Half Measures

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

News Report:
“Six, five, four-”

Roman Mars:
Cast your mind back to the late 1990s.

News Report:
“We have ignition and we have lift off of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter as we continue to explore the mysteries of the red planet.”

Joel Werner:
It’s the late 20th century and as the threat of Y2K and rap-metal crossover loom large in people’s minds and NASA’s satellite blasts off towards Mars.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Joel Werner from the “Sum of All Parts” podcast.

News Report:
“20 seconds after lift off, everything continues to go well.”

Joel Werner:
So this satellite weighing 338 kilograms.

Roman Mars:
That’s 745 pounds.

Joel Werner:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ll get to that. So the satellite weighing 338 kilograms hurdles through space towards the distant planet, it takes nearly a year to get there and when it gets close, the satellite fires its main engine to go into orbit around Mars.

Roman Mars:
Up until that point, all data from the spacecraft appeared normal. Everything was running smoothly.

Joel Werner:
The engine burn begins just as the spacecraft disappears behind Mars. Mission Control waits for it to reappear and they wait and wait-

Roman Mars:
And wait.

Joel Werner:
But the spacecraft never emerges. The Mars Climate Orbiter is lost.

NASA Spokesperson:
“I’m sorry to report that we have a serious problem with the Mars Climate Orbiter. We may, in fact, be facing a loss of mission. We believe this spacecraft came in at a lower altitude than we had intended and that depending on how low that was and, it’s something we’re still going to confirm, it potentially resulted in the loss of the mission.”

Roman Mars:
Scientists at NASA began to pour over the data, looking for clues as to what might’ve gone wrong.

Joel Werner:
And before long they figure it out. The spacecraft was supposed to approach the planet at an altitude of 150 kilometers or 93 miles when in fact its approach had been lower, much lower. The postmortem at NASA found that a pretty simple error was to blame.

Roman Mars:
A conversion error.

News Anchor:
“The NASA investigative board confirmed the cause of the failure of the $125 million spacecraft. The NASA team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory assume they were using the metric system to measure rocket firings while…”

Roman Mars:
NASA was using the metric system, the international standard for its calculations, but one of their contractors was using U.S. Customary Units, the proper term for the American system of inches, pounds and gallons.

Joel Werner:
Years of planning, hundreds of millions of dollars literally up in smoke, burned up in the Martian atmosphere and all because someone did the right calculation in the wrong units.

Joel Werner:
This wasn’t the only time a conversion error resulted in disaster or near disaster. In the early eighties, an airliner ran out of fuel mid-flight after a metric conversion error and had to make an emergency landing, and in 2001 the L.A. Zoo loaned a 75-year-old Galapagos tortoise to an animal management program at local college. The zoo warned that Clarence the tortoise was big and needed an enclosure for an animal weighing 250 kilograms, but the college thought they meant 250 pounds, which is only 113 kilograms, about half his actual weight. His first night in his new home, Clarence destroyed it.

Roman Mars:
But these kinds of failures haven’t been enough to get the U.S. to switch over to the measurement system used by the vast majority of the world. We Americans measure things our own way in units that are basically inscrutable to non-Americans, nearly all of whom have been brought up in an all metric environment. They use meters, liters, and kilograms, not yards, gallons, and pounds.

Joel Werner:
You might’ve noticed that I am a non-American myself and while I’ve never lost a spacecraft to a distant planet, I have run into other problems like ordering way too much deli meat.

Roman Mars:
Too much deli meat is never a problem Joel.

Joel Werner:
I lived in the U.S. for a couple of years and while culturally a lot came easy, I never really adjusted to your measurement system. Australia, where I’m from, has been a metric country for over 40 years. I grew up metric. I don’t really have a sense of how much half a pound weighs or how warm 60 degrees Fahrenheit is, and two years wasn’t enough to change that. So when I lived in the States, I’d routinely head out in cold weather without a jacket or come home with too much bacon.

Roman Mars:
So why with so many industries and people like Joel crossing borders with so much fluidity has the U.S. not fully committed to the system the rest of the world uses?

Joel Werner:
As you might guess, it’s complicated.

Stephen Mihm:
So the metric system has a kind of complicated history in the United States.

Joel Werner:
This is Stephen Mihm, a history professor at the University of Georgia and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of standardization in the United States.

Stephen Mihm:
It’s in the 1790s when the United States was first fumbling around toward fulfilling the constitutional mandate to create a uniform system of weights and measures. The metric system was at that point, just a glimmer in the eye of a bunch of French revolutionaries.

Roman Mars:
And there was some discussion at the time, led by Thomas Jefferson, that the U.S. adopt a decimal-based system, kind of like the eventual metric system. But the idea didn’t gain much traction.

Stephen Mihm:
So when it came time to systematize American weights and measures, we ultimately through our lot with what we were working with at the time, which was the bushels and pounds and feet and so forth.

Roman Mars:
America had inherited this old system of measurement from the British. It had its roots in Roman and Anglo-Saxon units and then evolved over thousands of years before American independence.

Joel Werner:
But around the same time, French revolutionaries were heading in a new direction. They opted to throw out their old system, which they found displeasingly irrational and switch it for a new system. The metric system.

Joel Werner:
The metric system is a decimal system, meaning it relies on multiples of 10. 10 millimeters become one centimeter. 100 centimeters become one meter, and so on.

Roman Mars:
The French began promoting the system internationally, arguing that it would encourage trade and bring the world together and it took off.

Stephen Mihm:
By the mid 19th century, there was a growing adoption in the metric system worldwide.

Roman Mars:
And as the metric system spread, some people in the U.S. started to feel left out, like educators and scientists. They wanted the U.S. to get with the program and officially go metric.

Stephen Mihm:
It lends itself really well to scientific research and inquiry and for educators, it’s really easy to teach students and it makes a lot of sense.

Joel Werner:
But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people.

Stephen Mihm:
There was tremendous resistance. And the resistance came from a few different quarters, some of which overlap, but the most interesting, was a group of astronomers, theologians and cranks, and keep in mind that those categories which we consider separate and distinct today, were not at this time. And so those people came to believe that there was a biblical basis for the inch and that that biblical basis was marked in the great pyramid of Giza, in the architecture of that pyramid.

Roman Mars:
This theory got more and more elaborate and gained a lot of followers as the astronomers and theologians combined scientific arguments with other wild and nonsensical ideas.

Stephen Mihm:
They welded it all together into what was for many people, a compelling argument that to abandon the inch and then all of the other weights and measures was to go against God’s will.

Joel Werner:
So science and education with this newer, shinier measurement system versus religious zealots clinging to what they know, fearful of change. It’s a good story, but it’s only part of the story. In the U.S., in the 1870s, the real core resistance came from a different group entirely, some of the most innovative industrialists of their day.

Stephen Mihm:
The answer lies with engineers and with machine tool industry in the late 19th and 20th centuries who had tooled up enormous, vast factories and a vast industrial base that by the 1870s sat at the heart of what was now the largest economy in the world.

Roman Mars:
This vast industrial system included everything from lathes to devices for cutting screw threads, and it was all based on the inch. The manufacturers did not want to retool. They said it would be way too expensive and not just that, they also argued that there was an intuitiveness to the Customary system.

Stephen Mihm:
You have an inch, you have a half-inch, a quarter-inch, eighth-inch, 16 and so on. That kind of division on the shop floor, maybe not for a scientist, but on the shop floor makes a huge amount of sense. And it’s very simple. It’s very straightforward. It’s very easy to learn and it’s very easy to build machines around that concept.

Joel Werner:
And all because everything is simply doubled or halved. And the arguments of these late 19th century industrialists proved incredibly influential.

Stephen Mihm:
So to put this into context, this would be like today, the tech sector and the titans of the tech sector pushing back and saying, “Metric system over our dead bodies.”

Joel Werner:
And so the industrialists and the cranks win this round.

Roman Mars:
Subsequent generations make attempts to introduce the metric system to the U.S. and they are met with subsequent generations of resistance.

Joel Werner:
Congress repeatedly brings up legislation to make the metric system, not just legal, but mandatory. And each time the legislation goes down in flames. But then in the 1970s, about a hundred years after the first big push for metrication and on the back of a wave of metrication around the world, another attempt is made to bring the metric system to the U.S. and this time it really catches on.

Roman Mars:
Congress actually passes an act in 1975 declaring the metric system the preferred system of weights and measures for the United States trade and commerce. And then President Gerald Ford follows it up with an executive order. In both cases, the adoption of the metric system is deemed voluntary, but the government really tries to make it happen.

Clip from “Metric Education” PSA:
“Take 10 Americas to learn the metric ways. It’s a simple system based on tens that you can start today. Efficient, more accurate, more universal too. It’s good for our economy, our country and for you….”

Joel Werner:
The U.S. Office of Education ran PSAs like this one. People started pinning, “Take me to your liter” buttons to their jackets. That’s L-I-T-E-R. There was a popular poster sold that featured a woman in a bikini with the slogan, “Think metric” above her and her measurements in centimeters below. “92, 61, 92.” Turns out you can be sexist in metric too.

Metric Education PSA:
“Take 10 minutes to learn the metric way. Write Metric Education, PO Box 111, Washington DC, 20044.”

Roman Mars:
But the 1975 Metric Conversion Act didn’t really have any teeth. It included the word, voluntary. Which meant that businesses and organizations could opt out of using it. So some organizations and industries went metric and others did not.

Joel Werner:
That decision to take a voluntary approach to metrication was different than the way a lot of other countries approached it, where they passed actual laws and made it mandatory. Taking a softer approach meant that the U.S. adoption remained incomplete and vulnerable to opposition.

Joel Werner:
Once again, the anti-metric forces began to gather.

Roman Mars:
And once again this resistance came from multiple directions.

Joel Werner:
For one, there were the unions who were scared that moving to an international system of measurement would make it easier for big corporations to ship jobs offshore.

Roman Mars:
Various writers and thinkers fought against the metric system too. People like author Tom Wolfe and futurist Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand argued that the U.S. system was quote, “More suited to humans.” He pointed out that a human foot was about the length of a foot and that a yard was about the length of a person’s outstretched arm to the center of their body. “It was more intuitive,” he said.

Joel Werner:
And then finally, there was also a political argument against the U.S. going metric. As the Jimmy Carter era of the mid-1970s gave way to the Reagan era of the early 1980s, a variety of movements rose up against globalism and elitism.

Ronald Reagan:
“This is the issue of this election. Whether we’d believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. But beyond that…”

Roman Mars:
The U.S. economy was hurting and the nation’s pride had taken a few hits and as a result, anti metric opposition began to take on a kind of defiant nationalism.

Stephen Mihm:
And the metric campaign withered, I think, in the face of this, because it seemed to be yet another example for conservatives of the United States sort of selling out its patrimony to largely Europeans. That seems to have been the kind of xenophobic subtext. You can imagine this, we lost to Vietnam and now we’re going to adopt the metric system. What has the world come to? That’s what this was sort of perceived as. It was the pendulum swinging too far to this kind of namby, pamby internationalism.

Roman Mars:
That sounds weirdly familiar.

Joel Werner:
And all of this meant that efforts to metricate the U.S. were left stranded halfway between the old and the new. And in the typically American way, it was left up to the market to decide who went metric and who didn’t. Which has led to this weird situation where, get this, the U.S. is already about halfway there.

Sally Mitchell:
The U.S. really is a metric nation. We just don’t know that we’re a metric nation.

Joel Werner:
Sally Mitchell is a high school chemistry and physics teacher in upstate New York and a passionate advocate for the metric system. I mean she’s even written a metric cookbook.

Sally Mitchell:
We use the metric system almost everywhere. Liquor stores, medicines, everything is in grams, liters. I have a water bottle here right now it’s 500 milliliters. It’s there. It’s just our choice. I can look at this bottle and see 16.9 fluid ounces. I can choose to read 1.05 pints or I can choose to read 500 milliliters.

Joel Werner:
The U.S. is on what’s called a metric continuum. The fields of science and medicine are almost fully metricated and with little controversy, but in the business realm, it’s a mix. Some businesses are fully metricated, others not at all, and a lot are left somewhere in between.

Elizabeth Gentry:
Here in the United States we have large international businesses.

Joel Werner:
Elizabeth Gentry is the metric coordinator in the office of weights and measures at NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST is the organization that standardizes measurement in the U.S.

Elizabeth Gentry:
These are companies that have international supply chains. What they’re looking for is the ability to sell their products in many market places and they get the components for the product all around the world and they need it to fit together and have a really reliable product.

Roman Mars:
These are companies like Xerox and Caterpillar and Levi Strauss, and they went metric during the metrication push, back in the 1970s.

Elizabeth Gentry:
And then you have on the other end of the spectrum, small businesses here in the United States.

Joel Werner:
And for these smaller local businesses, the economic imperative to metricate just isn’t there. Like think of a dairy farmer.

Elizabeth Gentry:
And there’s just one thing that really holds us back. It’s milk. And milk comes in a gallon and milk is not shipped internationally. So the farmer can’t afford to retool everything to put it into liters. And so it’s been a gallon.

Roman Mars:
Yet another unit that confused our intrepid Australian reporter Joel, when he shopped in American grocery stores. Back home, Joel’s milk comes in liters, not gallons, half gallons, and quarts.

Elizabeth Gentry:
And it’s funny because most people don’t know a quart and a liter. Which ones bigger?

Joel Werner:
Yeah.

Elizabeth Gentry:
They’re almost the same. Which ones bigger?

Joel Werner:
I don’t know that. I have no idea.

Elizabeth Gentry:
Well, this is how you remember it. A liter is a leader bit more.

Joel Werner:
Fantastic.

Joel Werner:
So you’ve got the huge multinationals on one end of the spectrum and then the dairy farmers and hyper-local small business on the other, but you’ve also got a lot of business caught somewhere in between, which is where it gets really tricky. Some companies end up having to maintain two separate production lines, even two separate warehouses to manage all the different versions of their products. It’s a total headache and it’s expensive too.

Roman Mars:
And so that’s where we’re at. We’ve got a nation stretched out across a continuum of metrication dual units and conversion confusion, a history of near misses, bad timing, and it’s all mixed in with a serious cultural resistance to the system of measurement adopted around the world.

Joel Werner:
This cultural resistance highlights the difficulties of introducing a new system of measurement anywhere. Even the average French citizen hated their new system when it was first introduced back in the revolutionary age.

Roman Mars:
The bottom line is this, it’s really difficult to get people to change from a measurement system they’ve been using their whole life. Inertia. Resistance to change is a massive obstacle to overcome.

Stephen Mihm:
You know, when I think about, what’s harder, occupying a country, conquering it and putting it under your heel or getting them to adopt your unit of weights and measures? You can do the first one, but the second one can really, really rough you up because even if people do it on the face of it, they’re constantly converting back into the ghost units that have been banned. They just continue to do it.

Roman Mars:
But resistance to the metric system in the U.S. continues to have a subtext that goes beyond just preferring a familiar system. Today, maybe more than ever, the resistance to metric is about the rise of a new kind of nationalism in our country.

Joel Werner:
Take the case of Sally Mitchell, who you heard from earlier. She’s the high school science teacher from upstate New York. Back in 2014, she stepped right into the middle of the whole metric versus U.S. units debate and it got brutal.

Sally Mitchell:
It actually started out in Syracuse when the airport had gotten a new sign.

Roman Mars:
Syracuse Airport is an international airport and the old sign had displayed the temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, the metric systems preferred unit. But the Celsius option hadn’t been activated on this new sign. It was only showing Fahrenheit.

Sally Mitchell:
So I called and they said, “Oh, we forgot to program it. Let me do it. It’ll be ready by tomorrow.” And I think I posted something online that said, “Don’t you worry, it’ll be fixed by tomorrow.” And then the next thing you know, the newspaper was calling me and they wanted to do a story on this. I said, “No, no, not a story. Please don’t. No story on this.”

Joel Werner:
But they did a story anyway and then a radio station called and did an interview with her and the host of that radio show were decidedly anti metric.

Sally Mitchell:
And they said, “Do you want a teacher that wants to drill her metric agenda into people’s heads.” And “How dare she.” And things like that. And they were mean and they were awful. Then next thing you know, phone calls to the school. I had threats on Facebook, threats through emails. I had people writing to me demanding that I be fired because I just wanted the sign to display Celsius again.

Roman Mars:
It got really crazy. The threats were so bad.

Sally Mitchell:
And I had to report that to the police and I thought, ‘wow, people need to get a life or something’ or really think ‘why? Why are you doing this?’ I’m doing this for science. I’m doing this for international communication. I’m doing this as an educator.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes when Sally Mitchell talks about the metric system, you get the sense she’s talking about a lot more than the metric system.

Sally Mitchell:
People like me are starting to speak up and we’re not going to have it anymore. This is not the way we are. We’re an intelligent nation and we want what’s best for our children. We want what’s best for our communities around us, and so that’s why I’m speaking up now. I am more vocal than I’ve ever, ever been, and I’m just not going to take it anymore. I’m not going to let the ignorant be the loudest.

Joel Werner:
But those anti-metric trolls that Sally had to deal with, she’s pretty much guaranteed to have the last laugh. Because those Customary U.S. Units, the inches and pounds, they’re actually defined relative to the metric system.

Joel Werner:
Here’s Elizabeth Gentry of NIST again.

Elizabeth Gentry:
Usually consumers are at the grocery store, they may buy a gallon of milk, or they’re at the gas station and they buy a gallon of gas. They think, “Well, I’m using all of these U.S. Customary Units all the time in my life. That must mean the United States hasn’t really adopted the metric system.”

Joel Werner:
But the system that makes sure a gallon of gas in Oakland is the same as a gallon of gas in Omaha. That system relies on metric standards. A gallon is officially defined as 3.78541 liters.

Roman Mars:
So just below the surface, it’s all metric.

Joel Werner:
It’s metric all the way down.

Credits

Reporter Joel Werner from the Sum of All Parts podcast spoke with Stephen Mihm, a history professor at the University of Georgia and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of standardization in the United States; Elizabeth Gentry, the Metric Coordinator in the Office of Weights and Measures at NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology); and Sally Mitchell, a high school science teacher from upstate New York.

Music

Original Music by Sean Real

Comments (32)

Share

  1. matt

    yes, the metric system would make it easier for travelers between the United States and other countries. granted it would be weird getting a 3 decimeter sandwich at Subway instead of a footlong.

    but I firmly believe Fahrenheit is the better system for a layperson not working in a scientific industry. 100 is hot, 0 is cold. if its 75º F, it’s closer to 100 so it is going to be warm. dare I say we are on the right side of that one

    1. Mikhail Gusarov

      -20ºC is cold, 0ºC is cool, 35ºC is hot, so it does not make any difference.

      The only tiny problem is that nobody else uses Fahrenheit.

  2. Stuart

    … hoping to hear a sister episode about why the heck America uses a different date format than everyone else.

    Between you and me, the funny thing is that on the day they celebrate independence from England… they use the English format – The Fourth of July!!!

  3. Dave

    I *think* the Think Metric poster might be British from when we switched Metric in the 1960’s/70’s

    It looks like it has a Union Flag in the top left and CITB is the Construction Industry Training Board, so this poster would probably have been aimed at builders in the late 1960’s or early 70’s.

    Having global standards would be great, it’d make everything easier… Dates, weights, paper, cables…

  4. Nathan

    As a Technology and Construction teacher it is necessary for me to teach my students inches and pounds so they can work in America. Anything is better taught with enthusiasm, so I used to go on this long tirade about how the METRIC SYSTEM IS INHUMAN and that if everyone in the classroom tried to find the halfway mark between two points (like with fractions of inches) we would be incredibly close, but if we divided it into ten sections we would utterly fail. I have never truly believed in the American system, but at the very least I figured I could get some students to.

    Yet in reality all machining and manufacturing is done in decimal inches, which is a direct attempt to be metric, and every shop floor has a huge conversion chart so that workers can remember what 7/8th’s is in a decimal. In architecture and construction it takes a long time to learn how to add 3′ 4 1/2” to 9′ 6 3/4” rather than just adding 1.1m to 2.9m. Our system is a pain and switching makes sense.

    After the last election I decided it is important not to teach the status quo, but what I wanted the world to become. Although I still have to teach the American system I openly admit its flaws and directly tell students that I look forward to the change in the future.

    1. bob

      6′ 11 1/4″ while I understand your point I have worked in construction and its not the problem you think it is.

      Also yes almost all critical machining is done in decimal inches I don’t buy that its a direct attempt to be metric but I see your point. Also with the conversion chart you’re probably correct but after you’ve used it for a while you just recall those things.
      1/16″ is 0.0625″
      1/32″ 0.3125″
      1/8″ 0.125″
      1/4″ 0.250″
      5/16″ 0.3125″
      3/8″ 0.375″
      7/16″ 0.4375″
      1/2″ 0.5″
      9/16″ 0.5625″
      3/4″ 0.75″
      7/8″ 0.875″
      15/16″ 0.9375″
      1″ 1.000″
      All that was from recall, not a chart or a calculator and I have a terrible memory in general.
      However if you don’t know one but have a calculator you can just divide the numerator by the denominator and get the decimal equivalent.

      Also I’d like to point that sometimes measures are given in thousandths of an inch but they are also called mils. I’ve heard people refer to thicknesses of plastic sheets as Xmm (millimeters) when in reality is was Xmils which 0.00X”. 1inch is approximately 25.4mm so a mil is about 0.0254″which means misquoting the thickness of something like this is more than an order of magnitude incorrect.

      Surveryors typically use decimal feet. So they may write 1-50, usually the 50 in this example would be underlined and smaller, which means 1.5′ or 1′ 6″

      Also AN fittings are interesting the sizes are a single number but are the numerator of a sixteenth fraction, so a 3AN would be for a 3/16″ nominal tube and a 4AN would be for a 1/4″ because 4/16 reduced down is a 1/4 and so on.

      I also disagree with the premise that a smart intelligent society must use the metric system.

  5. Matthew

    In the UK Celsius is used for weather when it is cold but people often revert to Fahrenheit when it is hot. I assume this to dramatise the extremes. By the way, you ‘pore over’ documents, etc, but ‘pour’ cold water over something.

  6. Saul

    I’m in Canada where we supposedly converted officially to metric 40 years ago but not really. We use Celsius but temperatures are also given in Fahrenheit. Grocery stores advertise food in $x/lb with $y/kg listed in microscopic print that almost no one notices.

    Packaged goods are mostly sold in Imperial sizes with ridiculous metric numbers printed on them (907g of butter or 1.14L of juice) as if that’s easier to understand than 2 pounds or 1 quart.

  7. Colin

    It’s even more of a mess up here in Canada. We offically switched to metric in 1970, and it’s what I grew up learning, but because the change was relatively recent and we are inextricably linked to the US there is a wide variety in where and when it is used.

    I might be 5’10” and weigh 180lb, but I’ll drive 50 km to work, fill up my car with 70 liters of gas. I’ll be happy if it’s 25 degrees C outside, but I’ll set the oven to 350 degrees farenheit. I’ll get a 4 liter jug of milk, but measure it out in cups and tablespoons if I’m cooking. Buying food can be any combination of dollars per pound, kilogram, or 100 grams. Worse yet, I work in engineering and I use both systems simultaneously, creating drawings dimensioned in mm for designed using imperials sized fasteners and structural steel.

  8. stib

    Given that Myanmar and Liberia look like they’re adopting metric measurements, when you say “America is one of just a handful of countries that that isn’t officially metric” you must be using the imperial handful, meaning 1.

  9. Derrick

    I’m sure it was an editorial choice, but paper was not mentioned. We in the US happily use Letter, Legal, Ledger, etc. The rest of the world uses A4, A3 (and no crazy Legal size).

    The interesting thing here is the international angle. While it is not too bad to print a document from one format to the other (most software and printers can convert the margins pretty easily). The fun part is formatting.

    The pages are just enough different in size that it throws the formatting completely off. Pictures will end up in the wrong places, page references are thrown off. The carefully crafted document with well placed paragraph and page breaks can get demolished.

    Another story perhaps

    1. James

      The rest of the word may use A4 but you’ll still find margins are usually a suspicious 2.54cm.

  10. Jawny

    Try living in the Philippines and use any conventional measuring system. Children learn both metric and non metric, but in actual practice, it remains confusing. Some refer to a 12 inch distance as a “ruler”. In fact, rulers may be metric, American standard or both. So, a “ruler” becomes a meaningless dimension.

  11. Matthew Woodsmith

    Yeah, that poster of the girl in the bikini is British, from when we were trying to go metric. It would have been interesting to get other countries’ experiences of metrication. We (the UK) are more metric than the US, but there is still huge resistance to it. We buy milk and beer in pints, weigh ourselves in stone and pounds, measure road distances and speeds using miles. There’s a lot of identity mixed up in this I think. See the ‘metric martyr’ case of the greengrocers in the UK! And you can hear it in the show too, in the tone of voice of the pro-metric speakers. It’s clear they feel themselves superior to non-metric users!

  12. Daniel Barkalow

    I remember hearing a story from the UK about the conversion to metric, where someone went into a hardware store to buy a 1″ screw, and was told that the store no longer sold 1″ screws. However, they would be happy to sell the person one of their large stock of 2.54cm screws. If a dairy farmer wanted to project an image of technological advance without changing their equipment, they could sell 3785mL milk jugs, and it’s not like any Americans actually need to read the label to know the volume of any of the containers milk comes in.

    When I was in Canada recently, I found myself unsure how fast to drive in a 100 km/h zone. I had no problem with the conversion aspect (and my speedometer has both anyway), but my observation is that people generally drive 10 mph faster than the speed limit when the speed limit is a number of mph 50 or more; somehow, driving 100km/h+10mph doesn’t seem right, nor does picking the more common comparable US sign and driving like I would in such a zone, and 100km/h+10km/h seemed to be too slow.

    I also find it really handy that distances to upcoming exits are marked in binary fractions of minutes at the speed I’m supposed to be going at. If they switched to metric, they’d probably be telling me how many centihours I have to change lanes, which is not so useful. This aspect is really that we drive 60 distances per 60*60 seconds, and 60 seconds is something everybody uses while 36 seconds is not.

    On that subject, I’ve noticed that metric cooking recipes are often in weight instead of volume, which is really a more reliable way to use many ingredients anyway, but requires somewhat different technique. For that matter, my snack’s serving size is listed as “about 1/4 cup (40g)”. It’s like how American medicine dosages are reported in grams of the active ingredient, but what you get is a tablet which weighs more and you mostly think about its largest two dimensions.

    On the subject of that poster, does she really have two measurements that are the same to the nearest millimeter? That’d be really implausible, even if it weren’t coincidentally within a millimeter of an even number of inches. For that matter, that measurement is a yard, but even Americans would find it crazy to say that someone is one yard around.

    1. Daniel Jackson

      You erroneously biased your estimate of over speed to a round 10 mpg, when more than likely it was 20 km/h. There is a grass roots organisation in Canada to abolish to 100 km/h speed limit and increase it to 120 or 130 km/h.

      http://stop100.ca/

      when I was in Ontario some years ago it was common to go 130 km/h in a 100 km/h zone. That is what everyone els was doing. Here is a video showing te same thing:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szF7dZoZKnk
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FULepxqr8tE
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meb8pOQOQ9c

    2. Vitor

      I don’t think anybody uses the full metric (SI) system in their everyday lives, we all use hours, minutes, degrees, liters and so on. The SI even “allows” the usage of those and other historically significant units (imagine speaking about angles in radians).
      Also, the SI unit for time is the second, so in the “full SI world” the sign would be in hundreds of seconds, maybe kiloseconds, which would certainly be easier than centihours.
      I agree about the poster though, if they were going to simply convert from inches, they should have used cm, and truncated/rounded the result.

  13. Ricardo S

    I have a Canadian friend explaining they need to drain the pool before Winter His pool, according to him, was 5 by 8 and 5 feet deep. What? I asked why length was in metric and why dept was in feet? He did not even notice. he said his children “speak” metric, but for him, a 50+ guy, it is still a half way thing.

  14. bob

    Why not go the full monty and go to decimal time and decimal angles and decimal days and decimal weeks and decimal months.
    You can’t, however, have 10 days/week with 10 days/month with 10 months/year because that would give you 1000 days in a year and obviously that doesn’t match up real well with the seasons.

    Also do a story on decimal time. After french revolution they tried to do decimal time you can even find decimal time clocks and if i recall some other people groups had some other decimal concepts of time.

    Also no mention of hubble telescope? Wasn’t there an issue with it blamed on different parts from different places using different systems of measure?

  15. Hal O'Brien

    The French weren’t just making a reasoned, rational appeal to their fellow Europeans for adoption. Napoleon’s Grande Armée also had something to do with it. Subsequent colonialism by European countries also played its part.

  16. dante gomez

    -But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people, including and influential group of “astronomers, theologians, and cranks,” Mihm explains.-

    ASTRONOMER OR ASTROLOGIST?

  17. Chris

    My Google account is set to metric yet when I type in a location in Google maps the quick complete options are all listed with their distance away in miles “mi”. Why in such a configurable world does everyone requesting metric have to see the options in miles? Click through to get directions and they are explained in kilometres. Hmm.

  18. Actually this is some important info you left out of EPISODE 280, ‘Half Measures’ but maybe you folks were either not born yet or were to young to know about this.

    The big reason why the 1970s was the best chance for the USA to switch to the metric system was because of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. This caused gas prices to skyrocket. If you might remember, or seen on old-timey gas pumps (the framegrab on the YouTube video posted on the website), the digits for the fuel amount (gallons) and cost (cents) were on metal tumblers in the gas pump. Gas had NEVER been above $1 so there were only three digits (two whole numbers and tenths) for pricing. Since the entire USA could not retrofit the gas pumps overnight the solution was to sell gas by the liter. Yeah they had to write ‘Liter’ on a piece of paper to cover up the word ‘Gallons’ but it worked. They re-jigged the pumps to sell by the liter. That’s when we should have gone metric since we were already using it and wouldn’t have to redo the pumps. But alas they bought all new pumps with four tumblers and eventually that was replaced by Nixie tube digits then LCD.

    I’m guessing another reason the USA is too stubborn to go to metric is because of sports. Think about the confusion and record books that would have to be changed. Football fields are 100 yards, Baseball 90 feet between bases and the Indianapolis 804.67 Kilometer auto race doesn’t exactly roll-off the tongue. Yeah, they could just refer to them anachronistically like we still can say a ‘fifth of whiskey.’ But hey, look at the bright side as we would seem to weigh less as there’s 2.2 pounds in a Kilogram and it may seem like we’re driving faster as 55mph=88.5Kmph.

  19. Sasha

    The conversion from quarts to liters was incorrect in the podcast: she says “a liter is a liter bit more than a quart” as a joke but a quart is actually a little bit more than a liter. Thanks’

  20. Denise

    I work in fasteners. Please do another episode relating this argument to bolts! We are very much NOT converted over, and our Canadian branches still use inch fasteners as well….

  21. Cindy

    About very few Americans knowing whether a liter is bigger or smaller than a quart – I still strongly remember seeing a cartoon where red liquid was poured from a full liter beaker to an empty quart beaker and the liquid overflowed by a bit. (It’s in the PSA linked to in the write up, above.) I was a kid seeing that cartoon on Saturday mornings, and it really was a helpful memory device. (We were also taught how to have a general feel for the metric system in school – such as that a pencil was about 20 cm, a tall man was about 2 m, and a nice temperature as 20 – 25 C. In high school science classes, we had to memorize the exact conversion formulas for metric to and from metric. I still know these, 35 years later.)

    I remember feeling in 1978 that everything would switch to metric within a few years. Reality was disappointing. (I was also disappointed that the solar panels that seemed like they would become common a few years after about 1974 also did not appear on the schedule predicted.)

    The one area that I do not look forward to going metric is cooking volume measurements. That area was not covered in my school education, so seeing the metric versions of recipes always gives me a feeling a unease and discomfort. Silly, I know.

  22. Matt

    Just listened to the episode, and in the introduction you mentioned other cases where bad metric conversions lead to problems, and I thought “like the Gimli Glider”. Then you said “In the early 1980s, an airliner ran out of fuel mid-flight after a metric conversion error and had to make an emergency landing” and I was super excited, because you were talking about the Gimli Glider.

    And then you just stopped talking about the Gimli Glider and moved on. “Had to make an emergency landing” is an accurate but massively understated account of the Gimli Glider story. It’s a story with all the drama and tension of the amazing ‘Structural Integrity’ episode. You should do a story on it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist