Over here in the US, we catch a lot of grief for having never switched to the metric system, but the fact of the matter is, we tried several times. So today let’s talk about the history of metric in the US, all the times that we tried to make the switch, and why each one failed.
The cities of Tuscon Arizona and Nogales, on the border with Mexico are connected by the most unique highway in the United States. It’s unique for one specific reason…(end on the road sign in km) It’s measured in kilometers.
Granted, there are a few other roadsigns in the US that have kilometers on them, but I19 is the only highway that is 100 percent metric from top to bottom, all 63 miles… or 102 kilometers.
Why, you may be asking, in the land of freedom units and Big Macs, is this one highway using the everywhere-else measurements? Why such a rebel I19?
The reason this highway exists – and the reason I’m talking about it – is despite all the little snips and jabs that get thrown our way because the US just refuses to go metric, the truth of the matter is… We tried, guys.
The Non-Metric Thing
So I’ve been doing YouTube for a long time guys, in fact I’m sure someone watching this was in diapers when I first started. (a beat) And some of you probably didn’t when I started but now you are. Because you know… old people problems.
Or maybe it’s a kink, I’m not judging your journey.
When I started, Obama was still president, New Horizons had just visited Pluto, and SpaceX had yet to land a Falcon 9. And my beard was comically darker than it is now. Good God. (put up still from old video) That doesn’t even look real.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the baffling vitriol in the comments whenever I use imperial units. Like even if I give the metric units, too, it’s still just seething remarks.
How DARE you acknowledge that this exists?
And I know it’s not directed at me, I know it’s about the attitude of American Exceptionalism, like we think we’re special just because we’re wealthy and make all the movies and have all the bombs.
I’m kidding, obviously. Lots of countries have bombs.
Seriously though, in our defense, we’re also really terrible at healthcare. And gun violence. And education. There’s a lot more substantial reasons to criticize us than the metric system is all I’m saying.
Why Haven’t We Switched?
Now to be fair, there are real reasons for not switching that have nothing to do with American exceptionalism. For one, there’s just cultural inertia.
I mean, imagine what it would be like if all the numbers you used to measure your life suddenly changed.
Say you went to the gym and the 8 kilogram dumbbell you’re used to was now a stone-and-a-quarter.
And then when you checked your GPS for a different gym you found the closest one was 16 furlongs away.
It would be chaos. Just like it was chaos when Europe switched to metric in the early 1800s.
Seriously, I did a video on Metric Time a while back that gave the whole history of the switch to metric and there were literally armed rebellions against it that Napoleon had to put down with his army.
Yeah, you guys didn’t exactly embrace it with open arms yourselves so maybe don’t be so smug all right?
Also, that was very different time when the rest of the world switched to metric, it was mostly before or at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Today with our mass production of goods, to switch everything over to a new measurement system would be a gigantic undertaking.
The US switching to metric this late in the game would be by far – BY FAR – the largest, most complex transition of measurement systems in human history.
And yet… (a beat) We should do it. We should still do it.
There are obvious benefits to metric like the simplicity of it, getting on the same standard as the rest of the world, it would reduce or eliminate conversion errors.
In 2015, NASA estimated a total conversion to the metric system would cost them $370 million. Sounds bad but sixteen years earlier, they lost $125 million when the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed due to a confusion over units.
It could be argued that every American effort suffers from having to deal with problems like this one.
Because we do learn the metric system in school, but we also learn imperial units since that’s what most of the stuff around us is in.
Besides, we do measure some things in metric. Our track and field events are measured in meters. Soda is sold in 2 liter bottles.
But milk is sold in gallons because cows… have fewer toes? I don’t know.
Obviously, all of this would have been simpler if we’d just switched at the very beginning. And again, we tried.
Early US-Metric History
So, the metric system is basically a French invention. I was kind-of a product of the French Revolution, or it was fueled by the same revolutionary fervor.
At the time, the US and France were BFFs. Sadly, “forever” turned out not to last very long.
The national assembly of France commissioned what came to be the metric system in 1790. Thomas Jefferson was the ambassador to France at the time, and he loved the idea.
Benjamin Franklin was the ambassador before him, and he was also a big fan.
And Jefferson would later implement at least one type of decimal system – in our currency.
It’s kind-of hard to believe now but the whole 100 pennies equals a dollar thing was a pretty novel idea at the time. We had been using British coinage that was completely nonsensical – 12 pence equals a shilling and 20 shillings equaled a pound.
By the way, this was called the Caroningian system and it wasn’t dropped by the UK until 1971. (react)
So yeah, Thomas Jefferson instituted a metric system of currency early on. Ben Franklin actually designed a one-cent coin in 1787 called the Fugio cent.
Despite Jefferson and Franklin twisting people’s arms, there wouldn’t be an official system of measurement until 1832. And by then, US-French relations were in the toilet. There are many reasons why, but the short version is Napoleon.
A lot of US ships had been seized by the French during Napoleon’s wars in Europe, which soured things. And after he was ousted, the US demanded millions of francs in damages, which never came. So we weren’t really fans of France in that particular moment.
And unfortunately that particular moment was also when congress was voting on an official measurement system. So they decided against the “French system” and went with the system we were already mostly using – the one we inherited from the British.
For 30 years after that vote, metric was basically dead in the US.
The Great Defenders
But it did have its advocates. One was a scientist named Alexander Bache, who loved the metric system and spoke passionately to Congress about how the imperial measurement system wouldn’t endure and the US should go decimal lest we fall behind the rest of the world in science.
Alexander Bache also just happened to be the great-grandson of Ben Franklin, so he was carrying on a family tradition.
And it looked like it was going to work. In 1863, Congress approved the founding of the National Academy of Sciences, and they named Alexander Bache its first president.
One of the first jobs of the National Academy was to evaluate the measurement system. So I mean, slam dunk right?
A committee formed by the National Academy recommended reforming the US system. But the chairman, a guy named Joseph Henry… kinda kneecapped the whole thing.
In the introduction to this report, he highlighted “the difficulty of adopting the best system and of introducing it in opposition to the prejudice and usages of the people”. He predicted it would take time to educate “the rising generation” on advantages of change.
Way to really get people excited about it there, bud.
He also weirdly said the the metric system is “not considered by many as well adapted to the Anglo-Saxon mind.”
Ah, the nice things we could have if not for the “Anglo-Saxon mind”!
Weird as it is, that’s not the last time you’re going to hear that in this video.
Anyway, the result of this half-assed support was the legalization of metric in 1866. Not the adoption as the standard measurement, just the legalization. Surveyors could measure mountains in meters. Postmen could weigh letters in grams. But they didn’t have to.
Nothing was compulsory in this legislation. It basically said people who didn’t like metric couldn’t sue.
Which sounds like a half-measure, and it was, but then again, the US had literally just gotten out of this… Soooo, maybe not the best time to rile people up?
Again… people rioted in the streets in Europe over this just a few decades before.
And even this weak-sauce law brought opponents out of the woodwork. Academics attacked the meter and questioned whether the human mind could grasp division into tenths.
I mean, come on, if we were supposed to be using factors of ten, God would have given us ten oh…
So at this point we basically had two competing systems of measurement in the US, and people on both sides waged campaigns to win over the public at large.
One of the biggest debates was waged in the newspapers between the president of Columbia University, Dr. Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard, who was for the metric system, and Professor Charles Davies, also of Columbia, who was emphatically against it.
Barnard was realistic about how difficult the transition to metric would be, but he believed people would eventually choose the system as a “social blessing”.
And he went all-in on this, he founded and ran the American Metrological Society and its offshoot, the American Metric Bureau.
By the way, one of the people who worked at the American Metric Bureau was a guy named Melvil Dewey, who kind-of organized things and ran the day-to-day affairs, which he was uniquely qualified to do, he was a librarian. A librarian who was really into decimal systems. Named Dewey…
It’s the Dewey Decimal System guy.
Davies, on the other hand, argued that it would be expensive to switch, maybe even tank the economy, but mostly, he just believed that the old English measurements made more sense, because they were based on the body.
A foot was roughly the size of a foot, an inch is roughly the length of the end of the thumb.
And since the measurements were based on the human body, and the human body was made by God, well… They’re kind-of holy measurements right?
The Battle of the Standards
This was exactly the belief of a popular religious movement at the time that had grown up around the theories of an English publisher named John Taylor.
In 1859, Taylor had published his book The Great Pyramid: Why Was It Built, & Who Built It? He was kind-of the “Aliens” guy of his time.
He followed this up in 1864 with – and I swear to God this is the full title: The Battle of the Standards. The Ancient, of Four Thousand Years, Against the Modern, of the Last Fifty Years–the Less Perfect of the Two .
To keep from going too far off track, I’ll sum up quickly.
Taylor argued that the Great Pyramid’s construction had been directed by God. Its dimensions could be used to figure out the Divine system of measurement. Therefore, anyone who advocated a different system was conspiring against God. (”there” gesture)
— p. 82
Among those who took up Taylor’s cause were a number of wealthy, influential men who whole-heartedly believed in the superiority of “Anglo-Saxon measurements”. They even had a theme song that included these lyrics:
They bid us change the ancient “names,” The “seasons” and the “times;” And for our measures go abroad To strange and distant climes. But we’ll abide by things long clear And cling to things of yore. For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule The earth from shore to shore.
— p. 90, and yes, there is more
Just in case you wondered why they call it the “Imperial” system. There you have it.
I should be pedantic and clarify, the Anglo-Saxon thing was racist, but it was mostly racist against the French.
And the craziest thing about all it is, it worked. The metric system was stymied in Congress thanks in part to the Anglo-Saxon supremacists.
Anyway, Davis made some of these arguments in the back and forth between him and Barnard, which took place in the newspapers for years. Their opinions influenced lawmakers and the public until the end of the 19th century. Anyone who opposed metric quoted Davies and anyone who favored metric quoted Barnard.
— p. 129
Metric in The 20th Century
And that’s kind-of where things stayed until 1902, when Congress held more hearings about metrification.
America was more of a melting pot than earlier, so appeals to narrow racism weren’t as effective as they used to be. But you know what was effective? The New York Times Editorial Page!
The New York Times called the hearings “propaganda” and claimed that if metric proponents got their way, even thinking in other units would be a crime. Because that’s reasonable.
The US Attorney General denied this, that you could get arrested for thinking about a foot, but the public outcry was strong enough for Congress to surrender and they dropped the hearings.
Another wave of interest came after World War I. Metric proponents said the nation could be left behind if it didn’t convert.
Unfortunately for them, this was an era of extreme nationalism in the US. If American Exceptionalism had a Golden Age, it was in the post-world war 1 years. This is when America First became a thing.
Another shift took place in the late 1950s. In 1957, The US Army adopted metric units for some weapons. In that same year, the Soviets managed to launch the Sputnik satellite into orbit.
The Soviet Union had been strictly metric since 1925. Their success in space got the US to think seriously about the technological consequences of staying stuck in the past. Also thinking about the consequences: Great Britain.
In 1965, the UK got serious about metrification. They planned to convert the whole commonwealth within ten years.
Which, since the US had always followed the British system, kinda made us go… Maybe?
So, once again, a study was funded to look into the advantages and disadvantages of doing the same as the British.
This was the last time we really got serious about switching to metric. And it went very, very slowly.
Congress took three years to authorize funding for the study. After it was published, in 1971, it took another four years before the Metric Conversion Act was signed into law by President Ford.
Yes, a law was signed called the Metric Conversion Act. By a Republican…
The Act created the United States Metric Board, or USMB. Their job was to oversee metrification in the United States.
It’s happening guys!
But the board was given no actual power. Ford left office in 77, his successor, President Carter, moved forward with the initiative. He got his nominations for USMB board approved, they held some meetings and got some PSAs aired.
And as a test run, they decided to make one interstate highway a metric highway. And that’s how I19 got its kilometer signs.
Beyond that though, the USMB kinda limped along. Like I said, they didn’t have any power, most of the country was indifferent at best, and the opponents were just as dogmatic as ever.
Chuck Grassley, who’s currently a senator from Iowa, was a representative with the Metric Conversion Act was passed – 46 years ago – and he said at the time, “Forcing the American people to convert to the metric system goes against our democratic principles.”
In 1982, President Reagan dissolved the USMB. And since then, further attempts at metrification have been all but invisible to the average American.
And we seem kind-of fine with that? There hasn’t been a real push to switch since the 1970s. So as much as you want to blame the powers that be, when it all comes down to it, we’re just not that interested.
I mean, it’s not often I agree with Chuck Grassley, but when he talks about democratic principles, the fact of the matter is, according to a 2016 poll, only 32% of Americans want to convert.
If the majority of people wanted to convert, we’d do it. There’s just no urgent reason to do it currently. What we have works for us.
As I’ve made the argument many times before, the US is a fairly isolated country. We do our own thing because we can.
The world is getting more connected of course, and companies may find that switching to metric in their products saves them money when selling internationally.
For instance, DuPont started using metric exclusively for its Neoprene packaging back in 1968, and saves an estimated $20,000 annually by not having to repack products for different markets.
And look, for the record, I am 100% in favor of switching to metric. I’d do it in a heartbeat. I mean yeah it would be an adjustment but, you know, just… adjust. It’s not that hard.
I’ve traveled overseas, you get used to it really quickly.
So if you’re really passionate about switching to metric, talk about it. Talk about it a lot. Because if enough people want to do it, it’ll happen.
So how does the current generation of Americans feel about the metric system? According to a 2016 poll, 32% want to convert. For comparison, that’s the same percentage of Americans who opposed making pot legal in 2021.
’m not saying there’s a correlation. I’m pointing out how little of a difference 32% makes. The customary system, like pot, is here to stay.
Converting US units to metric would be an expensive process. Granted, the loss would probably be recovered quickly.
But money isn’t everything. There’s a psychological cost to metrification that is seems Americans simply aren’t willing to pay. And why should they?
Men on the Moon
In 2018, Cate Blanchett asked Jimmy Kimmel to explain “how the country that can send men and hopefully women to the moon still are in gallons and inches?” The question kind of answers itself, right?
We sent the Apollo astronauts on a 953,054 mile round trip to the moon. What have metric-only countries done to eclipse that? Maybe in another universe, America went metric in the 1950s and achieved even more, but in this universe, it’s hard to argue metric is a make-or-break asset to science.
In business, the savings are there. But in a capitalist market, the customer is king. So long as Joe Sixpack wants his gas in gallons, gallons it will be in.
Of course, if we get rid of gas— Maybe that’s the answer. Americans will go metric when all the products sold in other systems have been replaced by something better.
Look, I know I started out saying I’d give a better answer than American Exceptionalism. In the end, I’m not sure there is one. Really, isn’t every country exceptional in its own eyes?
When I do research for these videos, I’m all the time running across inventions that are credited to multiple inventors. Usually, it’s because the inventor being credited is from the country of the writer giving the credit. Look up the history of TV, cars, or the phonograph.
I did a recent video about the first recording of the human voice. It was done by a French scientist, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, twenty years before the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison. Which inventor you credit with changing the world may depend on which you find it easier to identify with.
National pride exists in every nation. Sure, it has a dark side, and maybe part of the problem people have with the US system of measurement is its association with Imperial Britain. But the US broke with the Empire, remember.
We fought a war, then decided we didn’t hate everything about the old home country. Feet and inches make sense. My foot is about a foot long, and my thumb is an inch long above the knuckle.
I’m not saying the US is better than other countries. I’m not saying yards are better than meters. All I am saying is, there’s a certain authenticity in clinging to quirky, dumb details of culture for no better reason than because it’s what we’ve always done.
Oh, and the putting a man on the moon thing. There’s that, too.
It feels to me like converting to metric is one of those things that would be better in the long run, but would require a lot of cost and sacrifice up front, which, let’s be honest, we’re not exactly great with that kind of long-term thinking.
Yeah, the US would be the kid that fails the marshmallow test.
And I want to say that switching over is inevitable as, again, the world becomes more interconnected. But that’s been true for a while now and we seem less interested in switching than we’ve ever been so… I don’t know.
But I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think it’s inevitable? If you’re from the US, would you want to switch? Talk about it down below.