Friday, December 09, 2005


Finalise our conversion to metric already...

The United States has been moving toward Metric units of measure since the mid 1800's. The government has over time (and as recently as 1988/1991 additional changes were put in place to finalise said transition in terms of preferences and official weights and measures (including trade). We see it in many places, whether measuring cups in the kitchens, dual readouts on our home thermostats, or our soft-drink bottles. The only problem is, a lack of consistency.

In the United States our soda comes in litres, and our milk doesn't. We reference our engines by their litre displacement, yet we fill the petrol tank by the gallon. We are not (as of January 2005), the last country (sans two small territories in Eurasia) which has not completely made the changeover to the metric system. We still use a duodecimal (base 12) system for much of our comparisons. I realise this rant is very much a non-automotive one, but give it a moment as it does tie into autos quite quickly, as in the next sentence.

Most of the vehicles built in the world today (including those built in the US and/or for the US) are done utilising metric components, whether those 14mm bolds that hold on ones fender, or the 21mm bolt that fastens your steering wheel, it is omnipresent. So why not make the automobile the place to take a stand and lead the final steps to metric adoption in the US.

It could start with the Petrol stations. Start selling petrol by the litre. Think about it, all of those vehicles which are produced elsewhere and sold in the US. Does anyone honestly think that your '14.5 gallon tank' was built with US measurements in mind? Think again. What you have is a 55 litre tank. How about engine oil, or coolant? It's just being rounded to the nearest 10th of a quart for the sake of ease. There we go again though, we naturally round things down into 10ths.. Base 10 again, the whole point of metric.

I realise this is a bit of a tirade against US thinking, but ultimatley it isn't as it makes sense. Think of how convenient it would be if we didn't need to have dual measurements in every book/measuring implements/etc. that we currently do. There would never be confusion again when travelling or purchasing an item from elsewhere (or for that matter, baking a recipe from outside the US (like a wonderful recipie for speculaas I found recently).

Metric is simple, here's a few hints to help the metrically challenged.

Freezing point of water: 0 degrees centigrade
Room temperature: 20 degrees centigrade
Body temperature: 37 degrees centigrade
Boiling water: 100 degrees centigrade

100km = 62mph
400m = 1/4 mile

1kw (kilowatt) = 1.34bhp
1nm (newton-metre) = .737ft/lbs

Though it is much easier to just not do conversions and immerse oneself in metric only. It is easier than you might think, and after a little while, when everything new is metric only, won't it be nice that you'll only need one set of tools ;)


For a short period in 1975, gasoline was sold by the liter in the USA. It caused considerable confusion. This was the year of the Metric Conversion Act, the year of the Oil Crisis, when gasoline went over $1/gallon, and the dials cannot accommodate this.
Eric, you are very much correct. But old farts like me (40) would have a tremendously hard time trying to convert into a metric world. What do you suggest for those of us who are too slow to catch up? I've done metric conversions in my blog as well, to illustrate differences.

I remember being introduced into the Metric System in school and you are correct it's simpler. But once the unit on the Metric system was completed, we never used it again, except in science classes.

I think each generation assumes that the next will use the Metric system.

First off, thank you for taking your time to read this blog, and more so, thank you for bringing up the bit of history which i'm sure is news to many, specifically the younger generation(s).
My wife actually thinks that converting to sell by the litre might even be (initially) a selling scheme (as they would be advertising prices that look so miniscule.. What looks more appealing to the consumer (think raw numbers here) $2.12/Gallon or $0.56/Litre .. Just a though.

Thanks for your comment,


I'm not that far behind you in terms of age, but again, i think the key is not doing a every industry at once.. But I also don't believe in having dual measurements when we would do said conversion. This is why I think the automotive industry is prime for this kind of change over. By converting petrol stations to fully metric, there would be no need for 'converting' from metric to US and visa-versa as people generally just "fill up".
True, how many litres of anti-freeze or oil your vehicle takes make take a quick moment of getting used to, but other than that, I see this is fairly simple. The distance issue will be a bit more difficult I admit, however even that can occur. Look at Maine (and other areas near the Canadian border) which use dual system signs (mph/kmh) for speed limits and distances.
I draw a parallel (in terms of adapting to change) with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which from its beginnings utilised ordinal numbering systems for exists.. (meaning; Exit 1 as you enter PA from OH, and axist 31 as you enter NJ from PA). Recently (about 4 or 5 years ago), it was changed to be more in line with the rest of the country in that mile markers are used for exit numbers. Instead of Exit 28 (Philadelphia), it is now exists as 343, and instead of Exit 6 for Pittsburgh, we now have exit 68.
My point is sure, it takes some time to adapt, but several years later and people have no problem (as a whole) with the new 'measurement' system as it were. I think the hardest part would actually be the odometers and trip meters on the cars (sans the electronic dual-mode miles/kilometres models).
Either way, regarding your comment on each generation thinking the next will use it.. I do use Metric, and my son has been learning metric side by side (at home, and I'm sure in school he'll learn a mix). He's 5, but he's getting to know to relate what a centimetre is directly, as opposed to converting in his head to what it is in scale of an inch. To him its just another form of measurement. He knows that a millimetre is smaller than a centimetre which is smaller than an inch which is smaller than a foot which is smaller than a yard which is smaller than a metre, etc..
It is just the same in which he looks at language, he can count in about seven languages now, as well as learning dialogue too, as I've been teaching him English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Japanese and Welsh, while his uncle is introducing him to Russian as well. He sees these words as just synonyms for others. He sees Cabeza as a synonym for Head as a synonym for Kopf as a synonym for Hoofd.
My point is that we have to definitely prepare the next generation, but we are going to have to lead by example. Being adults it may be a bit more difficult for some, but we're incredible resilient and can bend when necessary. Its up to us to make this happen, and I feel there is a good reason for doing so, so Im' making a person effort to make this change and help get the word out.
Thanks for your response, once again.

While I do not have an abundance of experience with the metric system, there are a few things about it that are annoying. The US system persists because of it's practicality. A gallon (3.78 liters) is the amount of liquid a human can comfortably carry. There is no metric equivalent to the foot, you go from the centimeter to the meter (the decimeter would work, but nobody uses it). The standard system is based on practical measurements, while the metric system is a slave to the power of ten, regardless of it's relation to real world measurements. Neither system is superior, each just has different priorities governing it's rules.

The concept of "comfortably" regarding 3.78l (US Gallon) is a subjective one. Also, regarding "no equivalent" of a "foot". You use centimetres. I know that for many it might initially be difficult to not think of the average ceiling height as 8 ft, but as 2.43 metres or 243cm (roughly). The hardest part is because the US has so entrenched itself in a system for so long, yet they're the only ones. It was difficult for England as they just completed their 'official' conversion in January of 2005.
My major point is it only gets harder as time progresses, and as such, we shouldn't delay further. Standards work best when everyone uses them. Given that we're the only ones left not utilising them, that makes it our responsibility.
You speak of "real world" measurements, real world measurements which are just based upon what we dictated those 'real world' standards to be. Look at measuring the height of a horse. We use hands. For those who don't know what a hand is, it equals 4 inches. Now in terms of 'real world', it translates to the average breadth of ones hand. That's not entirely practical because everyone's hands are different and averages change over time.
By using standards, real standards not based upon subjective relations, we free ourselves from misconceptions, not enslaves ourselves to the power of ten, which for all practical purposes is a simplistic system to work with to an infinite power. The science community has resolved this issue already.
Thank you for taking the time to share.

Horses could be measured in decimeters, which is very close to hands. My body measurements have been in centimeters since 1983. My weight has been in kilograms since 1993. The British Standards Institute has come up with BodyDim, a clothing size label calling for actual measurements in centimeters in 2003, 20 years after I began taking my measurements in metric. This is to do away with the practice of "vanity sizing"
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?