When you’re an American living abroad, you’re subjected to any number of rude questions like “Why are you all so fat?” and “Why are you all so stupid?” One French girl even wanted to know why America refuses to split up into several smaller countries, because obviously, “It’s too big.” No, this woman has never visited the United States, as far as I know, and when I asked her if she felt the same way about Canada, she appeared unaware that Canada is really big.
You’re also expected to provide thoughtful, cogent responses to questions that would take most people years of thorough research to answer, such as “What’s the deal with all the guns?” or “Why don’t you guys have universal health care?” or, if the person in question has traveled or lived in any part of the country besides New York City, “Why isn’t there any public transport?” (Of course, if the person has traveled or lived in New York City – AND THEY ALL FUCKING HAVE – the question becomes “Why don’t you just walk places instead of driving? Then you all wouldn’t be so fat.” “I live ten miles from the nearest town” is not the most convincing response to such a remark, because they all think “ten miles” is the equivalent of like 500 meters or something.
I don’t want to discuss guns, health care, or the obesity epidemic at this juncture, but there’s one question that has remained foremost in my mind throughout my many travels, and as you might have guessed, that’s “Why doesn’t America use the metric system?” The whole rest of the world uses it, except for the aptly named Liberia and Myanmar, but Myanmar has recently chosen to metricate, like a bunch of sissies.
Though there are some differences between the British Imperial system and the American customary system, the American system is based on the British Imperial system, which spread throughout the English-speaking world courtesy of, you guessed it, British imperialism. That system was developed in an era when most people couldn’t do much math – the most the average person could do was divide things into halves, quarters, and possibly thirds. They certainly couldn’t cope with tenths, a necessary skill for working with the metric system. That’s why the weights and measurements of the Imperial and customary systems are, for the most part, easily divisible into halves and quarters and thirds – just about any illiterate medieval peasant could figure out what one-third of a foot is, but one-third of a decimeter is BURN THE WITCH.
The French government implemented the metric system following the Revolution as a solution to the growing clusterfuck of non-standardized and conflicting systems of measurement that was engulfing the country as a whole, standing in the way of commerce, and generally causing giant pains in everyone’s culs. Stephen Mihm, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, told The Atlantic that “it took many decades for France to get its citizens to adopt [the metric system] – there were many, many setbacks and a staggering amount of resistance.” The implementation of the metric system was part of the First French Republic’s attempt to decimalize the whole of French society, introducing the French Republican Calendar and implementing ten-day weeks and 100-minute hours that were twice as long as normal hours. (I bet you can guess how well that went over.) While most of the changes were eventually abandoned, the metric system quickly caught on among other countries looking for a standardized system of measurement.
By the end of the 19the century, most countries around the world had adopted the metric system, but the United States, among other Anglophone nations, clung to the Imperial/customary system. Initially, American reluctance to switch to the metric system hinged on the objections of Industrial-era machine and tool manufacturers, who had already based the whole of their manufacturing systems on the inch. They claimed that retooling their entire factories to produce metric tools and equipment could be financially disastrous, and successfully lobbied to block the adoption of the metric system numerous times over the 19th and 20th century.
Nevertheless, if you’re American, you may have noticed that you buy your soda in liters and that there are centimeters down one side of your ruler. At some point, a school teacher may have even fruitlessly attempted to teach you metric conversion. There was a time in more recent history when the United States almost joined the rest of the world in counting by tens. As former British colonies around the world, and even the UK itself, began adopting the metric system in the 1960s, America decided to do the same. In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and established the Metric Board to oversee the transition to metric. However, Congress made metrication voluntary, and the public rebelled. Some argued that metrication was unpatriotic. The director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame called the proposal “definitely communist.” Some feared it would pave the way for a Soviet takeover of the United States. But mostly, people just didn’t want to learn a whole new system. By 1982, the dream of metric in the United States was dead. President Reagan disassembled the Metric Board, and democracy was safe once again.
Image by Catherine Munro at Wikimedia Commons.