By Troy Anderson
Aug 09, 2018

Why the US Still Dicks About with Imperial Units

Yam & Troy the Science Boys

The metric system is fucking dope. The imperial system is not. The former was invented by a French bloke named Gabriel Mouton in the 17th century. He was getting really sick of all the bullshit units out there that didn’t make sense, were challenging to work with, or weren’t even consistent between cities. He established the metre based on the curvature of the Earth. The idea of a universal system of measurement was born and continued to grow. In 1791, the metre was redefined as one ten-millionth of the distance between the geographic North Pole and the Equator by the French Academy of Sciences.

It’s pretty straightforward: one cubic metre is equivalent to one thousand litres. One thousand litres (of pure water) weighs one tonne, and this covers the main three bases; distance, volume, and mass. Degrees Celsius were later defined from the freezing and boiling points of pure water (0 and 100 °C). These SI units were determined by nature, but have since been redefined several times so that they can be recreated with great accuracy by anyone with the appropriate gear. Then, there’s the imperial system...

No one needs any further explanation as to why the imperial system is fucked. I have a mate who loves it solely because he knows all the conversion factors; lording his knowledge over the metric peasants. I often hear the series of statements—it’s never a discussion—like “why does America still use the imperial system?” followed by “because they’re Trump-supporting idiots LOL XD”. It’s evident that explanation doesn’t make a lick of sense, so I decided I’d look into it. Fortunately for me, many others had also wondered this so doing research for this column was super fucking easy.

It’s merely a matter of cost. The United States of America is a big fucking country and has been using imperial units pretty much since day one. This means that this system is pretty well entrenched and isn’t going anywhere soon. By using Australia as a reference, a pretty reasonable estimate of the cost can be established. Both countries have high GDPs and comparable urban/rural ratios.

Starting in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it took Australia approximately 18 years to transition to the metric system. Their government spent around AUD 16 million doing this. However, this figure doesn’t represent the amount spent by corporations, which were expected to cover costs internally. Adjusting for inflation and conversion, this is roughly equivalent to USD 130 million. Most of this cost was relative to population size and road network size, which gives an average scale factor of eleven (The US having fourteen times the population and eight times the road network size). Now, without doing a full economic investigation, this value is likely only accurate in order of magnitude only, but that still leaves the cost at about USD 1.43 billion.

This value doesn’t account for military transition or the vast technological advancements that have occurred in the last thirty or so years, but I think it’s safe to say that the US would rather save that money for their USD 598 billion military budget. Besides, most of the scientists and engineers in that country got sick of that shit years ago and have already made the jump.


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