Monday, May 22, 2006

 

The Metric System

I’m just old enough to remember the great Metric System debacle of the 1970’s.

Unlike every other country, the U.S. still uses miles, and feet, and inches, and furlongs, and pounds, and quarts, and gallons. Bits and pieces of metric show up in specialized applications, like laboratory science, medicine, distance running (5k races are commonplace), and, for reasons I’ll never understand, bottling. (At some point, the 2-liter bottle replaced the 2-quart bottle. Don’t know why.) But for the most part, we’ve remained proudly wedded to the old English system, which even the English don’t really use much anymore.

There’s a great book waiting to be written on the failure of the push to convert to metric.

Looking back, I sorta remember the backlash against metric occurring as part of the backlash against an inchoate sense that America was in decline. In the late 70’s, there was a weird, curdled-populist anger that manifested itself in CB radios and Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan. It was a strange brew of xenophobia, misogyny, anti-communism, romanticism, evangelical Protestantism, redneck-ism, patriotism, jingoism, and a dumbed-down Jeffersonianism. (For the younger readers out there, picture an angrier Larry the Cable Guy. He’s exaggerated, but he’s recognizable.) It was in response to a whole series of national humiliations, ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan to oil shocks, inflation, and the Panama Canal.

It was a different time.

Anyway, the metric system at that time came off as a sort of effete, Euro-Modernist import, shoved down the throats of Real Americans by the same smug coastal elites who got all self-righteous about banning smoking and conserving energy. To my memory, the song “Take This Job and Shove It” pretty much captured the spirit of the age. At that point, to suggest posting highway signs in kilometers was tantamount to announcing that you like to traipse through daisies and dress up like a pretty little girl.

Readers of a certain age – do you remember just what, exactly, was behind the anti-metric movement? I think this represents the dilemmas of American liberalism in microcosm.

Comments:
Interesting post, DD. I was a wee shaver myself at the time but do recall the aggressive "We ain't jumpin' on that bandwagon," which was followed by "Everyone else should learn our ways if they want to do business with us." Well, gee, that worked. Even "Big Three" cars are now largely metric under the hood, though of course not on the dashboard.

Interestingly, the US military (oddly always a little ahead of the country in terms of social reform in many respects) is totally metric and has been for decades.

A parallel of note may be Britain's struggle to become totally metric. All one need do is drive down any British road to see that they have a long way to go.
 
As to bottling, I remember the ad campaigns: "Two litres is more than two quarts!" (Was there ever a two quart size? I recall the introduction of the two litre bottles was about the same time as the beginning of the end of the returnable glass bottles.)
 
I remember the push for metric, and think it was like app crit says. Our way, or the highway...
Re: .5 liter bottles. They charge the same price as they did for 20 oz bottles (Coke, anyway). To compare apples and apples, .5 liter = 16.9 oz. So, almost a 15% price increase with no "New and Improved" on the label.
 
In my part of the country, milk is still sold in "two quart" cartons, otherwise known as half gallons.

Every measurement system is equally arbitrary. Learning a new measurement system is work, and unless there is a clear benefit, it is pointless work. The benefits of going metric were never clearly articulated, and the downside was the confusion of the transition period. And perhaps a sense of loss of identity. Plus who wants to know the temperature in Centigrade?

The largest rationale for the metric system seemed to be that it was "more modern." That was the age of Toffler's Future Shock, and we were getting rather sick of modernity. Of course, the future turned out more shocking than we dreamt.
 
that's how i remember it, too: "my way or the highway."

i always thought there was a great fear of how hard it would be to learn new systems of measurement. the old ones are so comfortable! it is not really that hard to get a sense of the half-liter bottle or how long it takes to drive a kilometer, though.

it is funny how stealth metrics have crept in, these past few decades. often, they are side-by-side with "our" measurements, on rulers, speedometers, measuring cups. most products sold by weight or volume have the metric equivalent in parenthesis. a few US products have gone whole-hog metric: seeds for my garden are sold in metric weights, the ubiquitous 2 liter bottle, and liquid medications are usually dispensed in metric doses [much more precise than whichever "teaspoon" happens to be in the drawer].
 
My guess would be that moving to metric had no real upside for the home user, and lots of downside. And nobody was in the mood for more downside right then.

Me, I'm "bimetrical." I can work comfortably in both systems, since I cook at home using English units and use the metric system for my benchwork. One of my more surreal experiences was trying to buy cookies, by weight, in Montreal--translating from English to French and English to metric simultaneously. ("Uhh..un quartier kilo?" A francophone I ain't.)

Metric units rock for laboratory science, but how often does a home cook need to make exactly 0.1M sucrose, or hold something radioactive while mentally doing a dilution series?

On the downside, a shift to metric in the home means you have to throw out all of your cookbooks, measuring spoons, scales, etc., and convert all of the family recipes. Plus lay in a huge stock of bolts, valves, etc. so you don't have to rebuild your entire house to metric standard. All pain, no gain.

In areas where going metric really helps (in the lab, in international manufacture, medicine, and so on), the shift has already happened. In areas where it doesn't, I expect it never will. Which is OK; there's no actual advantage to measuring a car's efficiency in km/l rather than mpg.

Besides, if the US has to be different--and I think de Tocqueville would agree that we do--this is a pretty benign way to do it.
 
It's much the same way in the UK. Officially, everyone uses metric. But day-to-day non-technical business is still conducted using the imperial system. I think it springs from a combination of tradition and a few advantages of the older system. (For example, fahrenheit degrees are smaller and work better to describe weather than celsius does.)

Me, I'm happy I know my car's mileage in rods to the hogshead.
 
I had a metric system lunchbox in the 3rd grade :)

As an engieer, I greatly prefer the metric system. It has well defined references. More importantly, it is easy to switch between different modes of measurement (mass/weight vs volume) for example, which can come in handy when cooking. I know a liter is a cube 10 cm to a side and if filled with water is about 1 kilogram. I could never tell you the volume of a gallon in cubic inches (though I do remember "a pint a pound").

However, for the "everyday Joe/Jane", these are non-issues, and I think any conversion in units seems pointless. What does the metric system matter to a bus driver, as long as they know how fast they are going? And for a mechanic, it means owning two sets of tools because of all those foreign-made engines ...

Here is another example. In France, the last day Francs were used as currency was June 2002 (I think). In February 2005 I was in France, and the signs in the grocery stores still have prices posted in Francs as well as Euros, even though people can't even use that currency anymore. At least switching to the Euro had a purpose to the average European (whether or not they liked it).

I still don't get why the 2 liter (and 1 liter) bottles took off. It is more volume (compared to a quart/2 quarts) and more syllables to roll off the tongue. What does the soft-drink industry know that we don't? (my guess is economies of scale in bottle manufacturing)
 
If I weren't feeling lazy, I could do some research and tell you exactly when we Canadians converted to metric, but suffice to say it was around 1975, and I was about six years old. Like most Canadians my age, I know my weight in pounds and the distance to work in kilometers. I can convert small distances and temperatures with ease in my head, but I have only the vaguest idea how much a gallon or a pint are. There are probably a lot more useful things I could do with some of these brain cells than have 75% of two measuring systems but 100% of neither in my head.

In the 1970s, my dad was a drummer, and they named their band Celsius (sic) because everyone would at least be talking about the term, if not them.

Why did we do it? I have no idea. Probably just one more way we could jump up and down and wave our arms and show how not-American we were.

I absolutely love your analysis, though!
 
I still don't get why the 2 liter (and 1 liter) bottles took off. It is more volume (compared to a quart/2 quarts) and more syllables to roll off the tongue. What does the soft-drink industry know that we don't? (my guess is economies of scale in bottle manufacturing)

Here's my guess: Well, either Coke or Pepsi needed to have the liter unit anyway for the European market, and then figured it might as well leverage the "supersize" mentality of American consumers to get a leg up on the competition - I mean we're talking flavored sugar water here - any effective marketing edge is worth so much more than the cost of a bit of extra volume. But then after one brand led the way, all the other brands had to follow suit just to keep up. Hence the liter standard.

Outside of the science lab and the soda aisle, I find the good old English units much more practical. Those of us who consult recipes have sometimes need to double or halve a recipe, which English units make pretty easy - but tell me when was the last time you needed to increase a recipe ten-fold?
 
The issue is not road signs, it is manufacturing machinery, fastners (screws, nuts and bolts) and the like. You got 2L bottles because the builder of the extrusion machines got tired of building two different models. And then, of course, manufacturing moved off shore to metric land. Do you really think that a factory in China want machines that are built to customary unit specs?
 
doubling or halving a recipe should be as easy in metric as in the US system, no? Isn't half of 4 always 2, no matter what the unit?

What I find most baffling is that recipes in the US go for certain ingredients like fish or meat in weights and some in volume... the mind boggles.

How much is a cup of nuts or onions or peppers - whole, chopped, how fine? It makes a huge difference in weight.
That is no more accurate than saying "a medium sized" whatever.

Even something as homogeneous as flour makes a difference sieved or unsieved in volume.
Yet, the binding properties of flour should depend on the weight, not the volume.

"Professional" cook books in the US that have restaurant-size recipes are in metric, from the ones I have seen.
I guess at 30 cups it does matter whether those nuts are chopped or whole.
 
Yeah, USA, Liberia, and Burma are the only countries not using metric system formally.
 
The metric system has a nice consistency to it that is lacking in what engineering textbooks now call "American units". Force equals mass times acceleration, rather than requiring extra conversion factors. (Ask any graying technical type to explain g_c and then prepare to wince in pain.) While I was old enough to have the lunchbox but too young to recognize the societal motivations, I speculate that it was related to positive aspects of 1970s spirit and enthusiasm.

I had an amusing experience concerning the metric system in Scotland while driving a rental car near Loch Ness. The speed limit sign on a country road displayed 60, with no units. The road was windy, yet smooth enough that both km/h and mph were reasonable units. (I learned at a gift shop that mph was correct, to other drivers' frustration before I pulled over.)

Vehicle mileage is slightly more tricky to convert, since it is reported in liters per 100 km, rather than km/L.
 
I'm surprised none of the readers mentioned baseball. Some national columnist (sorry, don't recall whom) asserted that those decimals painted on the outfield walls were just TOO MUCH. Metric system advocates, particularly middle school science teachers, have always come off as a bit snobbish about how "rational" the system is. At the same time, they lose people with the conversions. Somehow HO model railroaders manage. (HO Scale is 10/875 full size, with the jarring proportion of 3.5 mm = 1 foot, but the tracks scale to 56.5" from rail to rail, just as George and Robert Stephenson intended.)
 
I remember, though I'm HARDLY of a certain age. I think the main consensus was it would be so HARD (think whining). Like Al Gore's global warming, only eggheads wanted to think about metric. Now that I'm a nurse and an also "bimetric", and go back and forth between English and Metric(except for temperature, darnit, I can never remember that), it's a no brainer.
 
Since 1983, I have been recording my body measurements in centimeters, in 1984 outdoor temperature in Celsius, and in 1992 my weight in kilograms. My GPS unit is set to metric units. As early as 1975, I was using metric frequently, as soon as I heard that the USA will be converting. I was 8 years old then.
 
One thing I find amusing is the number of American publications that refer to the American system of measurement as the "Imperial system". Close, but not quite the same thing -- especially for fluid measurements!

Historical note: the reason American gallons are less than the Imperial gallon is that after the American Revolution merchants began using the wine gallon for everything. With no King's inspectors around to enforce weights and measures they managed to get a 20% price increase by selling smaller quantities for the same price...
 
Metric - the sooner, the better.
Start in the schools. DO NOT CONVERT!!!.Biggest mistake IS TO THINK YOU CAN WORK IN METRIC AND USE THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM IN YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE.You will not be able to design and build a product in metric without constantly converting. Look what happened to American manufacturing. What happened to the American machine tool industry? All gone. I agree - if you are working in agriculture or any related industry, it would not make much difference. But think: what are the signs of an industrial country. You export high tech product, machinery, finished product etc. and import
agriculture,raw material, mining products etc. .Have you looked at our trade deficit lately? What are we importing? High tech and finished
product. Our biggest export: agriculture. Makes you wonder, why?
Nobody in the world wants to buy a product build to inch (imperial) standards and many US companies are to lazy to go after a big world market and change to metric, when they can keep on making product build to imperial standard and sell to a domestic market. The US used to be a leader, now we are just to fat and lazy and anybody advocating a change is told : we do not understand this metric system - or - if you do not like it(the imperial system)why don't you go somewhere else. Reality is: almost nobody understands the inch system.
Make a test and ask your bartender how many 12 oz glasses of beer he can draw from a 1/2 barrel. Good luck.
 
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