My personal views on the subject of US metrication have changed recently. I used to have the knee-jerk reaction that “It works for us, so leave me alone with your commie globalist nonsense.” Then, my view shifted to “I can see why it would be nice for us to convert, but at this point it would be too costly.” Now, my view is that we can either convert ASAP or we will not leave the 21st century as a first-world country.
In a move that would be answered with “Well, duh” by 192 of the world’s 195 countries, I will now attempt to explain some of the ridiculous consequences that Americans face because we stubbornly insist on using an anarchic hodgepodge of measurement units from the eleventh century.
As you know, the metric system has one unit of length: the meter. You can scale this unit by prefixes that change the scale to be convenient for your work: for instance, you may talk about thread pitch and bolt diameter in millimeters, fabric sizes in centimeters, floor plans in meters, and road distances in kilometers.
Because of this property, you need never work in fractions, but can simply arrange your work so that no fractions appear at all. Nobody will say “0.5 meters” or even “half a meter” when they could just as easily measure 500 mm. They will not say “2/3 kg” when they could just as easily measure 667 grams.
Entire industries are doing things this way. For example, the Australian building industry uses only the millimeter. Glance at a construction drawing on an Australian job site and you’ll see a legend somewhere that says “All dimensions in mm.” A countertop recess that will later accept a kitchen sink will simply read “600.” The length of a front porch may read “9600.” Standard sheets of plywood are 1200 x 2400. All of these dimensions are millimeters; there’s no reason to ask “1200 what?” The millimeter is small enough to be useful in cabinetmaking and finished carpentry, but also still convenient for the guy making rough cuts in dimensioned lumber with a circular saw. Architects, carpenters, roofers, plumbers, and landscapers all use the same common unit of length and not one of them ever has to use a single fraction or decimal point. Even the most innumerate guy on the job site can do integer math with a calculator. The time and material cost savings are enormous. Contrast this with a typical American job site where yards, feet, and inches are mixed together. Surveyers use decimal feet; landscapers use yards; rough carpenters use feet and inches; finishing carpenters use inches. Every single time you measure something, you have to specify the units, compute fractions, convert from one unit to another, and make rounding decisions. Multiply this by every measurement and every cut that goes into building a house, and you’ll understand why this is a problem.
Related to our infrastructure concerns in the USA is the concept of measuring energy. Once again, I have to impress upon you the absolute anarchy of energy-measuring units that are all in use in various sectors of the United States today:
Note that using all these units requires more than 8,500 conversion factors to convert from one of these units to any other if energy issues (power grid capacity, oil and gas production, etc.) are to be understood and intelligently managed. In contrast, here’s what the metric system uses to measure energy:
If you’re one of those people who thinks using the metric system would be “more complicated,” please just dwell on the above for a few moments.
An average man needs about 2,500 Calories of food energy per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Of course, when I say “Calorie” (4,186 J), this is not a “calorie” (4.186 J). A Calorie is also referred to as a “kilocalorie” or “kcal” or even “Food calorie.” Don’t get tripped up by the fact that some nutrition labels do not capitalize it. (How dumb is that, by the way? When we mean 1000 grams, do we write “Gram?” When we mean 1000 feet, do we write “Foot?”)
If you’re interested in saving on your utility bill, you probably want to quantify your home energy usage. How does the power produced by your electric heater (watts) or gas heater (Btu/hour) compare to the power drawn by your air conditioner compressor (horsepower)? What does all this mean for your electric bill (kilowatt-hours) or your gas bill (cubic feet)? Who knows? It’s an apples-and-oranges problem, and before you can even begin to add it all up, you have to sit down and laboriously convert all of these disparate measures of power into the same units.
An average man needs about 11,000 kilojoules or 11 megajoules of food energy per day to maintain a healthy body weight. This is 77 megajoules per week, or 330 MJ per month, or about 4000 MJ per year. Call it four gigajoules per year: 4 GJ/yr.
In a temperate climate, an average household uses about 100 gigajoules of energy per year. In cold winters with a lot of furnace use, this might go up to about 150 GJ.
In 2021, the USA used 102,400,000 gigajoules (102.4 EJ) of energy:
Isn’t this great? Think about it: with only one unit of energy (the joule), the metric system allows us to make apples-to-apples comparisons for any quantity of energy, large or small, from human dietary requirements to household electricity to the annual energy usage of 340,000,000 people!
Consider some other large-scale problems confronting planners in the USA today:
In short, the fact that the USA is still using our so-called “Customary” units is nothing short of mystifying to me. Our already dismal mathematics education is made yet worse by the years it takes for us to come to grips with our battery of totally arbitrary measurements. Why should we care if some Anglo-Saxons in the eleventh century defined the “inch” as three barleycorns laid end-to-end and that twelve of these made a “foot?” Why should we accept a 5,280-foot “mile,” which was nothing more than the rationalization of this Anglo unit with the ancient Roman mille?
How are we so hobbled in this area when we’ve been a shining city on a hill in so many other areas? How can the nation that gave the world the telephone, the automobile, powered flight, liquid rockets, the transistor, the Internet Protocol, and GPS somehow stay so backward in the area of measurement when the alternative would be so beneficial to everyone? I love my country, and to watch us carry on this way is as painful to me as it is to watch someone you love embarrass herself in public.