America’s Complicated Relationship with the Metric System: Why It’s Not Commonly Used Today

Recently, I did an episode on why the United States still does not use the metric system, and I wanted to expand upon the history of the system in the U.S. I’ve heard from a number of my students how strange they find the U.S. system of measurements and the fact that Americans do not use the metric system. Understanding this unique aspect of American culture requires that we look at the complicated history of the metric system in the U.S. and how lawmakers failed to fully implement the system when they had the chance.

The Metric System: A Global Standard

The metric system, often simply referred to as “the metric system,” is a globally recognized standard for measurements. Its use is widespread in many countries around the world. It was developed in France during the late 18th century and is known for its simplicity and ease of use. Instead of working with complex units like feet, pounds, and gallons, the metric system employs straightforward units like meters, grams, and liters, all based on powers of 10.

The metric system made its first appearance in the United States in the early 19th century. In 1866, the U.S. Congress officially authorized the use of the metric system. However, this was not a mandatory change, and only made it legal to use the metric system so people could do so without fear of repercussions. Because of this, the use of traditional units continued alongside the metric system.

Industrialization and the Status Quo

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States experienced a surge in industrialization. The United States made another push towards metrication in the 1970s with the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. This act aimed to encourage voluntary adoption of the metric system. Government agencies were required to use metric units in their activities, but the act did not mandate private industries or individuals to do the same. Existing machinery and equipment were already designed to work with imperial units. Transitioning to the metric system would have required substantial investments in retooling, which many industries were hesitant to undertake.

Despite these efforts, the adoption of the metric system in the United States remained sluggish. For Americans, it was a case of having one foot in the metric system and the other in the imperial system. Everyday life continued to be a mix of metric and imperial units. Changing the entire system of measurement can be a daunting task, particularly for a country as vast as the United States, and people have overall been resistant to change.

The Future of the Metric System in the U.S.

So, where does this leave us today? While the metric system is not widely used in everyday life, it is prevalent in specific industries and scientific fields. For example, pharmaceuticals, international trade, and the scientific community frequently use the metric system. However, if you walk into an American grocery store, you will likely find products labeled in ounces and pounds rather than grams and kilograms.

Despite this, there is still a push for metrication in the United States, particularly in the education system. Many American students are taught both metric and imperial units, which is a positive step toward wider adoption of the metric system in the future. I am a high school science teacher, and I can say that I have to teach the metric system to my students every year. In general, my students understand the theoretical usefulness of the system and the benefits of using something that it known the world over. However, they also feel unfamiliar with the system and wouldn’t feel comfortable if the United States officially transferred over to it.

As global interactions and trade continue to increase, there may be a greater incentive for the United States to fully embrace the metric system in the years to come. Personally though, I do not see the U.S. completely adopting the metric system any time in the near future. As you can see, there has been a push to do so for 150 years, but it still hasn’t worked. By now, our current system seems so ingrained that I do not see a willingness to pay for a conversion to an unfamiliar system. Therefore, if you are planning to visit the United Sates, be sure to brush up on miles and ounces before you get here!

Until next time, keep learning English!

Leave a Reply