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Why Didn't America Adopt the Metric System?

Map of countries without the metric system: US  Liberia  Myanmar. Ref: Softpedia.com
Every country in the world adopted the International System of Units (SI) except the United States, Liberia and Myanmar. But why? America still uses English or Imperial system of units the isolation from Europe and vast sales locally may be the reasons.
Feet, yards, inches, miles, gallons, ounces, these may mean something to some people around the world, while others struggle with online converters or, worse, software designed to convert these values, that are not reliable most of the times.
How about fathoms, rods, chains, furlongs, leagues?
Only 3 countries don’t follow the metric system of units and they are the U.S., Liberia and Myanmar, every other country since the 1960 follow the International System of Units (SI) ("Systéme International d'Unités" in French, hence "SI"). Metric units of mass, length and volume are widely used around the world for everyday use as well as for business and scientific purposes.
I have this problem, whenever we deal with Europe, we have to convert every unit. Once complete, the converted units don't make any sense to me and I have no way to quantify it anymore.
So why didn't the U.S. move to the new SI Unit system when the rest of the world did?
Initially, officials believed it would be an too cost prohibitive to convert everything at all U.S. manufacturers. But now, many products are made overseas and imported; America has become more of a service-oriented economy rather than an Industrial-manufacturing economy. In today's world, converting to SI units would not be a big problem.
According to a reader on Softpedia, Europe adopted the SI system in 1960 to make trading between European nations easier after World War II, a world from which the United States was isolated.
There was a debate in the U.S. to move to the metric system in the 70s but manufacturers said they were comfortable having their own system. The world also saw the advent of HP calculator, making unit conversion easy. The metric system, again failed to get traction in the U.S.
Today, conversion is even easier: with the presence of Google, you can convert units incredibly quickly (here is a sample calculation in Google), meaning there is still no real reason to switch.
But not all Americans agree. NASA has recently agreed to used metric systems over English system of units.
The decision was made because the metric system offers a lot of convenience: It provides a single unit for any physical quantity, thus eliminating the need for conversion factors and making calculation easy and direct; multiples and submultiples are related to the fundamental unit by factors of powers of ten, so that one can convert by simply moving the decimal place (i.e. 1.234 meters is 1234 millimeters, 0.001234 kilometers etc.), whereas the English system of units cannot be used in the same way (i.e. 1 lbs = 16 ounces)
Even with all of today's conversion calculators, changing units from the English system to SI units is a laborious process and, in many cases, you end up with errors. Furthermore, it can be incredibly time consuming (I was recently preparing a report for an aircraft manufacturer that wanted SI units, which ended up taking me hours to change all numbers correctly).
This article gives a few examples of converting units to illustrate the unit conversion problem:What is the mileage of a car that uses 8.7 liters of fuel per one hundred kilometers? What is a pressure value of 174 pounds per square inch transformed to kilograms per square meter? How much is a density of 1.6 grams per cubic centimeter transformed to pounds per cubic foot?Times have changed, and I think America now needs to switch. If we have one system of units, it will make worldwide trade easier, we will be able to communicate properly, and essentially all speak the same language.
Would you like to have one system of units or you like the way it is now?

16 comments

#1Jun 22, 2007 Chris Hogg
A perfect example of when this type of thing can go wrong is in space, so I'm glad NASA is making the switch.
I can't recall exactly what it was a few years back, but the U.S. collaborated to build parts for (I think it was the international space station) space with European nations. The end result was an absolute disaster with nothing fitting together. The U.S. was working on its units and trying to convert and European nations weren't able to fit anything made in the U.S.
When you get into parts that are millimetres thick (fractions of inches), it's incredibly important.
I'm part of the generation that grew up with the metric system, but I still find myself confused and screwed up because my family always spoke in Imperial units. I measure distance by kilometres, but height by feet; I measure water temp. in Fahrenheit but air temp. in Celsius. I also use and interchange inches and centimetres.
It's a weird byproduct of being raised in the midst of change and having people around me who did not know the metric system. I'm a very confused guy, clearly =)
#2Jun 22, 2007 M Dee Dubroff
Fascinating, CGull
I never the reason why the US never converted to the metric system.
Good post.
Much info.
MDee
#3Jun 22, 2007 Chris V. Thangham
Chris, it is true for everyone sadly, they should have one system so it makes it easy for all of us. I think it is time to adopt one system, it doesn't matter whose they should use. NASA and ESA had problems it with it one time with Mars Climate Orbiter: An investigation board concluded that NASA engineers failed to convert English measures of rocket thrusts to newton, a metric system measuring rocket force. One English pound of force equals 4.45 newtons. A small difference between the two values caused the spacecraft to approach Mars at too low an altitude and the craft is thought to have smashed into the planet's atmosphere and was destroyed.
In Internet everybody follows one standard makes it convenient for everyone, I hope they do the same for this also. Since Politicians won't do it, the researchers, scientists, manufacturers should insist on it. Initially will be hard, but I think soon everyone can adopt it.
#4Jun 22, 2007 Michelle Duffy
i must admit, i never went metric....
#5Jun 22, 2007 Bob Ewing
I move back and forth between the two systems but when you need accuracy, as NASA does, then it matters.
#6Jun 22, 2007 Debra Myers
Planet Janet
i must admit, i never went metric....
Nor have I. I remember back when I was in school there was a big plan to have the US convert to the metric system, then it just never happened.
#7Jun 22, 2007 Brandigal (Donna)
It changed in Canada when I was in school. So I was taught both. I will say I tend to switch back and forth when dealing with things. I weight in pounds, I drive in kilometres and I cook in tsp, tbls. The weather I use both.
I will say I did not know that it was just three countries that did not use Metric.
#8Jun 22, 2007 S.H. Mills
@Debra Myers:
Nor have I. I remember back when I was in school there was a big plan to have the US convert to the metric system, then it just never happened.
Ah, you're aging yourself, Skyangel.
You must be nearly as old as I am. ;o)
Very interesting article, Cgull.
#9Jun 22, 2007 Debra Myers
Naw...not aging myself...it's just the truth! LOL!
I bet we are pretty close in age though, Lady Justice!
#10Jun 22, 2007 Samantha A. Torrence
I remember asking my teacher in school why we didn't use the metric system. It was such a pain to convert.
#11Jun 22, 2007 KJ Mullins
I am trying to understand metric. I have temperatures down.....except for cooking or if the kids are sick, but weather wise I have a handle on that one.
Okay I just realized that's about all I have gotten down. Time for a metric boot camp for me!
#12Jun 22, 2007 geozone
Metric system is easier but if you are familiar with the works of John Michell in the field of sacred geometry, geomancy and archaeoastronomy, there are siginifcant reasons why the British system of units was employed by the ancients. Michell and others who work in those aforementioned fields will tell you the mistake was not in the British system of measurements but in switching to the metric.
Cheers, cgull.
#13Jun 22, 2007 Chris V. Thangham
@geozone:
Metric system is easier but if you are familiar with the works of John Michell in the field of sacred geometry, geomancy and archaeoastronomy, there are siginifcant reasons why the British system of units was employed by the ancients. Michell and others who work in those aforementioned fields will tell you the mistake was not in the British system of measurements but in switching to the metric.
Cheers, cgull.
They can use one or the other, will end all the confusion. Also, too many electric outlets, currents, should standardize will be good.
#14Jun 23, 2007 barryb
Standardization is always good and I would love to see the last three countries adopt the metric system.
Having said that, I hope the Imperial System (called the English system in the article) stays around for nostalgia. I learned both in school. I prefer metric and use it more often but I am quite comfortable with Imperial as well. It reminds me of my childhood.
#15Jun 24, 2007 Kyle Pallanik
@Chris Hogg:
I'm part of the generation that grew up with the metric system, but I still find myself confused and screwed up because my family always spoke in Imperial units. I measure distance by kilometres, but height by feet; I measure water temp. in Fahrenheit but air temp. in Celsius. I also use and interchange inches and centimetres.
It's a weird byproduct of being raised in the midst of change and having people around me who did not know the metric system. I'm a very confused guy, clearly =)
Cgull is right, it's the timing of when we were educated and the influence of the system our parents used. I'm all confused too. I grew up learning metric but there are a lot of inconsistencies in my concepts of measurement.
I know how hot it's going to be when it's 35 celcius outside, but I have no idea what the equivalent in farenheit is. I know how fast I'm driving when I am going 120 km per hour, how to measure distance in km I've jogged, but when it comes to going to the hardware store to buy something for the house, do you think I measure in metric? Not usually. Unless you're going to Ikea, good luck bringing those metric measurements with you when you go to buy wood for a project.
#16Jun 27, 2007 barryb
You are right Ringwraith. Even though our road signs and weather reports are in metric. Most of our handyman books, stores, supplies, and tools are from the States and therefore stick to Imperial measures.
Another example of how heavily influenced we are by the ever present US of A.

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