Having grown up in Asia my entire life, I expected a degree of culture shock when arriving in the United States a year and a half ago. The sun setting at 4:30 p.m. in the winter months, the tendency to label Super Bowl winners as “World Champions” when only 2.56 percent of the league’s participants are international, and larger portions at dinner are several minor differences that come to mind.
Yet, I find it particularly confusing when a scale tells me I am twice my normal weight, and when someone exclaims that the temperature will be in the 70’s. International students of different nationalities and cultural backgrounds seem to have one definitive unifying factor: relishing in their disdain for customary units. Those from other parts of the world are expected to check their grams and meters at the door and learn the seemingly arbitrary system of United States customary units.
When I asked other international students about their opinions of American units, many were not pleased. One student expressed high disdain for the system, using language not fit to print.
Another student, who wishes to remain anonymous, rolled her eyes, and said: “It’s stupid.”
“It’s just so arbitrary,” said Costel Voica ’21, who professed that his knowledge of inches and feet stems from watching the NBA in his native Moldova.
Indian student Attul Jakkampudi Venkat Sai ’20 seemed annoyed when asked about the subject.
“I hate it,” he said. “I hate it so much. I think it’s so inconvenient, only like four countries in the world use it.”
He was close. As of the time of this article’s writing, only three countries in the world have not adopted the metric system: Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States. The customary system that the U.S. uses is based on English units, which originated in the British Empire and in the American colonies before American Independence. Imperial units, which were used throughout the British Empire after 1824, are very similar to our own customary units. The customary system thus is the product of evolved units of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon origin.
The metric system, also known formally as the International System of Units, was derived from concrete constants of nature, designed to be easily used. This fact is apparent in its coherent and easy-to-understand conversion system. Beyond its practical use in most countries around the world, the metric system has become the standard for nearly all fields of science and technology.
So why does the U.S. still use an outdated system of measurements? To some degree, we have adapted. The ever-gaining traction of the metric system persuaded the government to change the standard of customary units, essentially defining common standards of, for instance, a pound and a yard according to the equivalent metric units. As a nation, we have continuously flirted with the metric system. Thomas Jefferson decided against the use of metric system because he found it “too French.” But the outright adoption of the metric system has evaded the U.S. Several attempts to make the teaching of the metric system mandatory, such as the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, failed to coordinate the implementation of the metric system nationwide. In spite of a begrudging adherence to older units, the U.K. wholly adopted the metric system in the 1970s. But in the U.S., riding on the heels of public opinion, Ronald Reagan dismantled the United States Metric Board in 1982.
Today there are a host of potential reasons why the U.S. still hasn’t converted to metric. Many businesses would have to redesign machines to meet the new metric standards, and a massive public undertaking would have to take place in order to teach the metric system and update things like road signs. Perhaps other practicalities of customary units fuel the collective American push away from metrication.
One ardent supporter, Thomas Hanes ’20, argues customary units are more intuitive to humans.
“The reason, for example, Fahrenheit is better than Celsius, is that Fahrenheit is designed for humans,” Hanes said. “Zero is too cold to be outside, 100 is too hot to be outside. 90 is about as unpleasant as 10.”
Indeed, measures of lengths in customary units (hint: the foot), are measured in respect to the human body. There is also a certain novelty with being the last major power to use a different unit of measurement. Perhaps these units have become a wholly “American” system.
But these arguments are not only outdated, given societies’ advancements with technology, but also out of step with the rest of the world. In day-to-day life, the different systems can become increasingly difficult for the American abroad or foreigners coming to the U.S. In science and technology, several noticeable blunders have occurred on behalf of American companies failing to adhere to the metric system. The most notable case is that of the Mars Climate Orbiter, in which Lockheed Martin provided data in pound force seconds rather than newton seconds, leaving the $125 million orbiter to disintegrate upon reaching the Martian atmosphere. Ultimately, adopting the metric system wholly eases international trade and other aspects of business, not to mention NASA projects.
It’s a small change in day-to-day life, but it is an important one. Given the greater interconnectedness of the world and the standards on which technology and industry operate, it is a foregone conclusion that America will eventually switch to the metric system. The question, now, is when.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the class of 2020. Tobias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.