THE LONG VIEW: Americans view metric system as addition by subtraction

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As repeatedly declared by politicians with nothing more substantial to say, America is an exceptional country. We like to do things our own way, even if our choices don't mesh well with the rest of the world.

Take, for example, the metric system. According to the CIA Factbook, the United States is one of just three countries in the world that have not adopted metric for their official weights and measures. 

As repeatedly declared by politicians with nothing more substantial to say, America is an exceptional country. We like to do things our own way, even if our choices don't mesh well with the rest of the world.

Take, for example, the metric system. According to the CIA Factbook, the United States is one of just three countries in the world that have not adopted metric for their official weights and measures. 

As a result, when the U.S. attends the United Nations holiday office party, it hangs out almost exclusively with fellow non-metrics Myanmar (Burma) and Liberia. Much as it might long to linger under the mistletoe with some glamorous foreign state, America fears not knowing how to respond when someone mentions that evening’s forecast for a low of -4°C.

Actually, America pounds its chest at measuring physical quantities with the U.S. Customary (inch-pound) System.  But that false pride is merely a façade to hide self-doubts about our chosen scheme’s shortcomings.

Weights and measures mavens have pointed out that what we call a “ton” can be defined many different ways: a displacement ton, short ton, refrigeration ton, freight ton, nuclear ton, register ton, assay ton and ton of coal equivalent. 

And it's not like we Americans are wholly consistent in our measurements. We suck down canned soft drinks from 12-ounce cans, but load our shopping carts with 2-liter bottles. We talk about an engine’s muscle in terms of horsepower, which is foot-pounds per second, but happily describe that same engine’s displacement, a general indicator of cylinder volume and power, in liters.  

We note atmospheric pressure in inches of mercury on a barometer and tire pressure in pounds per square inch, yet air pressure aloft we indicate in millibars, which, as no one remembers from science class, are each equal to one thousandth of a bar, the metric unit of atmospheric pressure equivalent to 100 pascals. With gaps like that in our quantitative education, it's no wonder we can never express our affections for sultry Suriname or entrancing Ethiopia at the UN soirée, even after a couple of eggnogs.

But really it's very simple. According to international standards from the late 19th century, the yard is 3600/3937 meter, and the pound is 0.4535924277 kilogram. In 1959, new conversion factors further simplified these standards; one yard equals 0.9144 meter and one pound is exactly 0.45359237 kilogram. Now doesn't that make things clearer?

Of course not. When we go to Canada, Mexico, or most anywhere else, purchasing milk and gasoline in liters is as baffling as gauging our speed in kilometers.

Despite the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, insecurity about our ignorance is the reason America will probably never adopt the metric system. As far as we're concerned, our long-standing measurement methods were good enough for our forebears, so the rest of the world can take a hike, measured in miles.

After all, great-great-grand pappy got 384,000 rods to the hogshead, dad-gum-it, and that's the way we likes it.

 

Pat Grimes, a former South Bay resident, writes from Ypsilanti, Mich. He can be reached at pgwriter@inbox.com

THE LONG VIEW:   Americans view metric system as addition by subtraction