions of a gallon of gas are broken down in decimals. There’s no explaining what we think is acceptable and what isn’t. We are Americans.
JUST LIKE our language and our customs, Americans will use only that part of the metric system that works for us and no one is going to make us change what we don’t want to.
Steve Reece is a contributing writer for the Reporter and a known crime fighter. Email him at email@example.com.