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United States

Why Does the US Cling To Imperial Measurements? 2288

Posted by samzenpus
from the my-car-gets-40-rods-to-the-hogshead dept.
PhunkySchtuff writes "As one of only three countries on Earth that hasn't converted to a metric system of units and measurements, there is a huge amount of resistance within the US to change the status quo. Whilst the cost of switching would be huge, there is also a massive hidden cost in not switching when dealing with the rest of the world (except for Liberia & Burma, the only other two countries that don't use the metric system) With one of the largest organisations in the US, the military, using metric units extensively, why does the general public in the US still cling to their customary system of units?"
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Why Does the US Cling To Imperial Measurements?

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  • by matty619 (630957) on Wednesday April 20, 2011 @10:38PM (#35887694)

    Americans like monosyllabic or abbreviated words wherever possible. Especially in commonly used words, like those involving measurements. We've got pound, inch, foot, yard, pint, quart, and gallon....gallon being one of the few multisyllabic words. Most metric metrics (lol...ya, I just did that) are multi syllable compound words, and most of them don't have any obvious way of being shortened. Americans just don't want to say "Kilometer" when they can say "mile. They don't want to say "centimeter" when they can say "inch".

    The Metric System is elegantly simple and beautiful, in everything but the English pronunciation of said metrics. What a shame.

  • Re:Ronald Reagan (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LurkerXXX (667952) on Wednesday April 20, 2011 @11:02PM (#35888064)

    Yep. Just to give more background for the young-uns, I was a very young school kid in the 70's. We were told to learn the metric system and get used to it, because before we were out of high school, the country was going to be converted over entirely to the metric system.

    That proclamation from our teachers was after congress passed The Metric Conversion Act in 1975. They created the U.S. Metric Board to oversee the conversion.

    1979 - The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms required wine producers/importers to switch to metric.

    1980 - The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms required required distilled spirits producers/importers to switch to metric.

    1982 - Reagan disbands the Metric Board, and fires everyone associated with it.

    So we have Reagan to thank for our reliance on an outdated system of measurement. As well as the new trend for Republicans to deficit spend like mad, ballooning the National Debts as never before, and getting religious nut wings involved in politics like never before.

  • by mug funky (910186) on Wednesday April 20, 2011 @11:02PM (#35888072)

    so that's your argument? "what would the aliens think?"

    SI is a planetary standard. the only (ONLY) arbitrary measure in it is the actual length of the metre, because at some point someone had to choose something.

    everything else relates to that one measurement, and mass measurements relate back via water at 4 degrees celcius (water is most dense at this point). 1Kg of water is equal to 1 litre in volume, which fits into a cube 10cm to a side.

    or if you prefer, 1 cubic metre of water at 4 degrees weighs exactly one metric tonne.

    now give me the above in ounces, furlongs, feet, and pints and we can discuss what the aliens would think.

  • Re:morons (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mmarlett (520340) on Wednesday April 20, 2011 @11:33PM (#35888528)

    The anonymous post that is the parent of this comment is marked as a troll, but, honestly, it's just a statement of fact. The truth is that in the U.S. politicians are afraid of offending the majority of people, and a significant amount of them are just a bunch of redneck morons. We tried this in the 1970s, when the President was from Georgia and we thought we might be able to sell it to the rednecks, but they went apeshit. The only thing we got out of that was soda in two-liter bottles. (Glass in '76 ... plastic in the early 80s.) But you can't blame this problem on urban drug dealers. They sell their coke in grams and kilos.

  • by Stoutlimb (143245) on Wednesday April 20, 2011 @11:42PM (#35888658)

    Speaking from experience, as someone forced to use both measurement systems for length and area in the construction and design industry, I prefer imperial for some work. And I don't live in the USA. Why?

    The fractional measurement system with a base-12 number system is the reason. For design purposes. Specifically division, which is common. It's frustrating to divide things and get lengths with fractional or repeating decimals. It clutters up the design space with unnecessarily large numbers, sometimes for small measurements. Often space is precious on blue prints on documents, and this actually makes a big difference.

    For example, suppose I have a wall, that I need to break up to place things like doors, windows, or interior partitions. With the metric system, I can only divide by either 2, 5, or 10 and reasonably expect to get nice round numbers for my measurements. With the imperial system, with being able to revert to feet and inches, it's possible to divide by 2, 3, 4, 6, or 12, and reasonably expect a simple number in return. I'm especially fond of being able to divide by 3 and 4, which the metric system doesn't do very easily compared to the imperial.

    Despite these benefits which I enjoy, I would still sacrifice the imperial system for the metric. In the big picture, it still makes more sense and is better overall. Personally I do believe it's the strong construction industry in big part that clings to the imperial system for their own legitimate reasons.

  • Hello,

        Using minute/hour/day thing isn't so irrational, really. 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour, 60 is a very nice number.
        1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30 all divide into it without fractions.

        For 10, you have 1, 2, 5, and that's it.

        24 is a pretty nice number for dividing too, you have
    1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12.


  • Re:morons (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Technician (215283) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @12:59AM (#35889398)

    Metric is easier. The big thing that put a big halt on the adoption was the gas crisis in the 1970's when gas creeped to $1.00 gallon. The difficulty was having to compare two standards against each other and the new standard was much more expensive for consumers. As gas pushed $1.00 per gallon. the display on many pumps could not display the higher prices. To prevent buying new pumps, some switched to Liters. Consumers soon found the cheap 35 cent / Liter gas was more expensive and later quit trying to compare prices as common knowledge was the metric gas was more expensive.

    In products where we are not comparing metric and US, the metric standard has become the standard. Soda pop is only sold in metric sizes now. 12 and 16 oz are pretty much gone with 1 Liter 500 ml, 2 Liter etc sizes. Most bottled water is now in the 500 ml bottle. All hardware for mounting your flatscreen TV is all metric. Car engines are almost all metric. Serous, when was the last time you wanted to know how much your soda was in price per gallon? All comparison shopping is done is price per Liter for soft drinks except at the soda fountain where the cups are still 16, 32, 48, 64 oz.

    The slow conversions is in entrenched measurements such as gasoline, kitchen recipes, temperature, etc where one is the standard and people still try to convert units. You tell them it is 24 degrees out and they want to know what that means in F. Having lived in another country I'm fine with metric as I was immersed in it and did not bother to convert. 21-24 is comfortable. 30 is really hot and 10 is time to grab a warmer coat.

    If we started tearing down miles signs and mile markers and replacing them with Metric KM signs and changed the speed signs to 90, the country would soon adopt it. Most cars now can display either clicks or miles.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 21, 2011 @01:38AM (#35889710)

    360 is also a very nice number too in terms of is factors:

    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 24, 30, 36, 40, 45, 60, 72, 90, 120, and 180.

    That was well known to the Babylonians, which is why it was used in their numbering systems. By sheer coincidence, it also fit very closely to the number of days in a year, which is perhaps why the number was used for circles and other similar calculations. To include a way to chop things into seven pieces, you would have to ramp up to 1260 divisions, which really becomes unwieldy. Still, 60*60 seconds can be divided into 10 or 100 pieces as needed if you really want to go decimal.

  • by Paul Jakma (2677) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @02:48AM (#35890124) Homepage Journal

    The UK and Ireland went metric sometime in the early 80s iirc (EU standardisation). All weights and measures used in at least consumer trading had to be given primarily in metric. Speed and distance on the road is one of the few places where imperial is still used in the UK. In Ireland, for quite a while, you had the interesting situation that speed limits were in mph while distances on sign-boards were in km (except for the very old black & white ones out in the country). Ireland finally fixed that inconsistency 6 or 7 ish years ago and changed speed limits over to km/h overnight (though, the odd black & white old signpost in miles still remain). When you drive in Ireland, you know you've crossed the border when the posted speed limits suddenly change by a large amount. ;)

  • Re:morons (Score:4, Interesting)

    by westlake (615356) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @02:56AM (#35890190)

    The truth is that in the U.S. politicians are afraid of offending the majority of people, and a significant amount of them are just a bunch of redneck morons.

    Making friends everywhere you go. Just making friends.

    This passage from the Wikipedia seems relevant:

    In his 1998 monograph Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott argued that central governments attempt to impose what he calls "legibility" on their subjects. Local folkways concerning measurements, like local customs concerning patronymics, tend to come under severe pressure from bureaucracies. Scott's thesis is that in order for schemes to improve the human condition to succeed, they must take into account local conditions, and that the high-modernist ideologies of the 20th century have prevented this. Scott cites the enforcement of the metric system as a specific example of this sort of failed and resented "improvement" imposed by centralizing and standardizing authority.

    Metrication opposition []

    The geek tends to see himself as anarchic-libertarian. But technocratic and elitist would be closer to the truth.

    The solution imposed from on high.

    The vast majority of U.S. customary units have been defined in terms of the meter and the kilogram since the Mendenhall Order of 1893 (and, in practice, for many years before that date).

    United States customary units []

    The question then becomes why it should anyone but the architect or mechanical engineer particularly care that room temperatures continue to be displayed in degrees Farenheit.

  • Re:Building Industry (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jeffrey.endres (1630883) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @04:10AM (#35890638)

    The International Building Code (what most of us use)

    Is this the same sort of thing as your World Series baseball which is only valid for very small values of world? Worked in a sawmill here outside of the US and I'm pretty sure that you can get timber in metric sizes and the only tape measurements I saw were all metric.

  • Re:Building Industry (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tm2b (42473) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @04:46AM (#35890826) Journal
    Bucky Fuller wrote about this, in the context of how quickly humans adopt new technologies. The sequence you describe is exactly what he believed: in essence, the more frivolous a technology is to our live and safety, and the shorter the product cycle, the faster humans can adopt that technology. Thus, food - fast product cycle, beverages - fast cycle and purely luxury, we can change quickly over a matter of years. Automobiles have a medium life cycle and are of varying criticality to our lives (compare rural Texas with Manhattan or urban Chicqgo), so they will be a medium length of time tomadopt - decades, plus or minus. But housing? That's a very long product cycle and we have a very strong emotional connection to our shelter, so we are very conservative about how we build them. It'll take a century (let's say, from 1960-1980ish) to change.

    It was a very interesting discussion in his book, _Critical Path_, where he concluded that for certain kinds of inventions, the inventor wishing to help humanity should publish his housing inventions (the geodesic dome and the dymaxion house, in this case), perhaps work to promote them for some special purposes to get them into intellectual circulation (he worked to get them used by scientific and military organizations), and then move on to other topics - because without a specific adaptive pressure (eg, (my example) PEX to replace now-expensive copper plumbing) housing inventions would take more than a lifetime to go into general use.

    Bucky Fuller was a dozen kinds of awesome.
  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Thursday April 21, 2011 @07:56AM (#35891782) Journal

    Americans like monosyllabic or abbreviated words wherever possible.

    It's about quick clear communication, not just a fetish for monosyllables. Polishing things down to single syllables without obscuring them is the ideal. But a two- or three-syllable term that rolls from the tongue rather than twisting it, and that doesn't collide with something else, is quite acceptable.

    Metric PREfixes a power of ten to the unit. This doesn't just lengthen the term. It also puts the designation of WHAT KIND of unit you mean at the end, rather than the beginning. Bad enough that you have to work through the count before you get to the unit in "United States customary" (NOT Imperial, by the way) units. With metric you also have to get past the power of ten before you find out what you're talking about. Notice that, when abbreviating metric units, they shorten differently: A kiloMETER is a "K" or "klick", for instance, while a kiloGRAM is a "key". The tendencies of language and the centrally-planned systematization are at odds.

    Then there's the issue of scale: Imperial and US customary units are mainly human-sized. A pound, for instance, is something that you can hold in your hand, with just enough heft to give you the impression of weight, while a gram is an anonymous pebble that has to be scaled up by three orders of magnitude to be comparable (about 2.2 lb). Yet a litre is about a quart - a handy bottle size for serving four. (And a litre is a cubic DECImeter? Why isn't it a cubic METER? So much for consistency...)

    Then there's the use of the decimal system when scaling. Convenient for doing arithmetic for scaling. But the cardinality of the human brain is about six, not ten. So the scaling also is not easily imagined. Meanwhile the common units jump in steps that take you from a human-scaled unit convenient for one purpose to one convenient for another: Inches and feet for measuring objects, miles (a thousand paces) for distance travelled. Quart, gallon, barrel - convenient sizes for trade in liquids. Peck and bushel for dry farm produce. And so on.

    But those are just possible reasons for popular distaste for metric units. The core issue is freedom.

    The metric system was IMPOSED by governments. The people of the US tend to resist such impositions. As was pointed out in other postings, Regan canned the Metric Board and let the market decide - which means let the people chose which they prefer. The people preferred to stick with the common units. So the common unit markings on food packaging grew big and the metric units grew small and hid inside parenthesis. The states stopped re-signing the roads and the car manufacturers marked the speedometers with MPH in big numbers and a little metric scale inside for reference. And so on.

    Seems to me the FOSS ideology fits right in with the one that led to the people of the US sticking with common units.

Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it.