Behind the United States’ insistence on driving in miles, drinking coffee in ounces, and surveying in foot lies a sense of patriotism, astonishing political stability, and historic distrust of the French.
The way we choose to measure things may seem trivial. However, our measurements structure the way we live and interact with each other. You cannot make comparisons or forge a real economy without setting well-defined standards.
To facilitate trade and reconciliation between countries, several centuries ago, the elites, therefore, proposed a decimal system of measurement. But not everyone has gone through it.
The birth of the metric system
Before the 18th century, systems differed from city to city. It is estimated that there were no less than 250,000 in France alone. The size of a field, for example, could be measured in the number of days it took to harvest. Some land was also measured in “bushels”, to quantify the amount of seed needed to sow it.
A “duty” to standardize then slowly crept into people’s minds as people started to travel.
In the 1790s, the Parisian government finally asked the French Academy of Sciences to develop a new system of logical measurement. It was then decided that one meter should be one ten-millionth of a quadrant of the Earth’s circumference — that is, the line from the North Pole to the equator.
Everything is then divided into decimals (there are ten millimeters in a centimeter, a thousand grams in a kilogram, etc.).
Note that in 1960, the meter changed its definition to take as the basis of calculation the orange radiation emitted by the isotope 86 of krypton. It evolved again in 1983. It is now defined as the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in an interval of 1 / 299,792,458 seconds.
These new standards, however, took time to integrate our diverse and sometimes belligerent societies. Things actually started to change during the chaos that followed the French Revolution of 1789. When Louis XVI succumbed to the guillotine, those who replaced him were indeed part of the Enlightenment movement. And these new rulers, fervent supporters of the metric system, believed that the King’s head should be weighed in kilos.
The United States, as a “sister republic”, was then supposed to follow suit. So why is the US so averse to anything metric?
In 1790, George Washington also found it necessary to establish a certain uniformity in currency and measures. American money was successfully decimated, but the old measurement systems resisted. At fault, the British system was too rooted in the national psyche.
But not all of them gave up. In 1793, US Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who also believed in this new metric system, did indeed reach out to a French scientist by the name of Joseph Dombey. The goal: to present the new standard weight to Americans.
The researcher then set out with his little one-kilogram copper cylinder, heading for the New World. But fate decided otherwise. Dombey’s ship, driven by a storm, fell prey to a British pirate ship who demanded a ransom. Joseph Dombey will eventually die as a prisoner, and the kilogram will never reach America.
The American resistance also demonstrates a genuine patriotic sentiment, exacerbated by the profile of a “common enemy”. Indeed, not all Americans were as Francophiles as Jefferson. This is also why the ideas of these elites, considered arrogant, did not find an echo on the other side of the Atlantic.
Another factor that flies in the face of the metric system in the United States is the relative political stability of the country.
Ken Alder, of Northwestern University (Illinois) and author of The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (2003), indeed points out that the complete overhaul of such a measurement system requires a little fuss to get the troublemakers out. “We came close during the civil war,” he explains. But the conflict was not subversive enough to allow this change.”
Today in the United States, the metric system still has its strong opponents, although more and more people agree that it is time, finally, to standardize with the rest of the world. But the researcher warns: Those who would like to give up miles and ounces should keep in mind that this type of transition is often accompanied by more radical political change.