WX Blog: A brief history of why the US doesn’t use the Metric System

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The Metric System, also known as the Le Système International d’Unités (International System of Units), is used all around the developed world. According to the CIA, there are only three countries that have not adopted the metric system and still use various other measurement systems.

Those three countries? The United States, Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia. An odd group of countries, not normally ones that spend much time in the same sentence. But it leaves the question, why is the United States behind the curve?

Chart: Only Three Countries in the World (Officially) Still Use ...
Courtesy: Statista Charts (https://www.statista.com/chart/18300/countries-using-the-metric-or-the-imperial-system/)

In reality we’re not (sort of). We’ve attempted ‘metrication’ before. Several times in fact. As far back as 1866 the Metric System was recognized by the U.S. Congress, they even sent a set of standard weight and measures based off of the system to every state (only 38 states existed at the time)! To add-on to the confusion, the United States was one of 17 nations that signed the ‘Treaty of the Meter’ in 1875. This established the International Board of Weights and Measures which, at the same time as the signing, released the first modern incarnation of the Metric System as we know it today. In 1893 it was adopted as a standard for length and measurement in the United States to define measurements like feet, gallons, miles and pounds to name a few. Confusing right?

Well it gets even more confusing. In 1960 as one of the signing members of the ‘Treaty of the Meter’ the United States helped to push forward the modern version of the Metric System that is used world-wide today. But we still weren’t using it. So the Federal Government commissioned a study, which spawned a committee, which ultimately was not able to do much despite existing from 1975 to 1982. Why? Congress despite commissioning the study that showed the need for the committee, and then establishing said committee, didn’t grant them the power they needed to facilitate the switch. Specifically Congress made the transition to the Metric System voluntary. Many states, government organizations and private industries just didn’t see it necessary and never bothered with it.

Eventually in 1988 the Metric System became the preferred system of weights and measurements in the United States, and by 1992 most federal agencies were required to use it in their daily activities. Yet, for the majority of Americans it sits unused. Those in STEM, both students and professionals alike, use it everyday as it makes collaboration between them and international partners much easier. In addition to the fact that it just makes more sense. To put it another way, 1000 meters = 1 kilometer, but if we were to use measurements that many are familiar with we get…1 mile = 5,280 feet. Not a lot of correlation there.

So despite being the butt of the joke when it comes to countries who haven’t made the switch.

We’ve tried. We just haven’t tried hard enough. One day we might finally make the transition to using the Metric System in our everyday lives, but it doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. Not until it becomes a more centralized part of our school curriculum’s and a true commitment is made by the federal government to join the party.

Information for this article was provided by the National Institute of Standards and Measurement and their report “The United States and the Metric System: A Capsule History” which is viewable here.

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