Why Not Metric?

| Fri May 26, 2006 5:29 PM EDT

Via Rob Farley, "Dean Dad" wonders why the United States never adopted the metric system (although you see weird exceptions crop up all the time, like with 2-liter Coke bottles). Indeed, it's a real problem. I doubt it has a large economic impact on the country—a calculator will convert back and forth between the two systems, so I doubt manufacturers and engineers care very much—but it's certainly absurd to force everyone to remember that there are 1,760 yards in a mile and so forth. But apparently inches and yards are "manly" units of measurement, and that's why we have them:

Looking back, I sorta remember the backlash against metric occurring as part of the backlash against an inchoate sense that America was in decline. In the late 70's, there was a weird, curdled-populist anger that manifested itself in CB radios and Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan…. Anyway, the metric system at that time came off as a sort of effete, Euro-Modernist import, shoved down the throats of Real Americans by the same smug coastal elites who got all self-righteous about banning smoking and conserving energy.
Two of Ronald Reagan's early acts as president, as it turned out, were to overturn a law encouraging schools to teach kids the metric system, and to disband and defund the U.S. Metric Board. But then in 1988, apparently, there was a change of heart and Congress decided to require all federal agencies to go metric. The military, meanwhile, has long relied solely on the metric system, because when lives are on the line no one wants to be racking their brains wondering how many quarts to a gallon. But no one wants to force the rest of the country to follow suit. We'd have to throw out all our measuring cups, after all.

Those facts, by the way, all come from this handy metric timeline. I also was going to point out that when I lived in Ireland, all the speed limits were oddly designated in miles, but apparently that's no longer true as of 2005. Right now the only other countries that haven't officially adopted the system are Burma and Liberia, so the United States is in good company I guess.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.