The Metric System and Our English Roots

When I mention converting to the metric system in this country, aside from its immediate rejection by some because it represents change and change is almost automatically considered bad for our survival (see my previous post on “The Metric System as Predator”), one of the reasons brought up to reject it is our English past.

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011 (White

As Americans we tend to identify strongly with our British history even though we wouldn’t be a country today unless we’d fought so hard against English rule. We like our association with our Anglo-Saxon roots but we tend to like them on our own terms. It’s one of the reasons we follow the royal family’s every move in the tabloids even while we hold a love/hate relationship in everything from British music to international politics.(There’s contrasting dislike of the French but I’ll save that for another column.)

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: the Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens sums it up as:

The odd combination of rivalry and alliance, collusion and suspicion, was to be the pattern of Anglo-American relations for many years—until the entente of 1898 in fact—and in some reminiscent forms even after that.1

(Yeah, I admit it, I had to look up entente.)

It wasn’t that long ago that President Obama also spoke of our strong kinship while addressing the British Parliament (4:27 into clip):

I’ve come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known. It’s long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom share a special relationship.

Ironically, it was that break with our royal past that opened the door for us to become the first country in the world with decimalized currency (Thank Thomas Jefferson for our 10 dimes and 100 pennies) even while we still struggle to integrate the rest of a measurement system that no other country would think to give up. (No country that switched to the metric system has ever switched back.)

When people raise this idea of embracing our imperial past two things immediately jump into my mind.

  • The metric system was officially adopted in the U.K. in 1965 but its adoption remains “soft” and there are some imperial units still in use. When I asked the head of the U.K. Metric Association about this state of affairs, Robin Pace responded “Because you don’t use it. ”So, Britain is more metric than we are and it’s reasonable to say that we’re holding back both England and Canada from full adoption. That prompted my column on our bad international example for both the U.K. and Canada.
  • If people want to argue that giving up our current units is somehow abandoning our legacy, then I say let’s embrace it all the way and recover our lost measurement history and bring back the hogshead, chaldron, scruple, minim and perch to name a few. If we want to be ridiculous let’s be ridiculously ridiculous.

This grasping at our history seems somewhat ironic to me since we no longer use the “Imperial” units in this country we originally brought over; we currently use “U.S. Customary” units. Thus, our units don’t perfectly align with any other country in the world. The Imperial liquid ounce is 28.4131 mL, while the U.S. fluid ounce is 29.5735 mL.

It doesn’t initially sound like a lot but with large amounts it can really add up, particularly if we’re talking about prescriptions.

Came out earlier this month

Came out earlier this month

By the way, just got a copy of John Marciano’s new book: Whatever happened to the metric system. I’ve just started it but it’s getting some attention in the media. Based on previous communication with the author, I knew it wasn’t going to be pro-metric but frankly, anything that gets the discussion back on the table after 30 years works for me.



Notes: 1Location 1798 on my Kindle.

Could the Metric System Help Our Student Assessments and Education?

Earlier this month the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) announced its 2012 scores for 15-year-old students in reading, math and science literacy. It also includes

…measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as problem solving. PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling.

For the bottom line: The top 10 countries, had a range of scores from 55.4 to 19.4 for math literacy proficiency level 5 and above, while we scored an 8.8.

Frankly, I was surprised that this news caught some major (if fleeting) media attention. (What to see more coverage? Type “PISA scores” into a search engine and then search “News.” Or, some are complied here.)

Where the top countries scored (partial graph, for whole thing, go here):

Countries with top PISA scores

Countries with top PISA scores

Where the U.S. stands

Where the U.S. stands

The assessment is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics. Given that pedigree, it could be difficult to accuse the test of bias against the United States. I’ve written about our apparent lag in math and science education behind emerging economic entities and its potential relationship to our lack of metric adoption, so let’s see where we stack up this year.

The report states:

In the United States, 9 percent of 15-year-old students scored at proficiency level 5 or above, which was lower than the OECD average of 13 percent. The U.S. percentage was lower than 27 education systems, higher than 22 education systems, and not measurably different than 13 education systems.

And for math literacy:

The U.S. average score was 481, which was lower than the OECD average of 494.

Bottom line: By the time our children are 15 years old, not only are they not in the top of math and science literacy, in many cases they’re barely hanging onto the bottom of average. It’s a sorry situation.

Just having a bad year with the test results?

So, could this be an aberration? Perhaps we were just a little bit off in 2012. On that topic, the report states:

The U.S. average mathematics, science, and reading literacy scores in 2012 were not measurably different from average scores in previous PISA assessment years with which comparisons can be made (2003, 2006 and 2009 for mathematics; 2006, and 2009 for science; and 2000, 2003, and 2009 for reading)

As I’ve written in this blog before, it’s not so much that our students are falling behind, it’s that other counties’ student are making much more rapid progress.

Interestingly, earlier this week I came across the review for a book that seeks to debunk what I (and others) have identified as an American decline. While I’ve been looking at the areas of math and science education, Josef Joffee’s new book, titled The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Econimics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies, apparently takes a much wider view of view of the situation. While I am very hesitant to say much about a book I haven’t read, let me quote from the publisher itself and let you know where I see a major problem:

Buttressing his argument with facts, Joffe demonstrates that America’s future is sanguine. In contrast to the Carter years, the economic woes of the Obama era look more like a nasty migraine. By historical standards, the U.S. defense burden today is extraordinarily low, hence sustainable over the long haul. Immigration (plus a healthy birth rate) will not only keep the nation younger than China, Japan, Europe, and Russia but will continue to bring in the world’s best and brightest. Indeed, America is the “world’s Ph.D. factory” both in science and engineering, while its R&D spending dwarfs the “rising rest.”

[Emphasis mine.]

That last statement above is misleading as far as I can tell. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy so I can look up his source for that statement but based on the research I’ve done so far, that’s not what I’ve found.

According to our National Science Foundation (National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2012):

Besides the generally vigorous pace at which the global total of R&D is now growing, the other major trend has been the rapid expansion of R&D performance in the regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia, including countries such as China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. The R&D performed in these two Asian regions represented only 24% of the global R&D total in 1999, but accounted for 32% in 2009, including China (12%) and Japan (11%).

[Emphasis mine.]

As for us churning out huge numbers of PhDs, here’s a chart I’ve used before that illustrates where undergraduate degrees in science and engineering are being earned and would seem to indicate that we’re falling behind compared to many of the same countries who are outscoring us (Tough to get a PhD in this country if you’re not first granted a Bachelor of Science) :

STEM degrees

Science and engineering undergraduate degrees worldwide (National Science Foundation)

I do believe that we are getting behind the curve in some ways and our continued lack of metric system adoption is one example.

Sure, we might still be in the lead in some areas but think of all the empires that have come before: the British, Mongol, Roman, French, Ottoman (and many others you’ve probably never even heard of) and ask yourself if they recognized they were about to decline or were sure they’d be on top forever? I’m guessing the latter.

I’m not saying that metric system adoption is a panacea for all our problems but why can’t we at least stop handicapping our children with a measurement system that our competitors dropped many years ago? Our dysfunctional use of our U.S. customary units certainly aren’t helping us progress as a nation.

Happy holidays,


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,


Would Adoption of the Metric System Reverse Our Math and Science Education Decline?

Could full metric system adoption in our schools help our sorry STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) situation by saving time (since we wouldn’t need to teach two unrelated systems) and better ground our students in the language of science and medicine? Something I recently came across certainly seems to indicate it should:

Studies in Great Britain and Australia show that the metric changover in their nations could save a fifth of the time previously spent teaching mathematics. A U.S. government report estimates the time saved in our schools could run from 15 to 25 per cent.1

I’ll do some more research to see if I can find further evidence but, in the meantime, here’s some information from two reports I recently noticed that speak to how other countries are kicking our STEM butt.

American Exceptionalism, American Decline? It would appear so

The first report I came across was American Exceptionalism, American Decline? Research, the Knowledge Economy, and the 21st Century Challenge. It was put out a little less than a year ago by the Task Force on American Innovation. And who are those folks? Here are a few names of the organizations it includes that you might recognize: Google, IBM, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dow, P&G, Microsoft, American Physical Society, Qualcomm, Intel and the American Institute of Physics.

STEM degrees

One of the organization’s findings. Is it any wonder we’re falling behind with numbers like these?

At a respectable 44 pages long, it covers a number of issues our nation must address but also outlines some of our STEM challenges. The first line of the report reads:

Despite a strong history of being the world leader in research and discovery, the United States has failed to sufficiently heed indications that our advantage is diminishing and that we may soon be overtaken by other nations in these areas, which are critical to economic growth and job creation.

and a few paragraphs later:

First, the stagnation of the American K-12 education system and the inadequate numbers of U.S. students entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines are threatening the nation’s ability to recruit, train, and retain the scientists and engineers required to create new products and systems.

The report then elaborates about a lack of national science and engineering support and declining federal funding that is hurting our ability to innovate.

What are the implications of world literacy and numeracy skills?

The second report was OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results for the Survey of Adult Skills. (Where OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its United States pages are here.)

The report covers 20 countries, including the United States and “directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills – namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments”  and the implications of those skills, or the lack thereof. At 466 pages, it’s a bit more to go through.

However, its major finding is:

If large proportions of adults have low reading and numeracy skills, introducing and disseminating productivity-improving technologies and work-organisation practices can therefore be hampered… In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others.

And this paragraph, I think, points out how poorly we’re doing at keeping up with the rest of the world (emphasis is mine).

In numeracy, the United States performs around the average when comparing the proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, but is lowest in numeracy among all participating countries when comparing proficiency among 16-24 year-olds. This is not necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) or the United States, but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations.

Ranking of numeracy skills

Where our skills (or lack thereof) land us.

We’re finally starting to recognize that we are falling behind in an increasingly technological world. Hopefully we’ll also recognize that metric adoption could assist us halting this  decline.

Thanks for your attention,


1.You and the Metric System, Stover, Allan C. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1974, p. 15.

American Culture and the Metric System: Part II

Last week I just wanted to report on what I discovered through my poll on American culture and metric system adoption without mucking it up with my observations and opinions. I certainly didn’t want to express any of that prior to launching the poll. That didn’t seem sporting.

My observations thus far

Based on the things I’ve read and people I’ve spoken with regarding this subject, I get a few different reactions:

  1. Wow, I had no idea we’d gotten so far behind.
  2. A negative knee-jerk response to being asked to change something an offer of a quickly-grabbed-at reason why we shouldn’t change (heritage is the one caught most often).
  3. We’re the greatest country in the world and we don’t have to change.

Someone did write-in “arrogance” in the metric system poll a couple of weeks ago and I know it’s something I’ve heard directly from people myself (see number three above).

Let’s take a moment to explore that. By definition, arrogance means “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” Is that the boat we’ve gotten ourselves into? Certainly some folks seem to be paddling in that direction.

We’re no longer at the top of some of the good lists

Unfortunately, we’re rapidly losing any claim we might have to being “the best” in a number of critical areas as I’ve mentioned before in this blog:

As I was writing this, I got curious about where we are in terms of patents (certainly a case could be made whether this is an appropriate measure) but I thought it would be an interesting data point.

Looking at the Wikipedia entry (the World Intellectual Property Organization page has the information spread out a lot more) in 2011 we ranked third in number of patent applications behind Japan and China (no surprise there) and second in patents granted (behind Japan).

An interesting data point listed for 2007 (the only year for which this is listed on the page) indicates “Resident filings per million population” also has us ranked third after Japan and South Korea.


We are at the top of this obesity list

For those of you who are saddened that we are no longer first in the above categories, we do apparently excel in a different area: obesity. A recent article by PBS illustrates the sorry story of our self-reported weight problems.

A world-traveling author speaks

Moving away from statistics and back to the culture issue I started with, I did manage to locate someone who has some insight on American culture. Lance Johnson has produced a book for non-U.S. folks about what they can expect upon hitting our soil. Titled What Foreigners Need to Know About America from A to Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More. (And, yes, the book is as comprehensive as its title.)

Johnson, who has visited 81 different countries, had to include an entire chapter on measurement which, in part, begins:

As you probably know, Americans can be stubborn about some things. The way he measure things is a good example. Nations began to adopt the metric system in the 1840s, and by 1900 most commercially advanced countries of the world had adopted it…The U.S. has never fully converted to it, even with nudging by government and business.

While the above quote relates specifically to the metric system, he points out in other sections of his book some of our other propensities:

At the opposite extreme, 80 percent of Americans emphasized the importance of personal freedom and individual rights compared to just 30 percent of Asians.

He also points out:

About half believe it is very important to know about the cultures and customs of others in order to successfully compete in a global economy, yet from my experience Americans are quite lacking in this area.

He seems to have hit that nail on the head.

Not doomed by our past

However, I don’t think we’re doomed by our past and we now have to constantly adapt to a rapidly-changing environment. Within that context, the metric system would be a fairly easy adjustment since it’s based on logic. At that point we can finally properly communicate with the rest of the world. (The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System)

In coming months I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic as new information comes my way.


The Top 10 Reasons Why Now is the Right Time for the United States to Convert to the Metric System

A brochure from the 1970s. The last time we tried to switch to the metric system.

A brochure from the 1970s. The last time we tried to switch to the metric system.

1) More people in the United States are familiar with the metric system than at any period in our history.
The metric system was last introduced into the United States in the 1970s so baby boomers and every generation since have been taught the metric system even if they don’t use it every day. Only those in the “Silent” (1925-1945) and previous generations were not introduced to it as children. Folks 65 and older only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population so it’s safe to assume that 87 percent of U.S. citizens were taught the metric system at some point.1 More familiarity with it  by the vast majority of our population should make metric adoption easier.2

2) The United States continues to be far from first in math and science compared to the rest of the world. The easier to learn and use metric system could be of benefit.
According to 2011 data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study3, the United States rankings in math and science:

4th grade students = 11th (
8th grade students = 9th (

4th grade students = 7th (
8th grade students = 10th  (

Countries seriously kicking us in the butt include Singapore, China, Korea and Japan (to name a few).

3) Lack of metric adoption presents a trade barrier in a world where China is perceived as the next economic superpower. We don’t want to fall more behind.
This has two parts:
a) For many years the European Union has threatened to stop the import of products with dual (U.S. customary and metric units) labels. While that doesn’t look imminent, any market closed to U.S. products due to a lack of metric units is a mistake. (See more on this topic, see this recent blog post.)

b) The rest of the world is shifting its sights away from the U.S. and toward China as the next economic superpower according to the nonpartisian Pew Research Center. In its report, aptly titled “China Perceived to be Overtaking U.S. as Leading Superpower”4 from last year states:

In 15 of 22 nations surveyed in a Pew Research study, pluralities or majorities of these publics believe that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

This idea that we can make the world go along with our outdated measurement system because we’re such an economic superpower is fading fast. We need to pull our heads out of our collective hubris hole.

4) Many Americans are already using the use metric system in everyday life. Switching over the rest of the way shouldn’t be that difficult.
– If you buy 1.5 liter bottle of your favorite soda, 750 ml of distilled spirits, or read the labels on many medical and food products, you’re already using liters and grams.
– If you travel outside of the country, you’ll encounter metric units since that’s what 95 percent of the world uses.
– Many hobbies entail using the metric system as well.
– Then there’s scientists, doctors and anything that deals with international trade—all metric.

It’s just stupid to continue to support two systems. Switchover problems? Too many other countries have managed it just fine so that’s a moot argument.

5) It’s time to stop handicapping our children.
First, we currently teach our students two systems: U.S. customary and metric. That’s classroom time wasted. Second, they’re taught units that do not logically relate to each other as metric units do. More classroom time wasted. Third, they grow up trying to remember that there are 3 teaspoons in a tablespoon, 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 2 pints in a quart (and so on). Trying to multiply and divide these awkward units means part of their lives are wasted.

What’s one third of a liter?
What’s one third of a quart?
(Which measure should you even use? Cups? Tablespoons? Ounces? Ridiculous.)

6) At best, we’ll come in third to last in the metric race. Do we really want to trail so far behind?
The only other two countries that have not integrated the metric system into daily life are Burma and Liberia. For a country that prides itself on leading the way, we’ve sure gotten into the slow lane on this one. How sad would it be if one of these other countries managed to beat us out at metric adoption?

7) The strongest anti-metric organization in our history no longer exists.
For more than six decades5, the American Institute of Weights and Measures existed solely to halt metric adoption in this country. Not sure when it disappeared exactly but I hold in my hand an anti-metric book that it copyrighted as recently as 1981. Can’t find any current mention of it on the Internet. Good.

8) The current generation is more liberal and, therefore, more open to new ideas—including the metric system and a government that should make life better.
The millennials are more international than any previous generation. They routinely interact with people around the world on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, among others. They buy their illegal drugs in metric units and are much more likely to study abroad and travel out of the country. They don’t bat an eye at change. It’s part of their everyday lives.

In considering the role of the younger vote in the recent presidential election, the Pew Research Center also noted that:

Young voters continue to identify with the Democratic Party at relatively high levels and express more liberal attitudes on a range of issues – from gay marriage to the role of the federal government – than do older voters. In fact, voters under 30 were as likely to identify as Democrats in the 2012 exit poll as they had been in 2008 (44% now, 45% then). And they are the only age group in which a majority said that the government should do more to solve problems.6

9) There is already an undercurrent in metric system awareness in this country and people are actively seeking out information on the topic on their own.
It’s been more than 30 years since the United States disbanded the U.S. Metric Board, thereby officially dropping metric adoption. For whatever reason, it’s starting to occur to people that something is wrong and they’re actively trying to find out what’s happened. I anticipate that this interest will increase and we’ll reach “critical political mass.”

10) Social media is available to help propel metric system adoption forward.
Never before in our history has it been easier propagate ideas and information without buy in from the mainstream media. We can leverage social media to propel the idea of metric system adoption forward and connect with those who are likeminded to band together so that government becomes responsive to our needs. We are the future of the metric system.

One last thought…

Globalization is our reality and we need to be able to be able to communication with, and understand, each other. Common languages are the basis for such communication. We already have two examples of that: chess, and notation (scientific and musical). Let’s add one more language to the international stage: the metric system. For this last concept I give credit to my collaborator and project supporter: Robert Kwasny.

2) This references constructivism learning theory. For more information, go to

Lack of U.S. Metric Adoption and International Interest

When I first learned about the historic multiple failures of U.S. metric adoption, I believed only Americans would care about the story. I came to realize that nothing is further from the truth. I suspect that some of that external interest comes from the same reason that people slow down when they pass a car accident: morbid curiosity.

I don’t say that to be mean but I think it’s a human trait that when you see something that you really can’t explain and seems really peculiar you start to wonder what’s going on. That’s pretty much us with regard to metric adoption. People in other countries who realize how far behind we are here must be scratching their heads as to why we still can’t get our act together and go metric like almost every other country has.

The U.K. Connection
One of my early clues that this story was of international interest was when I started my Twitter account and folks from the U.K. and Canada started following me. As I started to think about it, that kind of made sense. After all, the U.S. and U.K have ties that date back more than 200 years. But, it turns out, not only are folks in the U.K. interested in this topic but top visitors to this blog are all former British colonies. That fact becomes visually striking when you look below and notice that in the case of New Zealand and Australia the U.K. flag is still embedded in their current “colors.” That’s less true of Canada, but then their currency is emblazoned with Her Majesty the Queen, so that takes any ambiguity out of the equation.20dollar

I tend to think of U.K. and these other top followers as our brothers and sisters because of these joint ties.

I’m also not the only American to notice that we tend to demonstrate our affinity to our U.K. roots in odd ways. Take, for instance, a New York Times article from late last year that mused over our bemusing tendency to incorporate Britishisms into our American speech. Titled “Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms” it says, in part:

Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere. Call it Anglocreep. Call it annoying. Snippets of British vernacular — “cheers” as a thank you, “brilliant” as an affirmative, “loo” as a bathroom — that were until recently as rare as steak and kidney pie on these shores are cropping up in the daily speech of Americans (particularly, New Yorkers) of the taste-making set who often have no more direct tie to Britain than an affinity for “Downton Abbey.


Some of this carryover must work both ways since our sibling countries are apparently wondering what the heck we are doing that we’re still behind the curve when it comes to metric adoption. Are the folks in Canada and New Zealand thinking something akin to “If we figured out how to grow up decades ago, what’s going on in the U.S.?”

The French Connection
Interestingly, while I was looking over my statistics for this blog on Friday I saw an unusual number of hits had come from France. A little investigation revealed that a woman writing on American topics, including this week our measurement system, had this to say about this project (translated from French):

If you are passionate about the subject, go to this American blog, A mile behind, denouncing the non-use of the metric system in the United States from all angles (the States are one of the only three countries in the world – with Burma and Liberia to not have standardized the metric system).


As this project progresses I’ll have more of a chance to talk to people around the globe. Then I’ll get a much better feel for this interest and not only how we are perceived by those countries to which we have these extended ties but others around the rest of the world.

Want to join my mailing list?
I’m now starting a mailing list so if you would like to be added to learn more about this project outside of this blog, please feel free to send me your email address. I promise that I won’t sell or lend it. If you want to learn more about this project, that’s the least I can do.

Just send an email to to be added to the distribution.

I also welcome any thoughts or comments you might want to share in the email. I’ll assume that if you wanted them to be public, you’d comment on this post. Therefore, if I decide to share any of your thoughts in any way, I’ll do so in a way that keeps you anonymous. So, if you don’t want me to share at all, probably best not to send comments to me.

Thanks for your interest and I’ll keep moving this project forward.


Top pageviews to my post since its inception in July 2012:
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Guest Blog from the UK Metric Association on Trade with the United States

A few weeks ago the chairman of the United Kingdom Metric Association (UKMA) asked me if I’d be willing to write a blog post on U.S.-U.K. trade. I would have been happy to—if I had more than a superficial understanding of the details. So instead (and since I figured he knew far more about the situation than I do) I asked him if he’d be willing to share his thoughts through my blog. He consented and what appears below are his words. This has also been posted on the Metric Views site at I thank him for sharing his thoughts with us. To visit the UK Metric Association, go to

Please note: “Notice to stakeholders: public session of the EU-US High Level Regulatory Cooperation Forum in Washington, D.C. – 10-11 April 2013.”  If interested and in the area, you might want to attend since it relates to this blog. For more information, go to

Will EU-US trade agreement bring in metric-only labelling in the US?

 A key point of President Obama’s State of the Union address on 13 February was the proposed EU – US trade agreement, which has been under preliminary discussion for the past year . (See -of-the -union -free -trade – europe). As this agreement is supposed to remove regulatory barriers to trade, there should now be a serious opportunity to remove the US ban on metric-only labelling of most packages.

The problem is that the EU and the US have conflicting labelling requirements.

The EU’s Units of Measurement Directive requires metric labelling of packages, but following lobbying from both American and European exporters, an amendment in 2009 permitted a “supplementary indication” in non – metric units, provided that the supplementary indication was no more prominent than the legal, metric indication. Thus, the metric quantity is mandatory, but the non – metric is optional (and usually omitted except in the UK).

However, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the US requires that goods that are regulated at the federal level (i.e. most foodstuffs and some household goods) must be labelled with both metric and US Customary measurement units. (US Customary is similar to British “imperial” for mass (weight) and length, but differs for volume). Individual States may allow metric-only labelling for the minority of goods regulated at the State level, and all except Alabama and New York have done so.

The one-sided result is that, as far as measurement units are concerned, US packaging and labelling is accepted in the EU, but EU packaging and labelling may not be accepted in the US. Consequently, any European exporter is faced with the choice of either (a) establishing a separate production line for export goods or (b) dual labelling all goods so that they can be distributed to either the home or the US market.

The reasoning behind the 2009 amendment to the EU Directive was that, if the amendment had not been agreed, exporters would have had to produce separate packaging for the two separate markets. It was claimed that this would be a significant additional business cost and hence a non-tariff  barrier to trade, which would be illegal under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.  Rather than insisting on an immediate reciprocal concession from the US, the European Commission decided, as a gesture of good will, to concede the point in the hope that the US Congress would relent and allow labelling that was legal in the EU to be imported into the US. So far, however, this has not happened as it is opposed by powerful industrial interests that are influential in Congress.  The ostensible  – and illogical – basis for their opposition, is that if metric-only labelling were allowed, manufacturers would have to change their package sizes to rounded metric quantities – e.g. 500 g rather than 1 pound (454 g), and this would entail major investment in packaging machinery. Since there would obviously be no such requirement, one can only conclude that the real basis of the opposition is protectionist.

The significance of all this for metric advocates on both sides of the Atlantic is this.  If metric-only labelling were permitted in the US, then it would be possible for European manufacturers to dispense with supplementary indications completely.  This would be particularly beneficial in the UK, where the ubiquitous presence of imperial units is a constant drag on adapting to metric units, as well as being a reminder that the process of metrication – begun 48 years ago – is still far from completion.  In the US the increasing presence of metric-only labelling would provide an incentive for American consumers to visualise and familiarise themselves with the metric units that they may have touched on at school but have long forgotten.

There are of course many other aspects of package labelling (such as specifying chemical contents and nutritional information) that may need to be resolved in the forthcoming talks, but metric-only labelling would be an easy win that it should be possible for the parties to agree.

© 2013  UK Metric Association

Is It Time to Embrace the Enlightenment of the Metric System in the U.S?

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.

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

Try building something like this without standard measures. (Photo by Nina Aldin Thune)

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:

  1. It had a tradition of proudly of leading the way (much as we think of the United States today);
  2. 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
  3. 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 (

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.

U.S. Sets a Bad International Example—Metrically Speaking

I’ve already mentioned in this blog that I believe that the United States is not only holding itself back with regard to its lack of metric adoption but we serve as a bad example for our sister countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada. While both of the aforementioned countries use the metric system much more in daily life than we do here, the changeover has been less than complete in both. When I asked a metric authority in the U.K. why the conversion was less than 100 percent in his country, the basic answer was “Because you don’t use it.” As I heard the words escape his mouth, I not only knew he was right but I was embarrassed as an American that our country could have had such a backward influence.

Well, we’re apparently striking again.

Newspaper reports started coming out earlier this month saying that there is a move afoot to put a stronger emphasis on imperial units in the U.K. primary school system. [see notes below]

One article included the subhead: “Education minister Elizabeth Truss has announced that the new primary curriculum will put more focus on imperial measurements.”  [note A]

When I contacted the head of the U.K. Metric Association, he indicated that “The current position is that metric is the primary system in schools but a few imperial equivalents are taught to help children with shopping etc. The Department of Education has said there would be no significant change.”

Thank goodness.

But still, any shift toward imperial from metric units represents a backslide as far as I’m concerned. This wouldn’t even likely be under discussion if we, as a nation, had moved to a metric system 200 years ago when Thomas Jefferson wanted us to!

While internationally people’s gaze have started to shift from the United States to China as the world’s economic superpower (Yep, you read that right. [note B]) it is quite clear that the U.K. relies on us for revenue from exports as in “The USA has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world and is Britain’s largest single export market.” [note C]

As long as the U.K. depends on us for revenue and we continue to ignorantly stumble forward with an antiquated measurement system more backsliding is possible elsewhere in the world. This is, at least until we’re no longer a global economic superpower.

Would converting to the metric system help us economically in the world marketplace? I’m not qualified to answer that question but it seems likely to me that a complete changeover to the metric system might help us better compete.

Do we really want to find out too late that it was something we should have done? Why would we even want to take that chance?