Why Didn't America Ever Adopt the Metric System?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rulers Metric system measurement America has kept its standard system of measurement, despite the fact that most of the rest of the world uses the metric system. (Copyright: freesoulproduction/Shutterstock)

Most of the rest of the world is on the metric system, and for a time in the 1970s America seemed ready to make the switch, but it never happened. Instead, the country stayed with its odd, inconsistent system of measurement. John Bemelmans Marciano explains the variety of standards throughout Europe and the 13 American colonies, the combination of intellect and circumstance that resulted in the metric system’s creation in France in the wake of the French Revolution and America’s stubborn adherence to the hybrid United States Customary System. In his book Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet, Marciano tells a human drama, with great inventors, visionary presidents, obsessive activists, and science-loving technocrats.


John Bemelmans Marciano

Comments [13]

Fire Isle from Bronx

Soccer uses yards prescribed in the original English rules.

In most Anglo-countries people still use customary units in everyday speech.

Aug. 23 2014 05:22 AM
Olafur from Manhattan

@Captain DrG
What is a seven-day tide cycle??
Ocean tides vary greatly between places on earth, some have one tide per day some two and you find all between. The timing of tides are complex and vary greatly.
You can find tide tables on and it is quite complex.
The seven day week dates back to ancient times. Some theories associate it with lunar visibility but that doesn't quite hold water either.
On the comment that we don't need a government decree on unit standards, are you proposing an anarchic system to measure things? The US manufacturing industry uses metric not because of some imagined "free market" but because they need to adapt to (government decreed) standardization of units in all except for a handful of countries using confusing measurements that hamper simplicity in calculating basic things.
Scientists all over the world use the metric because of the simple reason that it is simple and makes scientific progress easier.

Aug. 22 2014 11:17 AM
Olafur Thordarson from Manhattan

Interesting show.
I stumbled a bit on the comment that the Celsius scale is arbitrary, when compared to the absolute thermometric Kelvin scale. Other metric associations are directly combined through the unit of water (i.e. one liter of water is 1 kg which is 10x10x10cm) so it is quite logical for day-to day calculations that 0°C is freezing point and 100°C is boiling point.
I'd argue this brilliant and simple.
In chemistry and physics, the Kelvin scale is used, but for most people's daily lives the celsius freezing-boiling of water makes good sense and for all such as in meteorological observations and cooking.
The water freezing temperature in Kelvin would then be 273.15K and water boiling at 373.15K. In daily calculations these are rather inconvenient, even arbitrary, unless you are a scientist regularly tackling these and more complex numbers.

Aug. 22 2014 10:57 AM
Ken from Basel, Switzerland

Love the show. Live in Switzerland the past 7 years--US citizen living in NJ before that. I weigh 80kg (ideal would be 75kg). I am 177cm tall. I hike 6 km per hour and can climb mountains at the rate 350 meters elevation per hour. But today someone told me to cook something at 180 degrees and all I could think was, 'well, that's not even boiling!'---Oh, multiply that by 9/5 +32 = 356F! Using traditional measures is just a great example how the US refuses to modernize generally. What a self-imposed handicap! Too bad.

Aug. 18 2014 05:28 PM

When the Government failed to make progress toward a world-wide measurement standard. the free market implemented it.
We don't need a government metric decree.

Aug. 18 2014 01:38 PM

A week is dictated by the 7 day tide cycle. Today's high tide is about the same time as last week's low.

Aug. 18 2014 01:30 PM

I knew someone who was involved with an organization dedicated to preserving traditional measurements. His rationale with that traditional measurements are more intuitive than the metric system because they are historically evolved, and based on human dimensions (hand, foot, distance from elbow to fingertips, etc.) The problem with this as I see it is the how intuitive all that is depends on big you are.

Aug. 18 2014 01:26 PM

Volumes of luggage capacity (particularly camping backpacks) is specified in liters in the US and often included in the product names (presumably because the products are sold internationally).

Aug. 18 2014 01:22 PM
Stephen from Manhattan

I'd forgotten that we have President Reagan to thank for abandoning the USA's conversion to the metric system. It's another one of The Gipper's misguided initiatives that I would assume the current GOP would refer to as American "Exceptionalism." How sad that as the last remaining Super Power any cooperation with the international community is looked upon with suspicion unless, of course, it serves our own interests.

Aug. 18 2014 01:22 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

It took me a hell of a while to adapt to some metrics when I lived in Israel. I soon figured that 5 miles = 8 Kms, so a 50 mile trip is 80 klicks. One kilogram of cucumbers = 2.2 lbs. I could get that down. But when it came to liters of gasoline and trying to figure out how many gallons of it I bought, well I could never get that part straight in my head. Four hectares is an acre. But I never got the centigrade versus fahrenheit temperature thing right. But since it was usually sunny and hot, it didn't matter much most of the time. A meter is roughly a yard plus 3 inches,approximately.

Aug. 18 2014 01:21 PM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

The US still has a metric conversion program, run by National Institute of Standards (Department of Commerce):

Aug. 18 2014 01:17 PM
CR from Manhattan

The Brits still use miles for some distance. They use metric as well as pounds and ounces and, of course, stones for weight. They use imperial pints for beer but litres for petrol... They use Whitworth for some tools and machinery as well as standard and metric.

Aug. 18 2014 01:11 PM
Lucy Anderson from Raritan Bay NJ

Why are certain measurement always (still) in metric
My japanesecarused to use metric wrenches and had a 2.0 liter motor

American car use the standard wrenches, BUT it is a 5.0LITRE motor!

? Thank you. Love the show

Aug. 18 2014 01:10 PM

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