A compromise between the metric system and U.S. customary units? A modest proposal

This April Fools’ post was supplied by Peter Goodyear, a staunch help to yours truly, Reddit metric system moderator and Australian supporter of our leaving our foolish measurement ways behind us. LA

Peter advocates for the adoption of centimeter-gramme-second  (cgs) system since it “combines the least advantageous features of both metric and US Customary measures, so both sides will have an equality of dissatisfaction with its introduction.” Apparently it’s used in the astronomical sciences.




Some Americans are concerned that their measurement system (still in use from when America was a collection of British colonies,) is unnecessarily complicated. They argue that it is difficult to learn and to use, and in these modern times it is difficult to programme into computer applications. (It is also used only by Americans, however this is seen as an expression of American Exceptionalism™ and is therefore not regarded as a disadvantage.)
Radically progressive Americans believe that adopting the French, or metric, system of measurements would solve the problems caused by learning and using measurements inherited from Colonial times. Opposing them, American Traditionalists claim that what was good enough for their forefathers is obviously good enough for everyone today.
No American since Thomas Jefferson has proposed a logical and simple system of measurements, thus the available choices are either to retain a British system which is slowly being abandoned, even by the British themselves, or to adopt a French system which has, in recent years, gained a modicum of acceptance in several corners of the globe.
To satisfy both American Traditionalists, who want to retain long-established British weights and measures, and Metric Radicals who want them swept away and replaced with SI† metric units, I propose a compromise: the centimetre-gram-second system.*
The centimeter-gramme-second system (cgs) combines the least advantageous features of both metric and US Customary measures, so both sides will have an equality of dissatisfaction with its introduction.
(*As this is a British measurement system I will use the British, or proper, spelling of “meter”, to wit: ’metre’.)
The features of the CGS system:
1) It’s metric. Obviously.
The centimetre-gram-second system is obviously based on metric units, the centimeter, the gramme and the second. Supporters of traditional units will claim that this is a massive strike against it, but this is balanced by several other features which will be welcomed by American supporters of traditional British units, namely:
B) It’s a traditional British system.
Cgs was developed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (usually abbreviated to BA,) and introduced in 1874. Undeniably British.
At more than 140 years old, it’s older than a lot of American traditions such as the Super Bowl, (first Super Bowl was in 1967,) Veterans Day, (started11/11/19, American style, or 11/11/19 in the world-wide dating system,) the Oscars (first awarded in 1929) or Mother’s Day (dating from Mother’s Day 1914).
iii) It’s difficult to use.
Conversion factors between cgs and SI units are awkward because there are 100 centimetres in a meter and 1000 grams in a kilogramme, which promises the possibility of introducing order-of-magnitude errors everywhere. In addition, there are odd conversion factors between some of the units in the electrostatic, electrodynamic and Gaussian systems of CGS. (Didn’t I mention that there are three different systems of cgs? I know you Americans just love to have a choice!)
Whilst the CGS system is useful for fine measurements such as one finds in atomic physics or engineering, it is difficult to use with the extremely large order-of-magnitude quantities encountered in engineering or astrophysics.
Fifthly) Nobody else uses it.
The BIPM‡ recommended using the SI system, a refinement of the Metre-Kilogram-Second system, in 1960, and since then SI has supplanted the cgs. This allows for the perpetuation of American Exceptionalism™ in employing a measurement system no-one else uses, or would want to use.
Bonus: In addition to the CGS units there is an obsolete BA metric screw thread which could be introduced (with some inconvenience, no doubt,) to replace SAE fasteners.
I am confident that both metric advocates and adherents of US traditional standards will have equal measures of support for this proposition. Your comments are welcome and I will give them the attention they deserve.
Stop Press: Last-minute research has shown that cgs units are still used in the astronomical sciences. This will no doubt make CGS adoption easier due to the massive influence that astronomy has in everyday life through astrology, the calendar, tides, etc.
Thank you,
Peter Goodyear
SI – International System of Weights and Measures
BIPM – International Bureau of Weights and Measures

Prehistory and the metric system       


First, I’m not implying that the metric system has been around forever—it hasn’t been, more like since around 1790—rather, I’ve been investigating where measurement standards might have come from prior to the development of writing. No one can say for sure when measurements started, all researchers can do is infer information based on archeological evidence.


A general view of the Uruk archeological site at Warka in Iraq. Image from the UK government

Most of the sources I’ve come across gloss over the prehistory of measures by pointing to the standards found in Mesopotamia and then move forward from there. Me, I’m more curious than that and thought it might be interesting to cover some ground that others might not have.

So here’s where I’m currently coming from: I believe there is an intersection between agriculture, the development of cities, architecture, astronomy and even the division of labor that related to the development of measures. I’ll go into these points in more detail in future posts while I continue to work on my metric system history book during my off hours from my day job.

Standards needed for permanent buildings

One of the oldest cities that has been documented is Uruk (from around the fourth millennium BCE.)

However, this site is very complex and it is unlikely it was the first attempt at a city but older, smaller, less-complex examples either no longer exist or have yet to be discovered. I posit that before these multi-people, multi-year building projects could begin, everyone had to agree what the standard measure was to be used, such as the much better-known cubit that was used in Egypt from around 3,000 BCE.

But let’s go even further back. In fact, let’s go back to around 9,000 BCE.

I’m starting from this date because it appears this was about the time that the last ice age ended and agriculture began. (The farther you go back in time, the sketchier the dates become so you might come across a source that differs from this. I had to start somewhere and I’m not in a position to argue with scholars who have spent much more time on these issues than I have.)

Back then, people were hunter/gatherers and if they settled anywhere, it wasn’t for very long and permanent structures were not needed. Some research I’ve come across indicates that people may have already domesticated some animals and they might have, for instance, moved sheep or other animals around with them.

I’ve also come across other information that the earliest agriculture may have been less planting of things in rows, as we currently think of such practices today, and more cultivation of helpful things.

Okay, so, it’s 8,500 BCE and near our settlement (likely near a water source) we come across some blueberry bushes. On either side of these food-bearing plants are some other plants that are less helpful since they flower but don’t provide sustenance.

It’s likely we figure out that by cutting back, or eliminating, the plants that weren’t so helpful and tending to the blueberry bush by watering, and possibly fertilizing, it a richer harvest results make the efforts worth our while.

Over time, it likely made sense that people started to transplant the beneficial plants closer to each other for efficiency. (There’s a reason you don’t keep kitchen equipment scattered around the house.)

Once the investment has been made in cultivating plants, it’s reasonable to expect that people kept closer tabs on their efforts and spent more time in one place, they’d want a home that would last more than a couple of seasons.

That got me thinking about how long buildings typically last. Once site I came across indicates that modern buildings can last more than 50 years. But, what about more “primitive” ones?

Modern, but primitive, hut

You too can build a primitive hut with minimal tools but lots of effort.

I found YouTube videos that show how to build circular dwellings from saplings and primitive tools in one case, and another video on how to build a wattle and daub hut, with the roof of the second building showing signs of rot only four months after construction.

Interestingly, in the first case, the builder needed to measure equidistant sides for the hut from a center post. In essence, he created a standard made from a sapling that might only be used for that one hut, but he did need a standard unit to make even a primitive building.

Had two people worked on the sapling hut, they would have both needed to use that same measure for the hut to have properly turned out.

Perhaps, in this case, as Protagoras of Abdera indicated thousands of years ago, man is the measure of all things…

I’ll write more next month and in the meantime, I’ll slog through more research on the ancient world and possibly confuse myself.