How many inches in 5 feet?
How many yards in a mile?
How many ounces in a gallon?
How many ounces in 6 pounds?
Most Americans vaguely remember something about 16 ounces making a pound and maybe 5,000-ish feet are in a mile. But we’re not totally sure—despite having used this wonky system our entire lives.
How many meters in a kilometer? A thousand.
How many grams in a kilogram? A thousand.
How many milliliters in a liter? A thousand. Damn. That was easy.
So when will the United States start using the metric system? The answer is… not soon. Or right now!
What is the Imperial System based on?
The US uses measurements based on a system that has evolved and mutated from those created by Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians. Units were based on stuff like the distance between some dude’s arm and his elbow. Weight was based on things like the amount of rocks a nobleman’s prized donkey could lift.
This system got passed on to the Phoenicians, who passed it to the Greeks, who gave it to the Romans, who bequeathed it to Medieval Europeans, with everyone altering and re-naming and re-standardizing the system along the way.
What ended up in the hands of the English was a convoluted, unwieldy system with thousands of years of tweaks, fixes, revisions and patches.
It was like inheriting a ‘84 Yugo held together with bumper stickers.
While the rest of the world has traded up for something more science-based and modern, the US has stuck with their customary system. Which is exactly what we call the American system of weights and measures: customary units.
Is the metric system better?
Instead of donkey power and body parts, the metric system is based on measurements derived from the meter. The circumference of the earth, striations in metal elements, and the distance between wavelengths have all been used to define the meter. It’s now based on the distance travelled by light in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Difficult for you or me to figure out, but damn scientific.
It’s not just science-based standardization that makes metric is better. After all, weights and measures are just relative units agreed upon by humans.
The reason metric is better is: decimals.
Everything is a multiple of ten, which is super easy to divide and add and figure out in your head. Learn a few Latin and Greek words (milli-, kilo-, centi-, deci-) and the name tells you all you need to know. A kilometer is a thousand meters. A centimeter is a hundredth of a meter. Kilogram? A thousand grams.
What about the UK? Do the British use the metric system?
Kinda. The UK began the journey to go metric in the late 1960s but fizzled out along the way. You’ll buy a liter of gasoline for your car, but then drive it down a road with a posted miles-per-hour speed limit. You’ll buy a kilo of potatoes at the grocery and a pint of beer in a pub. To really gunk up the works, ask a guy how much he weighs. He’ll tell you 12 stone, 7 pounds (stone being 14 pounds and a pretty much only used for body weight and only in the UK).
Do other countries still use the Imperial System?
Not really. Maybe two other countries besides the US.
A quick history of going metric in the US
So, you say, “I’m sold! Let’s give inches, miles, and ounces the stinky boot and act like (almost) every other country in the world and go metric!”
That’s what George Washington wanted back when the US was becoming the US. That’s what the US Senate wanted back in 1866 when they passed the Metric Act. That’s what Congress pushed for when they passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. And that’s what 50,000 people petitioned for in 2013, asking the White House to make the metric system the standard.
But various combinations of apathy, politics, pirates, and doublespeak killed the metrication of the United States and that’s why you’re left wondering how many ounces in a quart and how many yards make a mile.
What’s next for the future of metric in the US?
To be fair, science, medicine, the military, and a large portion of industry in the US use metric. Just about all of our bottles of shampoo and cans of beans list both customary and metric measurements. And you can always buy a two-liter bottle of Coke.
But maybe it’s finally time the US goes whole hog.
To that end, the US Metric Association has advocated for the completion of the metrication of the US since 1916. They’re ready for us to stop converting and start conversing in metric. They publish materials to help teachers teach metric, put out (metric) tons of metric-based info and tools, and they promote National Metric Week during the week that contains the 10th of October.
Which is right now!
Celebrate by looking at the smaller numbers on your speedometer, or the parenthetical listing on your bottle of olive oil. Take a second to figure out how tall you are in centimeters and how much you weigh in kilos. (I am proud to say I am 170 cm tall and less proud to say I weigh 71.6 kilos.)
Since the US government seems a little busy at the moment, metrication is not at the top of the agenda. But ours is a country built by individualism, do-it-yourself attitudes, and people who do what needs doing.
Person by person,
inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, maybe each of us can get the US to that magical place where every measurement is easily divisible by ten.
A place where the rest of the planet is already hanging out.