As I studied the history of the metric system in the United States, I found I had to understand and put into context the history of measurement itself.
While the metric system we know today began around 1790, no one knows the true age of measurement systems since they began prior to written history. Based on archeological evidence, some think measurement standards advanced to allow the construction of special buildings to the “powers that be” but surely, travel and trade had a hand as well though evidence is less readily available. However, thousands of years later, it’s the buildings (such as the pyramids) that still stand, testaments to the precision and consistency it took to build them.
And while measurement systems have developed throughout human history, I think one of the important things to recognize is that the metric system grew out of a global social movement called “The Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason.” It was truly a historic advance that has led us (for better or worse) to our modern world.
While I’m sure there are many who could write more gracefully on this topic, the Enlightenment represented a move away from superstition (as in it is important to be indoors at dusk to avoid the evil vapors) and toward skepticism and the development of the scientific method. (Just imagine a world in which cell phones and demons that make milk go sour sit next to each other on the philosophical shelf.)
And while the United Kingdom, France and the United States all considered moving toward a metric system at this same 1790 juncture, only France was able to make real progress while the U.S. and U.K. continue to struggle with the metric system to this day.
The reason France was able to advance was probably three-fold:
- It had a tradition of proudly of leading the way (much as we think of the United States today);
- It had a huge proliferation of French measurements (an estimated 250,000 of them) that made it, perhaps, the most unwieldy system in the world; and
- It had an opportunity to throw away the past in the wake of the French revolution.
Of course, we took some advantage of our own revolution to introduce metric money or the 10 dimes and 100 pennies we have in our current dollar (for which Thomas Jefferson was responsible). Still, it was apparently our rapid expansion and efforts to “get the job done” in our early history and involvement of those who were less about enlightened thinking and more about speed and greed that laid the foundation for our current metric-hampered society. [see note]
I still marvel that a country as advanced as our own, that bases its progress on scientific advancements (which uses the metric system), and on international trade (which needs the metric system), and seeks the best education for our children (yeah, we haven’t done the best job here but I’m pretty sure no one is sitting around saying, “Gee I hope our children grow up stupid.”) still can’t pull together the political will to move metric system adoption forward.
There are positive rumblings, however, with a recent White House petition and Hawaii (last to become a state and therefore less entrenched in our reluctant past?) pointing toward metric reform (http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2013/bills/HB36_.HTM).
The latter states, in part:
The purpose of this Act is to establish the metric system as the official system of measurement in the State and to require its use in public documents, public records, and public school instructional materials beginning in 2018.
It also highlights one of the issues we’ll have to confront in a move to the metric system: state’s rights. When we drew together to defend against the British, we became the United STATES of America rather than the UNITED States of America. It forms the some of our basic political ideology and haunts us at the same time.
Still, Hawaii is breaking out ahead and sets a shining example for the rest of us. The state deserves our support and, hopefully, sheds light on a future where the rest of us can follow both at a state level as well as nationally.
Note: Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. Andro Linklater. 2002. Walker Publishing Company, Inc, New York.