The history of the Metric System in America


The entire world has adopted the metric system except for three countries. America, Liberia, & Myanmar. All 3 of these countries still use a variation of the old British Imperial system. This is a look into why we haven’t changed and to ask the question, “Will we ever?”.

A brief history on the Imperial System

former weights and measures office

From the 1500s until 1826, the United Kingdom used the Winchester System. This system was standardized under King Henry VII. Many of the measurements we use today are of King Henry VII. Like the yard is the circumference of his chest. In 1588, Queen Elizabeth I added her own sets of standards based on an ancient set of bronze weights dated back to King Edward III called the Exchequer Standards. In 1826, the United Kingdom adopted the Imperial System, a mashup of the Winchester and Exchequer standards. By the late 20th century, most of the world had opted to use the metric system instead.

United States customary units

In 1832, the United States adopted the customary units that it would use for the U.S. and its territories. The customary standards were what England used before switching to the Imperial system in 1826. Not much changed during the switch, but some units had changed names, and some measurements varied slightly. The U.S. is not using the Imperial system but a form of it.

Metric system history

The metric system was developed in France around 1799. During the age of enlightenment, many things were being changed or questioned in France. The old way of measuring things was one of them. They realized that trade would be more practical with an easier, more universal way of measuring things. The thought behind this push was that basing measurements on something fixed, such as the size of the Earth, was a better way of doing things.

France spent seven years measuring their own country precisely and taking those measurements and applying it from the north pole to the equator. They then divided those measurements over and over again to devise a system based on a constant measurement. So one quarter of the Earth’s diameter came out to 10,000 kilometers. One of the astronomers working on the project made an error in his calculations. But with so much backlash in France over the new system, he was afraid to change it. So the Earth’s circumference is 40,075 kilometers instead of 40,000 even.

10000 km

Once you divide the measurement down to meters or centimeters, the difference is negligible. It didn’t matter, and people eventually started to take hold of the new system. This change started slowly with adoption by a few surrounding European countries. But through colonialization, the system spread rapidly in the 1800s.

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By 2016, only three countries were yet to make the move. Liberia has mostly converted over, and they already trade in the metric system. So the U.S.A. and Myanmar look to be the last holdouts for the foreseeable future. Or are they?

Metric America

americas only metric road

Americans don’t like being told what to do. But we may be making the switch now, and no one notices. Most of the scientific community made the switch years ago. The government and industry also mostly use metric now. This is why your nutrition labels on everyday things are in metric. Want to work on your vehicle? You may need that 10mm socket at some point if you can find it.

There have been many movements in America to make the switch. Most have been blocked by congress or fought against by anti-metric groups. People take their measurements seriously here. There was a serious push in the 70s and 80s, but Ronald Reagan ultimately shot it down, saying it would cost too much.

The legislature I’m referring to is the “Metric Conversion Act.” It was signed into law on December 23rd, 1975, by Gerald Ford. It created a board for converting America to Metric. Ronald Regan disbanded the board in 1982.

How pirates stopped America from getting the metric system

In 1796, Thomas Jefferson who was Secretary of State at the time, saw the need for the young nation to have a standard way of measuring things. At the time America was using a bunch of different systems and this made trade a nightmare. He heard about this new metric system being developed in France. So he wrote to his buddies in France asking about the new system. France sent a scientist by the name of Joseph Dombey to America with a 1 kilogram copper unit.

But on his journey the ship was knocked off course by a storm and ended up in the Caribbean. This was not good because the Caribbean in the 1700’s was full of pirates. A group of British Privateers found them and took Joseph hostage hoping to get a ransom from France. But he ended up dying in their captivity.

They auctioned off the contents of his ship. The copper kilogram piece made its way into the hands of an American surveyor by the name of Andrew Ellicott. The piece was handed down in his family until in 1952 one of his descendants Andrew Ellicott Douglas, an astronomer, handed it over to the agency that would later be known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But it was too little too late.

If the object had made it to Thomas Jefferson do you think America would be using the metric system today? It’s possible as America was using such a hodgepodge of systems back then that a standardized way of measurements was sorely needed. After all, only 30 years later America ended up going with the Imperial system. It could have just as easily been the metric system.

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