RETRO TECH: The Metric System

I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how the metric system, a system of measurement used almost everywhere in the world except the United States, and which appears to be in no danger of being replaced any time soon, can be “retro”. Well, for Americans of a certain age, it certainly seems like a retro tech.


The United States has toyed with the idea of the metric system since… well, forever. In Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, Congress is given the power to “fix the standard of weights and measures” for the nation. And, in 1789, the first Congress looked at a proposal from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who decided to ditch the English system for a decimal system of his own making. It was very similar to the metric system… however, the big shortcoming of Jefferson’s system was that although it adopted 10 as a base unit, it had unique names for each individual unit of measurement (so no centi- or milli- prefixes). What’s worse, Jefferson’s system used existing names for his new units. The basic unit of measurement of the Jefferson system was the foot, which was subdivided into 10 inches, which were further subdivided into 10 lines, with each line subdivided into 10 points. And the less said about his long distance and volume units the better.

At any rate, Congress looked at Jefferson’s system and half-heartedly liked it. But no academics or powerful businessmen advocated for Jefferson’s system. Many in Congress saw Great Britain (and, by association, her Imperial measurement system) as America’s most important trading partner. Many Federalists (the main political party of the time) disliked France generally and were deeply suspicious of anything French. And since adoption of Jefferson’s system could cause mass confusion, at least for a time (“Is that an English foot? Or a Jefferson foot?”), Congress let the whole thing die.

America flirted with the metric system from time to time, but the metrification of the rest of the English-speaking world in the 1950s and 1960s led to ever louder calls to adopt the metric system. The end result was The Metric Conversion Act, passed by Congress on December 23, 1975. It declared the metric system to be “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce”. Unfortunately (or not), the act lacked any means of enforcing this. People and businesses were free to continue using customary units.

But even without teeth, the law had an effect. Newscasters talked about how we’d soon be buying meat in kilograms and gas in liters. Signs went up on interstates showing speed limits and distances in both customary and metric units. And, most importantly, almost every American school decided to teach metric to its students.

And this is where it all collapsed.

I first learned about the metric system in third grade. I was 7 years old. On the first day, my teacher said that you could spell it “liter” or “litre” or “meter” or “metre”, and that you could pronounce it “kull-ahm-a-ter” or “kill-o-meter”. Great! We hadn’t learned the first thing about the metric system itself, and I was already hopelessly confused.

Then they taught us all the SI prefixes: deca-, hecto-, giga-, tera-, peta-, etc. Which is fine. It is good to know all that, especially if you’re in IT. But it was a lot to lay on a 7 year-old who was only barely used to inches and feet. I doubt that there are any Europeans who use decigrams or hectoliters in everyday life, and trying to teach us this all at once made it overwhelming. The way I see it, they shoulda stuck with just centimeters and meters and brought the other SI prefixes in a year or two later instead of dropping it all in our (7 year-old) laps at once.

But the worst thing about it was that American teachers made every damn thing a math problem. Rather than just say “20ºC feels nice”, they’d say something like:

“If that mean ol’ weatherman gives you the temperature in Fahrenheit, it’s EASY to convert it to Celsius! If it’s an even-numbered day, just multiply the Fahrenheit temperature by 9, then divide it by 5, then add 32 if the date falls between June 1 and August 31. If it’s outside that time, then subtract 32, then take that number and run it through the Stefan-Boltzmann formula! If it’s an odd-numbered day, take the square root of the original Fahrenheit temperature, run it through the Quadratic Equation and multiply the result by Planck’s Constant! See? Easy!”

I joke, of course. It wasn’t nearly that complicated. But the teacher did have formulas for converting inches to centimeters, yards to meters, miles and miles per hour to kilometers and kilometers per hour, Fahrenheit to Celsius, ounces to grams or milliliters, and so on. It seemed like every single thing about our future lives would involve some complex formula we’d have to memorize. You know how when you’re on vacation in a foreign country and have to do that mental arithmetic to convert pounds or Euros or yen back to dollars? Yeah, imagine having to do that almost any time some measurement came up. That’s what our teachers painted our future as being, and none of us were excited about it.

Thankfully, American adults of the time appeared to be completely apathetic about the whole thing. Sure, there were some industries that converted over; the scientific, academic and manufacturing fields are strongly metric, and have been so for some time. But for everyone else, the reaction to the metric system was “who cares?”. And even those people who used metric in their work continued to use customary units in their everyday life.

And since adults didn’t use the metric system, there seemed to be little need for me to remember it. So I didn’t. I mean, I know how the metric system works, and can figure it out pretty easy if need be, sure. But I just never crossed that line to where I think of a small measurement as “a few centimeters” instead of “a couple of inches”, or “I need 100g of cheddar for this recipe” instead of “I need 3.5 ounces of cheddar for this recipe”.

Metric has continued to creep in to American life, though. Sodas continue to be sold in 1 or 2 liter bottles, in addition to 12 oz. cans (for a time in the late 70s and early 80s, soda came in 3 liter bottles, too). I’ve noticed that many food products that once came in “odd” size customary units have now been rounded off to metric units. For example, a can of tomato sauce that might have been sold as “25.4 ounces\751ml” is now “25.3 ounces\750ml”.

But, for people who went to an American school in the 1970s, the metric system might be seen as hopeless and dated as Carter Quarters. When I think of the metric system, I don’t think of an exciting, world-wide system of measurement. I think of the gas lines, New York blackouts, the Carter Administration and The Love Boat.

FUNNY POSTSCRIPT: Think it’s just America that has a problem with metric? I was watching an episode of the British archaeology show Time Team a couple years back, and host Tony Robinson described a newly-unearthed wall as being something like “discovered in 22 centimetres of soil, and was 11 inches deep, 2 metres tall, and extending to the east for 600 yards”. That’s when I knew the Brits were worse off than we are!

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