American Metric System Hypocrisy?

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

Start planning your World Metrology Day celebration now!

May 20 will be the 139th anniversary of the United States as one of the original signatory nations of the Convention of the Meter also known as the Treaty of the Meter. On that day the world took a leap forward and officially recognized the need to protect and improve the metric system (or SI as it is known on the rest of the planet), through the creation of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). It is an intergovernmental organization that comes under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM). On that day in Paris there was agreement on how the organization would be financed and managed, with member governments acting in common accord on all matters.

Ahem, then there’s the United States saying one thing and doing another


yet, I’m still buying my hamburger by the pound, gasoline by the gallon and fabric by the yard. What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty and that’s why I’ve been researching his topic for almost two years. I trust the documentary I plan to make will raise awareness of how far behind the rest of the world we’ve gotten and we’ll want to do something about it.

To commemorate this 139th anniversary, also known as World Metrology Day, I’ll give a talk at Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos, New Mexico on May 21 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public. If you’re in the neighborhood, I hope you’ll drop by. I’ll try to be both informative and entertaining.

Just so you know, the theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is “Measurements and the global energy challenge” and is sponsored by the BIPM and the International Organization of Legal Metrology (BIML).

According to Stephen Patoray, the current director of the BIML:

While measurements are central to most basic decisions on energy usage, there are many other aspects of the global energy challenge which are much more complex:

  • global population growth;
  • emerging economies;
  • complex technologies;
  • increasing consumer demands;
  • higher quality of life;
  • etc.

According to the site’s press release:

World Metrology Day is an annual event during which more than 80 countries celebrate the impact of measurement on our daily lives.

Feel free to join in to spread the word about all the advantages the metric system has versus our cumbersome U.S. customary units.

While not new, I found an interview where Rachel Maddow celebrated World Metrology Day back in 2010. You can view the seven minute clip here.

I hadn’t come across this before and was surprised to learn that several scientists with the National Institute of Standards were awarded Nobel Prizes for their work with time and temperatures during the past few years including: David J. Wineland (2012), John (Jan) L. Hall (2005) and William D. Phillips (1997) (More on them here.)

It’s not too early to start planning for next year

I don’t know that we’ll be in a better position to participate in World Metrology Day by the 140th anniversary (2015) but hopefully we will by the 150th anniversary, or sooner, if enough people in this country decide to do something about it.



Please Help Support a New Documentary on the Kilogram

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

Meter built into a building for public use (Photo by Amy Young)

All but one unit of the metric system can be scientifically derived. For instance, anyone anywhere can currently define a meter with the right equipment. This is important because any measurement standard that relies on a physical tool (think yardstick in this country and a meterstick elsewhere) means it is vulnerable to variability based on the material it’s made from—and every material is subject to change. Such differences can come from use (some of it gets worn off, making it shorter or lighter or accumulates dirt, making it longer or heavier) or even temperature. Optimally, you want a measurement standard that never changes under any circumstances.

The international standard for the length of the meter (for instance) is 1/299,792,458 of the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in one second.

If you can measure that (and laboratories around the world can), you can define the meter without any other external reference.

The outlier within the metric system is the kilogram. By definition, a kilogram is the weight of a piece of special metal kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures located outside of Paris called the International Prototype of the Kilogram. (It is equal to 2.20462 lbs for those still using U.S. customary units.) Periodically kilogram standards held by metrology centers from around the world are brought together to ensure their consistency against this single cylinder of metal kept carefully preserved for that purpose.

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Kilogram standard (Photo by Amy Young)

Work is currently underway for the development of a scientifically derived kilogram and while it’s not quite there, it’s getting close. When that happens, the kilogram will no longer require a physical standard or be subject to environmental fluctuations. This is a good thing.

It is this history and ongoing scientific work that is the subject of a documentary called State of the Unit: The Kilogram. Amy Young, who has been working on this project for two years, needs help raising completion funds for her project and I’m asking you to help.

To learn more about the documentary, its background, the people involved and for your chance to contribute, go to

This is the sort of project that will help raise awareness of the metric system in this country (though not the direct purpose of Amy’s efforts) and for that reason, I’m putting my support behind it.

How much support? While my own project has certainly taken its fair share of my resources, I’m contributing to the project. I ask you to consider doing the same.

The Kickstarter campaign for State of the Unit ends on Friday, May 17 at 5:33pm EDT. Amy’s goal is to raise a modest $26,800 to help her complete the project that she already has spent so much of time and money on. Unless she raises the full amount, she’ll get none of it. She’s close but the deadline is looming fast.

Please consider helping her further this important work.

I thank you in advance for contributing to metric system understanding and education in whatever ways you can.


(Note: Revised on 5/12 at 8:20 p.m. to correct a typographical error.)

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:
Blogstats (1)

An Anti-Metric Case Study: The Huffington Post

When I started this project I sensed there was a pro-metric undercurrent that’s been building for some time. I also surmised that the anti-metric folks would start to feel it and respond. While I can’t currently prove more media attention is building on either side, there was an piece that appeared earlier this week to which I would like to respond. It includes several of the more common anti-metric arguments I’ve come across.

The Huffington Post, in its Science section ran a piece by Lila Nordstrom on Thursday called “Diverging Bases: The Case Against the Metric System.”

Nordstrom says:

More irritatingly, there is something deeply patronizing and dismissive about the way in which the same people criticize our measurement system in America, which is based on British imperial units (which do, to be fair, have a vaguely sinister name).

The “They’re part of our British history” argument

Ms. Nordstrom is not the first person I’ve encountered who has connected a fondness for our current units in the United States to our ancestral roots in merry old England. There are a couple of problems with this:

1) We don’t use imperial units in this country. Sure, we initially brought inches, yards and ounces over but they were so flawed that we tried to “fix” them. However, that resulted in a system that does not completely align itself to any other country in the world. Thus, we don’t use imperial units in this country, we use U.S. customary units. We’re the only ones in the world who do.

2) As a subset of this incorrect attribution, the ounce used within this system is the avoirdupois ounce. It’s the one we use for units smaller than a pound and less than a cup. It also sounds kind of French doesn’t it? So, in an effort to embrace our British heritage one needs to embrace what the British adopted from the French. Sound a bit convoluted to me.

3) The U.K. formally adopted the metric system in 1965. So, if we really want to embrace our links to the British brothers and sisters, we should use the metric system as well. The fact that it is not fully entrenched there owes much to our own lack of adoption.

The nostalgia argument

This argument goes something along the lines of “It’s part of our heritage in this country, something we should embrace and try to preserve.”

Nordstrom says:

Though it may seem uncivilized (though I’d argue that a nation whose government lacks a belief in basic science could perhaps lay blame for its uncivilized reputation elsewhere), our loyalty to imperial units is, in fact, emblematic of some of America’s more endearing qualities; our belief in the common man, our pioneer past, and our history of rebellion.

Well sure, I’m all for embracing our history but I’m also pretty sure than many of these same folks who might find it quaint to have our monarch’s portrait back on our money would not want to revert to English currency and give up our metric measures within the dollar (as in 10 dimes and 100 pennies) for the pence and shilling. Do we want to go back to using the hogshead as a volume measure as well? That’s also part of our country’s early history.

The “they’re organic” argument

Nordstrom says:

Imperial measurements, by contrast, can easily be described in relation to the human body and the physical world because they were originally designed to be based on body parts.

I’d posit that some of these same folks arguing for our history would probably not want to go back to having their yard of fabric measured from the tip of nose to the outstretched tip of the finger (surely store owners would hire those with the smallest possible arms to do the work). Yeah, body parts are a convenient use of measures for a population that cannot read or write (looking back a couple of hundred years) but that is hardy the case today.

I could go on and pick apart what she says (for instance, she also uses the “having a system with more divisors” [2, 3, 4, 6] argument) but that really isn’t my intent.

What does please me about this particular article is that quite a few pro-metric comments  appear in her piece.

For instance:

It is easy for me to remember how many meters in a kilometer, or how many milliliters in a liter, but so hard to remember how many feet in a mile or how many pints in a gallon. That Imperial system just is not logical.


I still don’t know for example how many pints there are in a gallon, or how many feet in a mile. Not that I want to go back to the country of my birth, but still, I want to improve the country I became a citizen of.


…as a younger nation we prided ourselves on self sufficiency, competition and innovation as the imports increased tool companies and manufacturers used multiple measurement systems as opportunities to increase revenue. now that labor costs in the U.S. have become restrictive, outsourcing and imports have created an environment of government subsidies just for survival. much like the postal system, imperial units are dead weight that are dragging our economy down.

The pushback reinforces that moving toward the metric system are efforts in the right direction.

To view the original article and the comments I’m sure will accrue, go to