The Metric System: A Measure of History
Every country in the world but three – the United States, Myanmar, and Liberia – measure length, volume, and mass using the metric system, or the International System of Units (SI) as it is officially known today
Today’s SI is the refined version of a measurement method adopted in 17th– and 18th-century Europe. The continent’s scientific, technological and industrial advances required a more precise and standardized way of collecting, analyzing, and preserving data.
But SI’s is rooted even farther back in history. Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin advocated a base-10 convention in the 16th century. It is no wonder that the French Revolution, with its violent repudiation of monarchy, would also provide the impetus to reject the arbitrary imperial system. The French developed an orderly measurement system based on logical principals:
- Digital structure to match the base-10 numbering system
- Single basic, absolute units for each measurement
- Relationships among length, volume, and mass (1 milliliter = 1 cubic centimeter = 1 gram)
Even before the new French republic adopted SI, it and 16 other nations – including the United States – gathered to sign the “Treaty of the Meter” in Paris.
Metric in Early America
Despite this adherence to the “foot-pound” system, the U.S. as early as the George Washington administration, has been on a path to officially join the rest of the industrialized world in adopting the metric system. And while we may still be on that road, the country’s way has been fraught with hazards. Ironically, the American manufacturing and even the fastener industry often were responsible for throwing up many of those roadblocks.
Working under Washington, Secretary of State Jefferson devised two plans to take America metric. Both were defeated by a Congress well aware that Great Britain – a staunch advocate of the imperial system – remained the country’s largest trading partner.
Economic factors continued to hold sway as the U.S. resisted SI through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Machine tool manufacturers successfully lobbied Congress to keep the country on the imperial system, claiming that retooling lathes and reconfiguring screw thread gauge, pitch, diameter, etc. would prove cost prohibitive.
Oh, how times have changed!
Metric’s Growing Popularity in the U.S.
Spurred by the global economy – including import and export of machine tools, automobiles, manufacturing equipment, and spare parts, SI already is well-established in U.S. industry. For much of U.S. history, its major trading partners – Great Britain and its former colonies, especially – remained on the imperial system. There was little reason for American exporters to define their products in grams, millimeters, or liters. But as transportation, communication, and manufacturing became cheaper and as higher wages created huge consumer markets in India, China, and Eastern Europe, American producers no longer could afford to ignore the opportunities looming overseas. Even imperial-system stalwarts Australia, England, and Canada began transitioning to SI in the 1970s, creating greater pressure for U.S. industry to follow suit.
In addition to the obvious opportunity to increase revenues in expanding foreign markets, manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and other industry players who adopt metrication accrue many additional benefits:
- Access to federal contracts. Most federal agencies are required to use the metric system in bid solicitations, procurement, contracting, etc.
- Standardization. Metric standards offers an opportunity to reduce redundant, similar-sized imperial-sized fasteners and tools, streamlining MRO supply chain operations.
- Fewer errors. Division and percentages are easy using metric’s base-10 system, eliminating human mathematical errors. Designing specifications, scaling production machinery, and fabricating replacement parts can be accomplished with little computation.
The commercial benefits of SI are multiple, and more American businesses are seizing the revenue and cost advantages the metric system embodies. The road to full metrication in the United States is long and arduous, but we will arrive, centimeter by centimeter.
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