The Smithsonian and the Metric System

In September, I got a much-needed getaway. During that time, I made a trip to Washington D.C. to visit friends.

While there, I took advantage of my proximity to visit my contact at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (or NIST and the keepers of the metric system in the United States).

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

Artifacts in the museum at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in D.C.

The NIST Museum

I was at NIST three years ago when I was just a few weeks into this project. Needless to say, my experience at its museum was radically different now that I had some context for the things that I saw. (Note: the museum is open only to official visitors. Still, there is a lot of information on the organization’s website.)

I also got a chance to meet with Elizabeth Gentry, my NIST contact there, and our country’s finest Metric Coordinator. While I’ve been keeping her up-to-date on the project, I’d yet to meet her in person.

Convert between systems only when necessary

I’m not sure how or why, but the friend I was staying with had some old U.S.-to-metric conversion slide rules imprinted with the Detroit Teachers Credit Union logo and a copyright of 1973.

A conversion "helper" from the 1970s

A conversion “helper” from the 1970s

One of the complaints that I’ve heard while on this project has been that our last attempt to convert to the metric system back in the mid-1970s spent too much time trying to teach people conversion formulas. Transitioning this way is actually quite complicated because there are so many formulas to memorize because we use so many different units (feet, pounds, ounces, gallons, ounces, etc.). The image to the right only captures part of the problem.

Any future plans to adopt the metric system would benefit from just straight measurement using the metric system, rather than trying to teach very complex and lengthy sets of conversion factors. (Only convert when absolutely necessary, like your grandma’s favorite recipes.)

For example: Do you have a space that needs a table? Just measure using the metric side of the ruler and do the same when shopping. I know I’m oversimplifying but it’s a start.

We were early decimal adopters—our coins

Needless to say, now that I’m involved with the metric system, I see its relevance almost everywhere.

Display depicting the different coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence.

A display depicting the different foreign coins in use in colonial America prior to our independence and establishment of our own mint.

I did end up coming across a coin display at the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian museum complex) called “Legendary Coins & Currency.” It reinforced some of my previous research that one of the reasons that the United States ended up with decimalized currency came from the fact that when we landed on this continent, we were not allowed to mint our own money while still part of England.

Note this quote from the History of Colonial Money that I found on the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston site:

By 1652, the problem resulting from a shortage of coins had become extreme. England had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ plea for specie [gold and silver coin. ed], and the colonial leaders did not believe that the people should have to continue using the mixture of foreign coins, wampum, bullets, and barter objects any longer. In an effort to provide more good coin to further trade and commerce, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established an illegal mint in Boston in 1652.

That meant that we had a total mishmash of currencies, not only from our home country but with all the other countries with which we were trading. And there were many. It made for a difficult time. Thomas Jefferson was more than well aware of the problem as one source notes:

…one of Jefferson’s most troublesome legal clients finally paid him in a motley mixture of silver and gold — half joes and moidores from Portugal, doubloons and pistoles from Spain, and 308 English half crowns.

As a result, our fabulous founding father:

…had the rational idea to create a decimal-based currency system. Meaning that money should be based on the number ten. The word for one hundred in Latin is cent, so Jefferson suggested that the word for a 1/100th of a dollar be “cent.” The Latin word for “one tenth” is dime; so again, Jefferson suggested that as the name for the 1/10th of a dollar coin. The five-cent coin would become known as the half dime and then later, the nickel.

Thus, he was able to move us as a nation to the decimalized currency we still use in the U.S. today.

Jefferson was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimalized currency. He gave it, in 1784, its most articulate and persuasive expression in his “Notes on Coinage.” Congress, convinced by these arguments, adopted the new coin units with little dissent.

Unfortunately, he has more problems passing a decimalized system for our lenghts. But that’s another post.

[Please note: I am now starting a book on the subject of metric system adoption in the United States. I will post to this blog on occasion but the bulk of work on this project (when not at my full-time job) will focus on writing the book. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing, the best thing will be to follow my Twitter feed and Facebook page. I’m finding those easier to keep up with. I now hope to post here once a month.)

Stay tuned!



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,


National Metric Week is Coming: Can You Help?

The logo for this year's National Metric Week

The logo for this year’s National Metric Week

Believe it or not, we actually have a National Metric Week in this country. It’s always the week in which October 10th falls (As in 10/10). This year it’s the week of October 6-12. The annual recognition of the importance of the metric system in the United States is promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

From the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Part of its formal position on the subject of metric system adoption reads in part:

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics supports efforts by the U.S. government to make a transition to the metric system (SI) as the nation’s primary measurement system and to reestablish the U.S. Metric Board to support and encourage the use of the metric system. However, the Council recognizes the leadership responsibility of schools to ensure that all students have experiences that enable them to measure in both the metric and the customary systems as well as to solve problems related to measurement in either system.

The second part of that statement wouldn’t be necessary if we had converted to the metric system during one of our several attempts in the past 200+ years. (And yes, there was more than the one in 1975.)

If the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics think it’s important for our children to covert to the metric system (how I read the above statement) then it must be pretty important because these are the folks who teach our children math!

As if that wasn’t enough, I located the following in of the 2013 version of the National Education Association Handbook under its “Resolutions” section:

B-57. Metric System
The National Education Association believes in the adoption of the International System of Units (SI metric system). The Association advocates that the SI system be taught at all educational levels. Page 238.

And here’s what the National Science Teachers Association has to say to say on the subject (in part):

The efficiency and effectiveness of the metric system has long been evident to scientists, engineers, and educators. Because the metric system is used in all industrial nations except the United States, it is the position of the National Science Teachers Association that the International System of Units (SI) and its language be incorporated as an integral part of the education of children at all levels of their schooling.

Metric system conversion is a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) issue

As I’ve pondered our metric system history issues for more than a year, I’ve come to the conclusion that conversion to the metric system is fundamentally an education/STEM issue. For those of you not familiar with the STEM acronym STEM, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

It’s a concept I’m very familiar with since I’ve been writing about regional STEM issues for the national laboratory where I work for many years.

Students well-grounded in STEM fields are critical to our country’s future

As if the above wasn’t enough, here’s what the U.S. Department of Education has to say about STEM education in our country:

The United States has become a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators. Yet today, that position is threatened as comparatively few American students pursue expertise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—and by an inadequate pipeline of teachers skilled in those subjects. President Obama has set a priority of increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these vital fields.

Further down on the same page it states:

Only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career.

Even among those who do go on to pursue a college major in the STEM fields, only about half choose to work in a related career. The United States is falling behind internationally, ranking 25th in mathematics and 17th in science among industrialized nations. In our competitive global economy, this situation is unacceptable.

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

STEM job projections from the Department of Education

This is a pitiful situation as far as I’m concerned.

Plus, STEM Careers Pay Well

The U.S. Census reports the “Per capita money income in the past 12 months (2011 dollars” is $27,915 in our nation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, here are the pay ranges for some STEM careers and many of them only include those for people with bachelors or masters degrees.

Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations                      $32,760 to $107,420
Architecture and Engineering Occupations                              $37,900 to $114,080
Computer and Information Technology Occupations               $46,260 to $100,660
Math Occupations                                                                     $70,960 to $99,380
Physicians and Surgeons                                                         $189,402 to $407,292

The bottom line: Resources spent learning U.S. customary units in our schools is a waste of time and our children need to be well versed in the metric system to get high-paying careers in science and medicine.

I urge you to take advantage of national metric week this year to acquaint yourself with the metric system (if you’re not already familiar with it) and set a good example for those around you. Measure using those “other” marks on your rulers for a change and take a look at the milliliter side of your clear class measuring vessels the next time to pour in your ounces and cups.

It’s really not that difficult and, in fact, no country that has converted to the metric system has wanted to go back to its old way of doing things…something to think about.

For additional Metric Week resources, visit the U.S. Metric Association’s pages and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.