Metric and Imperial

10 Sep

In the 1970’s, after what one gathers were years of behind the scenes wrangling, the Federal Government officially stated that it was going to move the United States over to a Metric Standard of measurement. This was greeted with pockets of resistance and widespread apathy. Efforts began with some PR fanfare, a swath of public school initiatives, and some ostentatious shifts away from the old Imperial Standard. By 1980 it was fairly clear that nobody besides a few nut cases gave a flip either way, that the Imperial Standard (and several others, like the various nonsensical clothing size standards) was too entrenched to be dug out easily, and that getting excited about the whole mess was on a social level with getting into a lather about spelling reform.

Basically there are three schools of thought about this;

1) I love Metric. Metric is so easy to use. Metric is what I use every day. I don’t understand what everybody doesn’t just do it my way.

2) I love Imperial Standard. Imperial Standard is so easy to use. Imperial Standard is what I use every day. I don’t understand what everybody doesn’t just do it my way.

3) Oh, will you both just SHUT UP!

The reason behind the preferences, however, is something most people haven’t thought about.

Metric is all about decimal places. It’s for mathematics, and therefore for science. On paper, when using math, Metric simply makes sense. But in real life, ten is only cleanly devisable by two and five. And that simply isn’t very useful.

Imperial is all about dividing by hand and eye.  A foot is twelve inches. Twelve is cleanly divisible by two, three, four, and six. Three out of the four can be easily approximated by eye and hand, with a little practice. Other measures in the Imperial system have similar characteristics. If you are manipulating stuff in the real world, such as a kitchen or a sewing room, then Imperial may not make QUITE as much sense as Metric does in the laboratory (because each type of measurement is a different scale), but it makes one hell of a lot more sense than lifting Metric out of its natural setting.

And there you are. Everybody is right. The scientists who prefer metric. The cooks and seamstresses who prefer Imperial. And the rest of us who wish they would just leave it alone.



4 Responses to “Metric and Imperial”

  1. moonstarcarmencs September 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    You don’t mention the global economy issues of consistent units for industry. I think that might be a major reason to push standardization on the metric system.

    • cspschofield September 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

      If the global economy makes standardizing in Metric attractive, then the market will more to Metric, and the Government doesn’t have to do anything. If the market won’t move that way, there’s no justification for Government action.

  2. rhekelley September 10, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    Love this, Charles. For years I have cowered in anticipation of the US going metric and never researched the benefits of each system. Global economy issues don’t seem to have been very persuasive in changing the US’ (etc.) use of the Imperial system. Now how about addressing why they drive on the left side in British influenced countries??

  3. key184 September 10, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    Thanks for setting it straight!

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