Why Hasn’t the U.S. Switched To the Metric System of Measurement?

Among all the nations of the world, only four great powers, Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Yemen, and the United States of America, have not yet adopted the metric system of measurement. Is it possible that the rest of the world is onto something that has thus far eluded these four?

Let’s see how our creaky and quirky English system of measurement (which even the English don’t use anymore) might be improved. Here is the list of ingredients in a recipe for coffee cake:

1 cup sour cream

1¼ teaspoons baking soda

1¾ teaspoons baking powder

1¾ cups cake flour

2  eggs

1½ cups sugar

½ cup butter

Now suppose that you want to make half the recipe. Your assignment: Cut the ingredient amounts in half.

Let’s see, now. Half of one and one-third is, er . . . Well, half of one and one-fourth is . . . urn . . . Half of one and three-fourths . . . Well, there are eight ounces in a cup (or is it sixteen?), so half of one and three-fourths cups of flour is one and three-fourths times eight divided by two, or . . . Why don’t I just take half of two eggs-I can do that in my head, and guess at the rest of the stuff?

Good luck.

Now let’s imagine a brave new world in which everything is in metric units. The coffee cake recipe would work so much better.

Simplicity itself, no?

Now all you have to know is what in the world a gram is, right? Not really. If in the brave new world you own a gizmo that measures everything out in grams, what do you care how big a gram is? Just measure out 160 of them, 3 of them, 4¼ of them and so on, whatever they are. Do you really know what an “ounce” is? All you know is that it’s a certain amount of stuff that some person or persons unknown, for reasons unknown, decided upon a long, long time ago.

Moreover, we must constantly wrestle with three kinds of ounces: fluid, avoirdupois, and troy; and they’re all different. They don’t even measure the same thing; two of them measure weight and one measures volume.

A gram is a unit of weight. Weighing things out on a scale is a lot more accurate and reproducible than filling up measuring cups, teaspoons, and tablespoons, especially with messy stuff like butter. Okay, so you’ll have to buy a kitchen scale. Serious chefs already weigh out their ingredients.

Now, out of the kitchen and into the workshop. You have a board that measures seven feet, nine and five-eighths inches, and you need to cut it into three equal lengths. Again, good luck with the calculation. (The answer, which you can arrive at in substantially less than an hour, is two feet, seven and seven thirty-seconds inches, more or less.) In the brave new world, you would measure the board with a meter stick and find that it is 238 centimeters long. One-third of that is 79.3 centimeters. End of problem.

Note that you didn’t have to know or care that there are 2.54 centimeters in an inch, any more than you had to know that there are 28.35 grams in an ounce when you weighed out your cake ingredients. Just think of a centimeter as the distance between two adjacent numbers on the stick and a gram as one of those little divisions on the scale.

Many people despair of ever learning the metric system because the units, the grams and centimeters and so on, are hard to visualize in terms of familiar ounces and inches.

In other words, it’s the conversion between the old and new systems that is troublesome. And indeed it is. Who wants to keep messing around with 2.54s and 28.35s all the time? There’s no doubt that it is going to be terribly awkward to convert everything in the United States, from recipes to road maps, not to mention all of our industrial production facilities, to the metric system. Nobody argues with that.

But that’s the wrong reason for resisting the metric system. Don’t we now have to perform ridiculously difficult conversions every day in the English system? Twelve inches in a foot; 3 feet in a yard; 1760 yards in a mile; 16 avoirdupois ounces in a pound, 16 fluid ounces in a pint; 2 pints in a quart, 4 quarts in a gallon, and so on. Not to mention wrestling with pecks, bushels, barrels, fathoms, knots, and literally hundreds of other crazy units.

In the metric system, there is only one unit for each type of measurement. And the only conversion numbers you’ll need are 10, 100, and 1000; not 3, 4, 12, 16, or 5,280. There are 100 centimeters in a meter, 1000 meters in a kilometer, 1000 grams in a kilogram, and so on. Using metrics is simplicity itself, as evidenced by the fact that every schoolchild and housewife throughout 94 percent of the world’s population has no trouble at all with it.

Once our awkward transition period is over, life will be beautiful. But the longer we wait, the tougher the transition is going to be.

The United States of America has a real bad toothache and is procrastinating about seeing the dentist.