By Alexandra Kicior
There are over 195 countries in the world, and all but three of them use the metric system. These three countries – Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States – insist on utilizing the outdated imperial system. However, America’s use of the system can at least in part be explained by its history of being colonized and forming a united country.
When the British Empire colonized North America, it brought with it the British Imperial System, which was itself composed of a disordered series of sub-standardized medieval weights and measurements. By the time America proclaimed its independence in 1776, the former colonies still had trouble uniformly measuring physical quantities across the nation. In fact, the founding fathers recognized this issue and sought to address it. In the newly-formed constitution, Article I, Section 8 granted Congress the power “to coin Money… and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.” However, in 1790, secretary of state Thomas Jefferson demonstrated reluctance to steer his country toward the decimal-based metric system, which at the time was still an underdeveloped standard born in France.
America’s rather hostile relationship with France did not help the situation, either. On June 22nd, 1799, the proclamation of the metric system was made in Paris and subsequently housed at the Archives of the Republic as the physical embodiment of the standard. The prototype meter and the prototype kilogram, both made of platinum alloy, were witnessed by representatives of the French and several foreign governments, as well as some of the important natural philosophers of the time. The U.S. sent dignitaries from foreign countries to Paris to learn about the metric system.
In 1821, after studying the various units of measurement used by the 22 states, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams determined that the U.S. Customary System was sufficiently uniform and required no changes. Most people believed that the metric system would not survive Napoleon’s rule. However, they were wrong; by the time the American Civil War ended, most of Europe had turned to the metric system – except for the British.
Following World War II, the era of what is today known as globalization began. As America was importing and exporting an increasing amount of goods, it found itself in a predicament when trading with other countries who were in large part using the metric system. American companies had to make duplicate labels, train workers and students on both systems, and repurpose the thousands of machines across several industries. The costs were – and still are – enormous.
Taking these costs into consideration, some Congressmen proposed the U.S. finally switch to the metric system. In 1975, Congress enacted the Metric Conversion Act to commence the conversion process over the course of ten years. However, its implementation was incredibly slow and then virtually immobile, as no one willingly wanted to change to the metric. Switching to the International System of Units, or metric, is like switching to another language. It was generally hard to enforce the use of a foreign system, particularly on a nation-wide scale, and change the frame of reference that Americans have been accustomed to for their entire lives.
The UK switched to metric in 1965, but this was in large part due to the demands of trade; UK companies were simply having too hard of a time trading with other European countries. Even 50 years later, some of the British still refuse to move entirely to the metric. Distances are still measured in miles, yards, and inches, and weight in pounds and stones.
The U.S. today, however, isn’t pressured by the same trading issues that the UK faced. The U.S. doesn’t need the metric system to measure one car made in Japan, one iPad from China, or to license a SQL Server to Germany. Americans have proved that it remains possible to continue using the imperial system within a world largely dominated by the use of the metric. Liberia was a colony of the U.S. and it therefore inherited the imperial system from them. Myanmar adopted it due to diplomatic isolation, which prevented them from joining treaties that would have established the metric system. However, Myanmar (formerly Burma) recently announced its plan to switch to the metric system soon, leaving the U.S. and Liberia as the only two countries in the world who have not switched to the metric system.