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Which countries use metric, and which use imperial measurements?

A unified measuring system allows people from different nations to trade with one another without doubting what they are getting. But there are holdouts.

The nations that refuse to adopt the metric system

Many attempts to make units of measure standard have come and gone through the centuries. While some of these systems have been successful for a while, over time discrepancies began to develop creating gaping differences in how things were measured from one end of a country to another.

In came the French Revolution and the creation of a new and to date most widespread standards of measurements. The units have been adopted by just about every nation on the planet enabling simpler learning of the measurements and building confidence in the consistency of traded goods. However, not everyone is fully convinced…

The last holdouts from adopting the metric system

Only three countries have not yet taken on the metric system as their official gauge of measurements. The United States, Liberia and Myanmar, while the system isn’t completely foreign being used for certain endeavors, the three refuse to make the system the law of the land.

Likewise, although they’ve adopted metric as the official form of measurements, imperial measurements haven’t completely faded from places like Canada, the United Kingdom nor some of the countries that formed part of the British Empire. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly intended to reintroduce the imperial system for the late Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee.

The US nearly became one of the first countries to adopt the metric system

As early as the birth of the United States, one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, proposed an early version of the metric system. The then Secretary of State had been introduced to the concept while in France. He wasn’t alone in wishing to adopt a uniform system of measurements.

In the early days of the Union, measurements varied from one state to another so much that at his first State of the Union address in 1790, President George Washington said that “uniformity in the currency, weights and measures of the United States is an object of great importance.”

Jefferson had arranged for French scientist Joseph Dombey to bring an official ‘kilogram’ which was a metallic cylinder that, as you can guess, weighed one kilogram. Unfortunately, enroute his ship got blown off course and he was captured by British pirates who imprisoned him for the rest of his life.

And so, without the visual aid, the US eventually adopted the imperial system, just a coincidence? However, the US system, known as the US customary, had some measurements that differentiated from the British one, notably a pint and ton/tonne.

The US was going to go metric but then said “Nah!”

So the idea of going metric has come up time and again throughout US history. One of the big factors holding back metrication wasn’t “any kind of patriotic zeal, but because changing established norms was expensive and complicated” according to CNN’s ‘Margins of Error’ Harry Enten.

Although in reality metrication would make the US more competitive globally and is easier to use, everything is divisible by 10, the cost of retooling for industry is one of the big hang ups, not to mention aversion to change. In the long run it would actuallly save the US a fortune. In a study from Old Dominion University researchers calculated that teaching only metric would save the US anywhere from $1.6 billion to $2.5 billion a year.

But even so, when in 1975, then President Gerald Ford through the Metric Conversion Act declared metric, “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce” it failed to gain traction. In 1981, Ronald Reagan defunded the program given that even a wide majority of those surveyed who knew the metric system opposed changing.

And the US has been a dual system since. While most people don’t notice it, just about everything is required to be labeled in both US customary and metric. This dual labeling also costs consumers, as it is an added cost of doing business in a globalized world which gets passed on to the end user.

Will the US ever become fully metric?

Those that would like to see the US use only metric feel that time is on their side. While small businesses that trade domestically don’t feel the need to adopt the nearly universal metric system, nor incur the cost to do so, those that want to do business globally will have to cough up the extra money.

“If you’re thinking of going into an international marketplace, then going metric seems like a pretty smart decision versus if you’re really only going to be in the domestic market space,” Elizabeth Benham told Enten. Small businesses most likely won’t go out and splurge on the “latest and greatest technology” which is generally designed in metric specifications. Instead those companies may purchase older equipment that can last a long time, perhaps 60 years.

However, that doesn’t mean that the US won’t make its way to full metrication in due time. “Ultimately, over time, legacy technology is taken out and replaced with the new. And that’s where we see more and more things that are designed with the metric specifications from the ground up that are going to replace them,” said Benham.

While it is a hot-button topic for some, like most other things in US discourse there is a general apathy among the public one way or the other, that is unless someone tries to force them to go one way or the other. Because of the size and complexity of the US adoption will most likely go at different speeds across the nation.

“If I were to describe what makes America, America, it’s often times are our cludgy workarounds that actually sometimes are less disruptive and allow us to function and tolerate the kind of, many different ways of doing things within a single country,” Stephen Mihm, professor of history at the University of Georgia told Enten. “And that’s not a minor achievement.”


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