Will the United States REALLY Be the Last Country to Adopt the Metric System (SI)?

It came to my attention recently that of the three countries in the world that don’t currently use the metric system on a routine basis: the United States, Burma and Liberia, it appears Burma has now announced its intention to switch over.

(Don’t let the Myanmar reference throw you, I’ve been using “Burma” in my writing and discussion because our government via the CIA Factbook classifies it as Burma.)

From the CIA Factbook

From the CIA Factbook

Anyway, this was sent out as a news story, ironically during our county’s National Metric Week and dated 10/10 no less:

Myanmar is preparing to adopt the metric system or the International System of Units (SI System) as the country’s official system of measurement, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

The reason given:

 …to streamline the weight measuring process in exporting agricultural products such as rice, beans and maize for which various measurement systems have been widely applied, according to Dr. Pwint San, Deputy Minister for Commerce.

Interestingly, I tried to confirm this from another news source but was unable to do so. I was only able to find the exact same story posted on a couple of other sites. Granted, one of them was on page 90 of a pdf titled: Myanmar Investment & Industry Information for Oct-5-11, 2013 and that cited Myanmar Time[s], October 6, 2013. Couldn’t locate the original story even after I switched to the English version of the Times. I also tried to confirm the information on the Myanmar government’s site, and while there I did discover it had a trade conference that week (which would make sense in terms of timing) but only the headlines were viewable in English so I couldn’t find anything more official.

Additional research led me to the following story from last year (July 26, 2012) that cited something from previous year that with the headline and subhead:

Myanmar is converting to the metric system
It’s certainly going to cause a lot of controversy and resistance within the country, but let’s see. 

The article’s lead went on to say:

THE basket, viss, tin and tical would largely disappear from Myanmar if the Ministry of Commerce gets its way.

At a meeting on the development of wholesale centres held in Magwe last month, participants agreed in principle to the government’s proposal to adopt the kilogram as the basic unit for commodities trade in all townships.

If implemented, the kilogram would replace traditional, non-metric measurements that are used widely in domestic trade. The government is pushing the change to make foreign trade, which is conducted exclusively in metric measurements, simpler and bring the country into line with its trade partners.

That would seem to confirm that the intention of the government so maybe it was able to make progress

My contact with the National Institute for Standards and Technology wasn’t able to shed any additional light on this subject but sent me some new references.

So, will Myanmar leave us in the dust regarding metric system adoption? It remains to be seen since I haven’t been able to locate information outside of what’s cited above (such as a proposed adoption date) so I’m willing to sit back for a while and see what else transpires on this front.

Still, if it does comes to pass, it will be the latest country the U.S. Metric Association will recognize as moving toward metric adoption since Jamaica in 1998. That’s not a typo, the fourth to the last country to switch to the metric system did so during the LAST century in 1998.

We are a member in the international organization that supports metric system measures around the globe

We are a member in the international organization that supports metric system measures around the globe

And just to be clear, every country in the world has “officially” adopted the metric system, including the United States. In fact, the United States signed the Convention of the Meter in Paris back in May 1875 and to this day is a member of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures.  (World Metrology Day is on May 20 each year to commemorate the signing.)

Do we really want to come in second to last in this important race? Or even last, as is looking more likely?

It’s time to gain some momentum on this front and I plan to write about that more next weekend, stay tuned.

Thanks for your interest,


10 thoughts on “Will the United States REALLY Be the Last Country to Adopt the Metric System (SI)?

  1. >Don’t let the Myanmar reference throw you, I’ve been using “Burma” in my writing and discussion because our government via the CIA Factbook classifies it as Burma.

    Isn’t this part of the underlying problem Linda? The rest of the world calls it Myanmar these days but ‘our [your] government’ insists on sticking with the old name.

    • Point taken. Yes and no. My country is officially the United States of America but is also known as the United States, U.S., USA and America and it doesn’t really hurt anything. On the other hand, if someone receives an overdose of medicine due to conversion errors or misunderstanding the difference between t and T (teaspoon and tablespoon, respectively) then people do get hurt. I could go on but you asked me a direct question so I felt I should respond. I appreciate you raising your point.

  2. Linda,

    The story behind these so called 3 countries is not that they are not metric, it is they haven’t made any official declaration to do so. This is where Burma/Myanmar is at now, its Ministry of Science is preparing to announce its official plan to metricate.

    It is wrong to show the US as a non-metric nation in this group. The US legalised the metric system in 1866 and in the mid ’70s made it its official system and in 1992 reaffirmed the status of the metric system as the preferred system. The the US has already made the metric system official in the US. Even USC is based legally on metric which it can’t be if the US doesn’t officially recognise SI.

    It is just not used in the market place. By claiming it to be a non-metric country implies the metric system is totally invisible in the US. Would anyone venture to guess just how metric the US is?

    The problem with the US is it is a divided nation when it comes to measurements. Some businesses are metric only, some USC only and others somewhere in-between.

    So, once Burma/Myanmar makes the official announcement, then it can be removed from the list and only Liberia will be the last holdout.

    Despite the status of being the last holdouts, the US, Liberia and Burma/Myanmar are not at ground zero and are much farther along the path to metrication then most people realise. You can’t expect countries surrounded my metric nations they trade with to be totally non-metric. It has to rub off on them as their neighbours are richer than they are.

    You should write a blog on how far along the US really is when it comes to metric and if a massive metrication program were to start tomorrow, at what point would the US be starting at?

    • Dear Ametrica,

      It is absolutely correct to classify the US as a non-SI nation. Although SI is officially the “preferred system” of the government, this does not seem to mean much to society. It also doesn’t seem to mean much to the government. It certainly doesn’t mean that laws are passed using SI units (they aren’t), that official regulations are detailed in SI units (they aren’t), that government contracts are given in SI units (they aren’t, and in fact most government contracts will only accept submissions using English units) or that government agencies give out their information in SI units (they don’t. Even NASA gives details of their discoveries or missions in English units).

      On the contrary, while a thorough understanding of English units is required to be able to do your daily business in this country (shopping with pounds and ounces, filling up in gallons, driving in miles per hour, checking the temperature in Fahrenheit and so on), a knowledge of SI units is almost completely useless, as no official information is given in metric terms. According to the FLPA, metric-only consumer labels are actually illegal in this country, whereas English-only labels are not. This puts the “preferred system” status of SI into a real-world perspective.

      Just because the basic units are defined in SI terms only doesn’t mean that the US is metric. Knowing that an inch is defined as 25.4 mm is of very little help to you when a road-sign tells you your next exit is in 300 feet. You need to think in English units in order to work out what this distance actually is. Similarly, if you know that a pound is legally defined as 45359237 g, how does that help you if the price of what you are buying is supplied in ounces? You have to know all of the innumerable and illogical conversion factors to be able to carry out your activities of daily living.

      While certain industries may be metricated (medicine and science are probably 90-95% SI, engineering only slightly and construction entirely non-SI) this has no impact on the daily life of the average US citizen, which is almost completely non-metric. Metrication that does not have an impact on daily life is no metrication at all.

      In short, while the US is theoretically partially metricated, in reality it is practically impossible to live, work, or play using metric units in this country.

      • Linda,
        You missed the point entirely. No one is doubting some of what you are saying is true. But in the proper context, the US is not metric for different reasons that Burma and Myanmar. For that matter there are a number of metric countries that have some non-metric remnants still in use, so can these countries be considered metric if they are not fully metric? Where is the line drawn?

        Those three countries became famous due to them being listed in the CIA handbook. The reason for their listing is that they never officially declared an intent to metricate. However, despite what you have said about the state of metrication in the US, the US has officially declared its intent and even if they are hypocrites when it comes to following through on their commitments, the declaration takes them out of that group.

        Myanmar and Liberia never has made any official declarations to metricate. Yet, metric usage there is much greater than that in the US due to somewhat poor economies and dependent on more prosperous neighbours for goods and services. Myanmar is exiting the dark ages and may soon will declare itself officially metric. Liberia is so destitute it may never make any such declaration.

        When Myanmar soon makes its declaration, it will leave the US and Liberia as the last holdouts, but for opposite reasons. The US will be officially metric with almost no metric in the market place and Liberia will be officially not metric with a high degree of metric in the market place.

  3. In the US, one can function quite well not knowing either USC or English. You can get your weather information from any number of internet sources in metric. Simply set your preference to metric mode. I do this with Weatherbug and am never exposed to Fahrenheit.

    When shopping, almost every prepackaged item displays a metric content. I can ignore the USC and read only the metric. On dual language packages, the metric may be hidden in the second language. It isn’t that difficult to find the metric and use it. You make it sound like it is horribly impossible. If a product is totally metric unfriendly, then one can simply ignore it and chose not to buy it. Absolutely don’t support a non-metric business. There are plenty of metric businesses that we can support.

    You can ignore all of the USC on the roads simply by getting a GPS and set it to metric mode. It will tell you distances and speeds in metric and even show your car speed in metric. Thus again you can ignore the USC. Gasoline may be trickier, but at least you can just fill the tank or purchase a dollar amount, which is what most people do anyway.

    When buying clothing but only those that size by small, medium, large, extra-large, etc, which most seem to be now-a-days. I found that a size number in one brand isn’t the same as the same number in a different brand, especially with shoes. A lot of shoes now list metric sizes too.

  4. The USA should move to SI as soon as possible. But that is known since decades!
    To be honest, as a European guy, I’m getting very angry every time I get in touch with your units. The USA is (almost) the only country on earth, customarily using something else than metric units. And it’s not only distance, mass, and temperature… Linda’s article was written October 20, 2013, 9:24pm. Or as the rest of the world would say: 20 October 2013, 21:24 or even better: 2013-10-20, 21:24!
    Please, please, please, we all learned your language and America is the best country on earth, seriously. But please use the SI system, I’m begging you!!!

  5. The US had a test section, I-19 between Tuscon and Nogales, all in metric. It was built in the late 70’s I believe. Every exit and speed was in metric the first time I drove it in the early 2000’s and then they got rid of it and went back to English. Granted it was only 100 km/60 miles long. What is really annoying is the US is using its own system. Some English units but also some of its own units (American gallon, pint, quart etc). I grew up in Canada and we used the Imperial (English) System, where the gallon was a essentially 4.5 American quarts. But at least the mile was the same. The point being. They made the leap in Canada when I was in high school. It was a 10 year transition. All speed and distances started with miles on the top, km on the bottom. After 5 years, they flip flopped. 5 years later, the miles were dropped. My nieces, nephews. Have zero idea what these old English units are the Americans use. In a generation, nobody will remember.

    Look at it this way, if 1 billion people in China can a) switch to driving on the right (done in the 60’s) and switch to metric (done in the 70’s). 300 million Americans can do it too…

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