This year will be the 45th anniversary of the Metric Conversion Act, which was signed on December 23, 1975, by President Gerald R. Ford. Normally, we celebrate by sharing metric education resources, but this year I want to use the occasion to dispel some common misconceptions about the U.S. relationship with the metric system.
You’ve probably heard that the United States, Liberia, and Burma (aka Myanmar) are the only countries that don’t use the metric system (International System of Units or SI). You may have even seen a map that has been incriminatingly illustrated to show how they are out of step with the rest of the world.
It’s a compelling story and often repeated, but you might be surprised to learn that it’s simply untrue!
While it’s true that metric use is mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others, all countries have recognized and adopted the SI, including the United States.
Russ Rowlett, retired University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor of education and mathematics, emphasizes on his website that becoming metric is not a one-time event but a process that happens over time. Every international economy is positioned somewhere along a continuum moving toward increased SI use. There are still countries that are amending their national laws to adopt a mandatory metric policy and others pursuing voluntary metrication.
The United States was one of the original countries to sign the Treaty of the Meter in 1875, which is now celebrated annually on May 20, World Metrology Day. It’s been legal to use the metric system since 1866, and metric became the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce in 1988.
We use the SI every second of every day. After all, the second (s) is the SI base unit of time.
It’s impossible to avoid using the metric system in the United States. All our measurement units, including U.S. customary units you’re familiar with (feet, pounds, gallons, Fahrenheit, etc.), are defined in terms of the SI—and mass, length, and volume have been defined in metric units since 1893! The SI’s influence is pervasive and felt even if most people don’t know it. I envision U.S. metric practice like a huge iceberg. Above the water’s surface, U.S. customary units appear to still be in full effect. In actuality, below the water’s surface, we find that all measurements are dependent on the SI, linked through an unbroken chain of traceable measurements.
Although U.S. customary units are still seen alongside metric units on product labels and merchandise literature, it’s common for the goods themselves to be made using SI-based manufacturing processes. Why? While some businesses are concerned that consumers expect to see customary units on the package, when it comes to manufacturing processes, they are under constant pressure to stay competitive. Adopting the latest science and technology, developed using metric design practices, enables innovation. In addition, many industries extensively use international supply lines to develop, manufacture and sell their products around the world.
I’m the coordinator of NIST’s Metric Program. Because of my passion for all things metric, I encourage companies to investigate adopting metric practices whenever possible and show them how doing so can make a strategic economic impact for their organization. Changes in technology and extremely competitive domestic and global marketplaces can compel businesses with little previous experience to explore metric use. Many have found that going metric pays off, resulting in a competitive advantage.
During the recent recession, lumber companies located in the U.S. Northwest saw their U.S. customer base shrink, but their Canadian and Japanese markets, both of which use metric, expand—especially after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Wood-product producers made adjustments so that their production systems could flex between metric and U.S. customary measures based on what their customers needed. Because so much of the world uses metric only, more and more U.S. companies are recognizing the benefits of metric as they find new international markets for their products.
If your business is considering making the switch to metric, I would encourage you to conduct small beta tests to explore how your customers react. Research can help ensure decisions aren’t based on out-of-date information or preconceived notions. You might be pleasantly surprised by how quickly customers adapt—and how using metric benefits the bottom line.
And as always, if you need advice, be sure to give NIST a call. We’re here to help!
*Editor's note: This post was updated on October 6, 2020, to include information about units of measure for lighting, to include a new "metric continuum" graphic, and to make other minor changes. It was originally published on December 23, 2016.
This is one of the most educated and concise history of legacy units I've seen - It's appreciated. Yes, about 95% of the old imperial units were actually from the era when England was under imperial Roman rule. Oddly enough, even the Americans can lay claim to development of the metric system early on as both Franklin and Jefferson were Francophiles and history states that they actually assisted the French in it's development (America's metric currency system is a direct result). It is long overdue for a nation that regards itself as progressive and intelligent to be carrying along the baggage of antiquated and useless units of measure.
Fantastically well put and I could NOT agree more with your assessment. Thanks for finding the words I seem unable to express.
אני אוהב אותך!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Unfortunately, it will be extremely difficult to do, especially now. The US is already failing at getting large swaths of its population to understand: wearing masks prevents transmission of the corona virus, shooting unarmed citizens is wrong, and climate change is real caused by greenhouse gases.
The best way to do this is to pass a federal law banning the selling, advertising and the manufacture of all products using the imperial system, even if metric is specified along side it. Old stock products can still use the imperial system. The law should go into effect immediately starting with the federal government and its suppliers with a 2 year grace period for all private and public businesses. The penalty for using imperial would be an invalidation of any implied, verbal or written transaction or agreement with terms favoring the buyer. If consumers, for instance, are sold products in imperial, they are automatically entitled to keeping the product along with a full refund.
I must ask - how on God's green earth do you think Americans somehow invented our goofy method of measure we cling to so dearly? A large portion of USCS are throwbacks from the Roman empire, the remaining are edict of a king (um, the 'foot' and the 12 inch 'ruler'). If we were being honest and fair, we would've abandoned imperial (English) units for French (our staunchest ally in the Revolutionary War) just out of principal on or about 1790, as intended. Now, SI is not bound to any one nation. The kg and the meter (metre) have all been redefined using constants from nature. It is truly a system for all mankind and it's time we adopt it.
I don't know. I'm perfectly capable of using litres per 100km and I can figure out in my head how many more km's I can travel before running out of gas. It just took a little bit of flexing the brain muscles to acclimate to SI - but I'm in a small minority of Americans who seem to enjoy doing just that. On one hand, I'm glad I became fluent in SI on the other hand, being forced to use road signs in miles, feet and barleycorns makes me gag just a little bit knowing full well they'll never change. We are outliers here and we're rejecting what the rest of the world has acknowledged that SI is simply, unequivocally a superior way of measuring our world.
So you're staying in the 11th century because a modern, rational, universal system based on decimals isn't pithy enough? I'm sorry, but that is simply incomprehensibly short sighted.
You do realise that countries that have adopted metric still use most of those terms and phrases? No-one here in Australia says "your kilometers may vary". We still describe something a long way away as being "miles away", or moving forward slowly as "inching closer", or talk about someone putting on weight as "stacking on the pounds"... even though most Australian's under the age of 60 have no idea what a mile, inch or pound actually is.
Of course you don't realise that.... because you're an American and can't possibly conceive of how other parts of the world work.
The map is accurate visualization of the commonly accepted senses of units by country. For example, those people in the three countries do not easily understand how long a 1-m stick is in general. Although SI is used in very limited areas by scientists and engineers, it does not mean the unit is accepted in the country. There are only two type of people; who tell their weights in kg, and those who use their traditional unit. There is no gray area in between them. The metrification continuum is a total myth. Go outside your country and see what other people do, because that is the only way to find out how absurd this article is.
Although the “metric map” has been elevated to a pop culture meme on the internet, it’s based on out-of-date information. This metric myth is rooted in an early map published in the 1971 U.S. Metric Study that depicted countries “uncommitted” to mandatory metrication. To see the historic map, visit the NIST U.S. Metrication FAQ website. Over the years, the term “uncommitted countries” has morphed into “non-metric” countries, a depiction that’s been used to criticize voluntary metrication by the United States.
If i ever start a business I will look into using the metric system. It look like i will make some money since it is no way around using the metric system everyday.
A nation of pig headed, recalcitrant citizens who for the most part seem blissfully unaware that any part of the globe exists but themselves. I feel terrible for kids in schools today. Especially those who may be inspired to join the scientific world. They claim they're teaching SI in American schools but the disconnected, chaotic 'real world' pressure of kings feet, barleycorns and Roman soldiers makes them soon forget what they've learned. Retaining our impractical, insular method of measure here in the US is a clear detriment to the future of our kids and their offspring. It is a foolish, quaint mish-mosh of nonsense. I'm in my 50's and still cannot conceptualize a "floz" vs an "oz", 12th, 8ths, 16th, 32nds of "inches", teaspoons, tblsp's, etc. It's absolutely confounding when you step back and objectively analyze it. I just use it because I am forced by American society to do so. I'm not overstating when I suggest that my own personal failure in the American education system was, at least in part, due to trying to grasp obtuse concepts like "American units" and relate them to each other. It's just not possible.
Both Myanmar and Liberia have made a decision to adopt the SI Metric System. The USA is literally alone as the only country on the planet Earth not making a serious effort to go metric.
The metric system is very good because when you are cooking you can use it to distrubute your ingredeints
Resistance to change is part of every human's DNA. It is part of what makes humans human. Some are more resistant than others. There isn't a right or wrong about the balance. There are several well documented reasons why people resist change.
(1) Complacency such as inertia or maintaining status quo
(2) Resignation such as anxiety the change is not an improvement and is viewed as a personal failure, or
(3) Cynicism or expectation the change result is not an improvement and viewed as someone else failing
Most resistance to change is rooted in Complacency. And most intentional progress is derived from organized efforts to overcome the complacent.
To the good people at NIST - don't get discouraged by those expecting failure. Work through complacency, gun your change engines, and get your KPH to a high rate of travel! :-)
Its 2020 and we still have huge differences in what should be a common understanding of measurement systems. Invisible borders is what halts our progress into the future.
One important field of activities extending worldwide - aviation, was not mentioned. No problem making the conversion here either. I have been flying (lawful) my glider in the US since 1996. All instruments are S.I. - Altimeter (m), ASI (kilometers/hour), variometer (M/s), etc. My flights are all VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) and I can't maintain a level as the IMC (Instrument Met. Conditions) like the big guys. This is adjustable and can be done. It will take time and money (many instruments) and reeducation, but it is doable. Time to start, like everything else..
By the way, I am very proud of my two 750Km (454.545mi) flights.
A metric altimeter? That's odd, given that everyone except China and North Korea uses feet for altitude. Even the Russians, who stopped using meters a few years ago, use feet. Nautical miles are used for ground distance. Aviation uses a ton of non-metric units and doesn't seem interested in stopping.
Time is not measured metrically. I have spent 49 years (omg almost 50 years now) as a metrology technician. 99 percent of my work still to this day is done in pounds, ounces, foot pounds, inch pounds, gallons quarts, etc. only electrical units of measure have been adopted as standards in use for my customers. Until the day we rework the day into 100 (some measurement unit) we will never be able to convert Time to a metric unit. This old man still prefers to use non metric units.
I cannot visualize metric units and must convert them to the measuring system that I grew up with before I know what the given measurements actually mean. I know that metric measures are useful and more precise, but they are of no use to me.
I was a child during the push to switch over to Metric and I can say one of the biggest mistakes was why the emphasis on converting back and forth! Fortunately, my time card in the military Metric is widely used and once I realized that if it is in Metric there's no need to convert! Also, I did a lot of traveling, abroad so the Metric System is natural to me. I use it whenever possible. My GPS I use Metric, phone temp Celsius, even my car most of the settings are set on Metric! I'm actually embarrassed that we are so slow with the changing, most people abroad look at us like we're idiots. At least I know the younger generations are being taught Metric properly,and most agree we should be using it. It's past time, and it's mainly the baby boomer generation that refuse to adapt, to change.
Nice try but the vast majority of Americans have no clue on metric. For example, they don't even know how far a kilometer is compared with a mile.
Interestingly, the British still officially use miles for road signs. But the younger generations think almost exclusively in metric, since that's what the state schools and NHS teach/use. Stones and pounds for a person's weight, and feet and inches for a person's height, are only used in everyday parlance among older generations.
Although Canada adopted SI on April 1, 1975 (to some hatdcore Canadians this was indeed a joke) we still use Imperial measures widely, in fact exclusively in construction and plumbing. In western Canada temperatures are still announced in F and C in medias. Elders tend to state distances in miles although our maps and traffic signs are exclusively metric. SUMMARY: Canada still uses, albeit unofficially, Imperial measures.
Yes, the myth that US does not use metric system is really stupid.
But this is still true that only US, Liberia and Myanmar in the whole world use only or mostly imperial system. And the fact that US was one of the original countries to sign the Metre Convention, only makes it look worse.
Yanno, the real question I have is why does anyone care? If it is such an inconvenience, feel free to live somewhere else. Literally, almost anywhere else... Using the current customs of the rest of the world as some sort of guiding principal is as logically empty as admonishing a holdout for refusing to use leeches for headaches in the dark ages. Lets be honest, even many of the SI units are fundamentally meaningless. How many times has the Meter changed? The gram? Lets look no further than a 2019 article from Physics World:
"Metrologists and policy-makers from 60 countries around the world have unanimously agreed to change the definition of four units of measurement. At a meeting today at the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) in Versailles, France, delegates voted to redefine the International System of Units (SI), changing the world’s definition of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole. The changes will now come into force on 20 May 2019."
The point is, enough is enough. The condescending stream of preaching about the United State's refusal to adopt the metric system has grown dull. You want to know why the US doesn't use the metric system? Its arbitrary, just like the Imperial system. The metric system has at least given us a framework for how to base an entire measurement system off of a pointless, arbitrary creation like the meter. Now lets build one that is actually universal. Dare I say one that is based off of something substantial, apparently universal, and easily attainable, like the hydrogen atom? No? Then perhaps the electron? At least it would be something fundamental to the cosmos, as opposed to some arbitrary construct which has had to be redefined half a dozen times in the last 200 years. Make a meaningful system with true foresight and longevity, we will gladly change. Continue to argue for swapping out one arbitrary system for another simply because "everyone is doing it" and its easier to multiply? Moving on...
Oh, and since base 12 mathematics are apparently too hard for anyone outside of the U.S. these days, feel free to make the new system base 10. I would hate to make anyone resort to using elementary school multiplication after all.
No, the lenght didn't change, only the definitions and protocoles were improved for additional rigour.
Seriously, in the era of micro-processors and nanotechnologies, do you really think it's still consistent to use primitive measures as the finger of someone, its foot or a random stone? There is a lenght unit now carrefully defined and based on the most precise way humanity was able for the metre (speed of light) and one for the mass based on water at sea level of a cubic tenth of that lenght, the whole metric system is named by comprehensive terms and logically dividable with the base the world decided to use (whether 12 might have been better) without having to do multiple conversions and used everywhere.
Long story short, imperial is not compatible even with itself. If you're happy with that, good for you but I and many others want better than mediocrity for our country!
The US is already metric; and will eventually become fully metric. The problem is that it is not happening fast enough. NIST needs to push harder. The new generations are not recalcitrant like previous generations, and will indeed accept the new system. We just need to educate.
The meter is an arbitrary unit of measure that is subdivided by the number of digits on our hands. There is nothing 'better' about that. If we had three fingers and a thumb, then you would be talking about how wonderful the base-8 system is (and, you know what, it WOULD be better than base-10 because there would be no rounding errors in computer programs). The worse excuse I've ever heard from an engineer, who should have known better, was to talk about how we should go metric because computers use it. Of course, THEY DON'T. and they never will. Computers are constantly having to convert as best as they can from base-2 to base-10.
In the English system, you use base-2 because it is practical. YES, fractional inches are in base-2, the most efficient system possible - the reason computers use it! It would be nonsense to go through the trouble of trying to make base-10 "bits" (because WE have 10 digits, computers should, too??). Using base-2, you only have the sizes that are practical as size increases.
You can see this most easily in a mechanic's toolbox. In the range of normally encountered automotive sockets, I have 15 English sockets and 24 Metric sockets. That's what happens when you use an arbitrary base-10 system. You need more than 1-1/2 times as many sockets to cover the same range. There is NOTHING better about a 1 mm change between sockets.
On a private level, I tried years ago to go to the Meter. It was terrible. When you are using the inch, you subdivide by base-2 units (i.e., fractions 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc. are base-2) only to the degree needed for the necessary precision. You want to place a screw in the center of an inch-based board? Divide by 2. When I wanted to place a screw at the center of cm based board, I had to go to mm to divide by 2! There is NOTHING better about having to increase your precision by 10 when all you need is 2.
I also have to say something about the commentor who claimed that time is in the metric system: Were you even serious? Time units, from day to second, are Base24, Base60, Base60. This is METRIC? The same goes for circular measure, there are 360 degrees because it is so practical. Try metric on that. 100 degree circle, you want to travel North-East - you are now at 1/10th's of a degree (12.5) 'Metric', rather than 45 degrees. Ranges like this exist because they are PRACTICAL, rather than based on how many fingers you have!
I think that I might have missed your point, but even if we measure with fractional inches in base2, we are still using the numeric system in base10.
Did you mean to criticize the metric system or the usage of a numeric system in base10? Because the former is just a consequence to the latter. Of course there would be no point of a decimal metric system if we used a base 8 system.
I grew up in Europe with the metric system and only used imperial units for floppy disks and monitor sizes. Everything else is metric.
Moved to the USA as an adult and after an adjustment period I like the imperial system a lot better.
The reasons are much in line with Mr Michael Gorsich above. When you have a base 12 or 16 it is much easier to calculate fractions. Look at the number of wrenches and the number of different threads in the metric system. Compare to the SAE standards. The SAE standards are much more practical.
The imperial measurement system is comprised of units that everyday people found useful for their everyday use.
The French metric system is comprised of units scientists in a lab decided on and forced everybody else to use.
The difference is in crowdsourcing vs central planning.
In the crowdsourcing model there are a number of different ideas. Since it is impracticable for everybody to use different solutions, there is a natural selection and only the most popular ideas prevail. You can see this in the imperial system - there were originally a lot more units of measurement, most of which have been deprecated.
In the central planning model there is one decisionmaker, which can be a single person or a committee, and everybody else will be forced to "agree to disagree".
The central planning method often comes up with higher levels of organization, elegancy, consistency. The crowdsourcing model often has more taylored solutions, moe choices, but more chaotic.
Think of "master-planned" neighborhoods vs an old country lane.
Think of communism vs free enterprise.
Do you prefer freedom or control?
It is no surprise that a government agency would favor control. But it's not just the government. Most people these days favor control over freedom. That's why we have things like HomeOwners Associations. People want every last piece of grass controlled. We have air conditioning, heat, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, every aspect of most people's environment is tightly controlled.
We've created a world where control, conformity,egality is expected, respected, normalized.
Freedom and diversity is loathed and dismissed as simplistic, uneducated, primitive.
Embrace diversity. Dare to be different. Let the rest of the world turn into Borg drones if they so desire. We go our own way.
Diversity on business, in 2021? You, sir, should leave decision making to other people.
With climate change being such a 'hot' topic right now, in order to fully take part in international discussions, it would make sense if the USA at least used the same unit of temperature as the rest of the world!
Looking at the broader issue of measurement, I find it so strange that whilst America has advanced science and technology in so many areas but yet their political leaders have lacked the foresight to fully change to metric which would make international trade and the exchange of information so much easier for them.
Unfortunately, polititions, probably due to their education are often scientifically illiterate and don't appreciate the benifits that full metrication would bring to the USA.
Whist the people of the world may speak many languages, they all (apart from the US) measure things in the same language.
This article trying to explain "levels of adoption" and how "it takes time" to adopt the SI made me laugh. Of course 140+ years is not enough to sink in.
Some of the most brilliant minds and inventions came from the US, but the average Joe is not capable of adapt to SI.
Of course some countries still use a few imperial measurements, but the absolute majority of daily life things are SI, like distance (meters), weight (grams), volume (liters) or temperature (celsius).
Of course the US product packages come with both measures, otherwise it's hard to export it, since no one else will understand it.
Also, the US uses imperial to guide the size of their packaging. E.g. you sell vegetables in 2 lbs packages, which in SI is a weird total of 907g, instead of customary 1kg. Same for bottles, instead of 1 liter, 1.something which is equivalent to something else in fluid ounces. BTW, what the heck is a fluid ounce? Why would you measure things in eighths of an inch? Do you love fractions that much?
The funniest thing of all, is that the US were the first to be independent from UK (compared to Australia, Canada, etc) but you can't get rid of their weird system, which even UK ditched.