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Welcome to Cracked’s Big Questions, where we explain concepts and throw in some weird stuff we discovered along the way. It may not make any of us an expert on the topic, but hopefully, we’ll all be a little less of a dumbass than we were before. Now, there’s been a meme that’s been around forever stating that the only three countries that don’t use the metric system are the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. Those three countries definitely use the metric system; they’re just the only three countries that haven’t officially recognized it as their official measurement standard.
Now, we can’t speak for the motives of Liberia and Myanmar on the metric issue, but the reasons why the U.S. has had so many problems getting on the same page as the rest of the world range from bad timing to rotten luck and good ol’ rootin’ tootin’ American stubbornness! YEE-HAW! (spittoon ding) …
Before the development of the metric system, there really wasn’t any universally agreed upon standard of measurement for anything, which made international trade a nightmare. Different nations or even regions within the same nation each had their own way of doing things, so there were always errors in conversions in addition to the conditions never being exactly the same. Many would use wheat grains, barleycorns, or carob seeds as a standard for weight, but those measurements would be wildly inconsistent. Those plants grow differently from one region to another, and even the humidity of the grains could be deliberately manipulated to throw the weight off to someone’s advantage.
So, in creating the metric system, they wanted to base it on something that would remain constant no matter what: the size of the Earth. One metre (spelled METER here in America for no real reason other than screw all y’all) was originally defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator at 0° longitude, a.k.a. the Prime Meridian.
Why the Prime Meridian? Well, the curvature of the Earth along that particular longitude has the shortest distance from the North Pole to the Equator due to the fact that the Earth is more of an oblong spheroid than perfectly round. It was just a happy coincidence that the line also ran right through Paris, and the scientists were all French.
From that one standard for length, they were able to create standards for weight and volume. They defined the gram by the amount of pure water that would fit inside one cubic centimeter at its maximum density (4 °Celcius) and at standard atmospheric pressure (sea level). So, they scaled that formula up by a thousand, a 10cm X 10cm X 10cm cube, and used the weight of that water to create the first prototype standard of the kilogram in 1889 that the world has been calibrating their scales to ever since.
They then decided that the volume of one kilogram of that same water would be standard for the litre (or LITER as we Americans spell it because, again, suck it). Until 1964, when they discovered that the container they originally used to measure the water for the kilogram prototype was 0.0028% larger than it should have been. So, the liter is now considered the volume of 1,000 cubic centimeters, and the kilogram the world used for 75 years at that point turned out to have been just a little bit wrong the whole time… but they decided to keep using it anyway.
But then, in 2019, they discovered that over the course of 130 years, the original all-platinum kilogram prototype had decayed by about 50 micrograms. This means that the kilogram that was 0.0028% too big when it was created was now .000005% smaller than it used to be. They decided to accept this as the new kilogram standard and create a new prototype to match this new weight, only this time, it was made with 10% iridium to help prevent future decay. You know, if they had just left the old prototype alone, the original mistake would’ve solved itself eventually. It would take a couple trillion years, but still …
We’ve got your morning reading covered.
When the metric system was first introduced, there was a lot of hesitancy from other nations to adopt these new standards, particularly from the British. King George III was of the opinion that the British Imperial System worked just fine, and they didn’t need to switch. It also didn’t help that the king was famous for being (to put it lightly) an unreasonable prick, and this system being devised by the French certainly didn’t gain any bonus points.
But with the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution, there was an opportunity to show the world this new standard of measurement as a solid proof of concept. In having to rebuild the French government from the ground up, they were able to install the metric system as the mandatory standard for all of France. And it wasn’t too hard to convince French citizens of its merits. Hey, remember all those times the Nobles tried to screw you over the weight of your harvest or the size of your land by using units of measurement they made up? Well, with this new system, that won’t happen.
Via Wikimedia Commons
They also instituted a decimalized measurement of time. Each day would be divided into 10 longer hours instead of 24, which would make each new “hour” last two hours and 24 minutes in standard time. Each of those ten hours would now be divided into 100 new minutes consisting of 100 new seconds, so the new minutes would be 86.4 old seconds long, and each new second would be 13.6% shorter than what we’re used to. They also devised a new calendar that began on the autumnal equinox in September, and each month would be broken down into three 10-day weeks. Sounds confusing? The French thought so too. That’s why they ditched the idea after only 197 days. Turns out, you can force them to use new rulers, scales, and measuring cups, but making them relearn clocks and calendars is a bridge too far.
Seeing as the French were such great allies to the Americans during the Revolutionary War, and the newly-founded United States were pretty keen to rid itself of all things British, why didn’t they jump at the chance to ditch English units in favor of this new-fangled “metric system” from the beginning? Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
During the very first State of the Union speech in 1790, President George Washington stressed that the United States needed to adopt systems of uniformity in currency, weights, and measures because, at the time, each state was kinda doing its own thing in those departments. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was tasked with proposing an official standard of measurement for the nation, and one of the ideas he had come up with was a system that would be factors of 10 like metric does but use specific imperial units as the base standard. By his plan, an inch would now be 1/10 of a foot.
On a side note: 12 inches in a foot, 12 hours on a clock, 12 months in a year, 12 in a dozen, a gross is 12 dozen… Seriously, when it comes to counting things, who exactly in history had such a huge dodeca-hard-on for the number 12? Oh, different cultures around the world figured it out independent of one another, and it’s actually a lot easier to use than a base-10 system? Well … Crap.
(We promise this is the most interesting 4-minute static shot of a guy counting you’ve ever seen.)
Anyway, Jefferson was intrigued by news of the new metric system they were working on over in France, so he reached out to one of the scientists involved in the project, Joseph Dombey, and invited him to Philadelphia to present their work. After Dombey set sail with a sample of the meter and the kilogram, he ran into three huge problems. First, his ship got blown way off course. Second, he was kidnapped by British pirates after they raided his ship. And third, he died on a Caribbean island before a ransom could be paid.
So, with Dombey having missed the presentation under the worst circumstances possible, America had to make a decision on standards for measurements. They ended up going with units that very closely followed what the British were using because that’s what everyone was mostly familiar with anyway. But then, in 1824, the British retooled their methods into the imperial system, which differed somewhat from what America had officially adopted, so that became known as the U.S. Customary Units.
In 1875, 17 countries, including the United States, signed the Treaty of the Metre. This treaty established the BIPM (Bureau international des poids et mesures), also known as the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. Their role is to maintain the standard for measuring everything.
The BIPM are the ones that hold onto the master prototypes for the meter and the kilogram, which were precisely machined out of an alloy of titanium and iridium and held under clean laboratory conditions. They use these prototypes to create samples that are of the exact same measure, and those are sent out around the globe to create more identical samples that are used to calibrate the manufacture of every ruler and scale on the planet, essentially.
Because of this treaty, many of the signing nations decided to adopt the metric system as their official standard. The U.S. was not one of them. At the time, we were at the tail end of the industrial revolution. We had built all these railroads and factories using our own measurements, and those industries kinda own everything now, and they don’t feel like switching over to metric. We think the BIPM is a great idea, we’ll help fund it, but we’re gonna stick with our way of doing things. You do you, though!
Fast forward a hundred years, when President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which declared the metric system as “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” The act also stated that the use of U.S. customary units was still permissible in all activities and that any metric conversion efforts would be strictly voluntary. It really had no mandate, so it was really more of a passive-aggressive suggestion.
David Hume Kennerly/Dept. of Defense
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush expanded on the Metric Conversion Act by signing Executive Order 12770, which directed all departments and agencies under the executive branch “take all appropriate measures within their authority” to use the metric system. In doing so, Bush upgraded the passive-aggressive suggestion to seriously, c’mon you guuuuuuys!
If there wasn’t enough evidence already that America’s feet are firmly planted against adopting the metric system, there’s also this: in 2015, former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee announced his candidacy for President and decided to throw in officially converting the U.S. to the metric system as part of his platform. He later stated in interviews that he brought it up mostly as a joke, but the media ran with it. And as divisive as the 2016 election ended up being, one thing that nearly all Americans could agree on was that Lincoln Chafee’s metric system idea was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.
For a nation that appears to be so resistant to the idea of adopting the metric system, America uses it a lot. Just look at our food labels. The nutritional facts are all metric. The contents may be listed in ounces, but the metric amount is right there next to it in parenthesis. We buy soda in two-liter bottles, for crying out loud! We’re this close to understanding it!
Nearly every ruler and tape measure in the U.S. has the inches on one side and the centimeters on the other, and odds are the manufacturers made sure the metric side was correct first and converted the inches over from that. We’ve essentially always been using the metric system and just adding a math equation to it. And sometimes, it can be way easier for all parties involved if they were all on one system and did not need to be converted over.
Science has long since adopted the metric system, but engineering really hasn’t, and NASA can assure you there are 125 million reasons why that is a problem. In 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter was completing a nearly 10-month journey to the red planet. The satellite needed one more acceleration burn to place it in orbit.
The problem was the engineers at Lockheed Martin who designed the craft calculated the acceleration data in imperial pounds of force. Jet Propulsion Labs, who were remotely piloting the craft, had all of their equipment set to metric newtons of force. So, when the acceleration data was entered in without anyone checking to confirm it had been converted properly, the craft started traveling more than seven times faster than it should have, turning the $125 million spacecraft into mankind’s most expensive skipping rock as it bounced off Mars’ upper atmosphere, never to be seen again.
When it comes to the sheer cost of switching over to metric, it’s important to look at it in terms of long-term benefits. The initial costs may be pants-poopingly high, but on a long enough scale, the benefits do offset that … at least in business. In manufacturing, going metric could lead to more uniformity in the parts they need and the parts they make. Fewer numbers of parts mean less warehouse space needed to store them all. Plus, going metric means a greater international trade value for the product, which increases sale potential. The long-term benefits can far outweigh the initial costs.
Switching the entire United States over? That’s an entirely different matter, and that’s something to consider whenever you see a political candidate say they want to run the government like a business. If we were to switch over to the metric system, it would have to be done incrementally over a long period of time because this would be the largest infrastructure initiative in American history.
First, we’d have to educate the public. Placing the metric system into school curricula nationwide means printing new textbooks. And if you’ve attended a school board meeting recently, you’d know that a lot of people are more than a wee bit prickly about kids having to learn anything other than the status quo. For the adults, there would have to be a massive public awareness campaign for the metric system, which would be an uphill battle in and of itself. As we’ve seen over nearly every political topic over the past five years, a significant part of the U.S. population has a real bad case of I DON’T WANNA AND YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!
But no government agency would have a harder time switching to metric than the Department of Transportation. The U.S. has over 164,000 miles of highways, and every mile of them (and tenth of a mile in some places) is marked with a sign. Plus, there are exit ahead signs, overpass height signs, etc., that are all in U.S. Customary units. This would mean a complete overhaul of the highway sign process.
The over 164,000 mile marker signs would have to be removed, and then over 264,000 kilometer markers would have to be installed in their proper places. They might not have to move any exit ahead signs, but they could just replace the miles with the kilometer equivalent. Speed limit signs would have to be listed in both miles and kilometers per hour because a lot of American speedometers only indicate the MPH. Just the signs alone would be a massive undertaking at a time when most highways themselves are in desperate need of repair. It’s not hard to understand why the Department of Transportation isn’t ready to cross this bridge just yet because that would mean they have to fix the goddamn bridge first.
Could the U.S. ever successfully switch to the metric system? Yes, it is possible. Given a long enough timeline, we could ease our way into accepting it. And no matter how gradually we do it, we’re always gonna have some Americans who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. If only the metric system had oil-rich land … man, we’d be all over that.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Rohane Hamilton/Shutterstock
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