On The Level: Measuring in the USA: Why is the rest of the world using metric and why aren’t we?

Words: Bronzella Cleveland

“If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.”  Albert “B.B.” King, Born Under a Bad Sign

On a trip to Europe, I arrived at my hotel room and immediately fell asleep from a trying flight. When I awoke, I was struck by how silly and unattractive the electrical plugs of these other nations were. Obviously, the plugs that we use in the USA for our household appliances are perfectly fine and should be what everyone uses. I found myself getting frustrated having to find different adapters and converters so that I could plug in my electronics. It’s this type of expectation that often gets me in trouble and certainly can lead to my disappointment. 

That was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Before I left my hotel room, I found out I didn’t know how tall I was anymore, how much I weighed, or how much liquid was in my coffee. Thank goodness the clocks still worked. Not the calendars, they started on Monday. I was painfully becoming aware of how ignorant I was with the International System of Units, aka SI or the metric system. 

Officially, the US has two systems of weights and measures: Imperial and Metric. Practically, in everyday life and in the building trades, we all know it’s Imperial all the way: two by fours; 90 feet to first base; 100-yard football field; 4-minute mile; 2 cups in a pint, 2 pints in a quart, 4 quarts in a gallon, etc. While it’s not the easiest system, it’s the one we know. Trying to change is like learning a new language. So, how did we get here?

The answer has its roots primarily in two revolutions: 1. The Industrial Revolution (about 1780-1840), and 2. The US Revolution (1776). The fact that these happened at the roughly same time was the problem. 

Worldwide, before 1800 there were widely varying systems of weights and measures around the world, and even within a single country. This led to conflicts, controversy, disputes and was a huge opportunity for improvement. Imagine if a “foot” in Chicago was different than a “foot” in Boston? As the Industrial Revolution churned through Europe and the US, there was a need to standardize how we described, built, and how we bought, and sold things. Like many such times in history, when there is an opportunity for standardization, many suggestions and options vied for dominance. As a result of timing (and some capitalist influences), the United States zigged when most of the rest of the world zagged. 

In 1776 (prior to the Constitution) the Articles of Confederation gave a central government the power and right to establish which system we were going to use. We were a loose organization of states, and for trade and commerce to proceed in a more orderly fashion, it was important that we decide which system we’d use. Over in Europe, there was a standardization around the new system that would become the metric system. Here, we opted to keep doing what we’d been doing, basically, we said, “let’s not mess with what’s working.” So, we stuck with the system we’d inherited from our British roots: the Imperial System. That decision remains a point of contention, controversy, and a challenge today. 

Throughout the 1800s, we were focused on other problems like defining what and how we would be a nation, expanding across the continent, and keeping our fragile union from flying apart. The rest of the world was changing their systems steadily over to the International System. As the major economies changed, the countries that do the most business with them changed as well. When the cost of holding on to a system became more difficult or costly than it was to change, most accepted the new system. This continued through the 1900s, especially early on. In 1866 it became legal to use the metric system in the US. With ten more years, virtually all of Europe and most of Latin America had adopted the Metric system. Russia converted in 1910 and Japan in 1925. The balance of “more costly to change than to hold on to our current system” hasn’t yet tipped in favor of making the change. 

In 1975 President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion act. By law, the metric system was now the “preferred system,” but also by law, adaption was voluntary. So, we find science, medicine, and the military using the metric system, while consumable products are mostly dual-labeled. (Surprised? Check your soda can.) For the construction trades, the drawings may be in either metric or imperial, while on the jobsites they are overwhelmingly Imperial. Some of us were taught metric in school under an impending adaptation that pretty much fizzled in the late 70s and early 80s. 

The simplicity and ease of use of the metric system make its adaptation all but inevitable. Practically, it’s easier to use and produces fewer errors. The Imperial System is inconsistent with its conversions (inch to foot? 12; foot to yard? 3; yard to a mile? 1760) which makes it more difficult to use than a decimal-based system. Imperial system’s attachment to fractions ½ inch ¼ inch, 1/8 inch, etc. is cumbersome compared to a decimal-based system, too. The US holds out mostly because it’s easier than changing, and for now, because we can. The biggest reason we don’t switch is the cost. The conversion, and more importantly, the education is more than we’ve been willing to take on. 

With Keson (US-based) and Sola (EU-based) working together, we are in a unique position to provide products that meet all our customers’ Unit of Measure needs. These needs also include an Engineer’s Scale which is a decimalized version of the Imperial system (1 foot divided into 10ths, so 1 foot 6 inches = 1.5 feet). We also have a host of tapes that have two scales on one blade (Imperial and Metric, Imperial and Engineer’s, even the rarest of all Engineer’s and Metric). So, if you’re looking for an unusual or specific tape measure, we invite you to check it out. It will likely save you time and money and cut down on mistakes! 

For more information on Keson visit www.keson.com and for info on SOLA products visit www.sola.us

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