# Why the United States Doesn’t Use the Metric System

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If you grew up in the States, there’s a good chance you didn’t realize until college – or beyond – that we are one of the only developed nations in the world that uses a system of weights and measures that’s not the metric system.

If you didn’t study science, math, or another field that utilizes the more widespread metric system, it might not really matter to you all that much.

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That is a loaded question that extends far beyond how we measure football fields and footraces, but at least we can answer the somewhat easier one, today.

The United States’ relationship with the metric system dates back to the 18th century, and despite everyone else making fun of us for eschewing the metric system, the truth is, we use hodgepodge of all kinds of weights and measures.

Football fields are measured in yards, races in meters. Mechanics use both foot-pounds per second and liters when working on the same car, and air pressure is measured in all sorts of ways.

In the U.S. Customary System – the inch-pound system – more than 300 different units exist to measure various physical quantities. Some of them, like the term “ton,” have at least nine different meanings of their own, according to U.S. Metric Association website contributor Dennis Brownridge.

To understand why the U.S. decided to go their own way, we need to talk a bit about how the European system found its way across the pond to begin with.

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Back when Americans were still colonists, they used the British Imperial System, which evolved from a tangled mess of medieval weights and measures. They refused to get on board with France (surprise) as they refined the metric system in the 1700s, and the American colonists realized that their new nation would need to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” at some point – they put that exact phrase in the Constitution.

In 1790, Jefferson endorsed a decimal system of measurement, but in the end nothing was adopted as they feared an expensive delegation to France would be necessary. By 1797, the hostilities between France and the U.S. had grown so intense that the States were not invited to Paris in 1798 with other countries set to learn the metric system.

In the end, the States decided to stick with the U.S. Customary System for many reasons, but by the end of the Civil War, most of Europe had settled with with the metric and decimal-based measuring systems, which means the States had to make some accommodations.

The next time countries met in France to sign the Treaty of Meter, which established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the U.S. accepted their invitation. They received their copies of the International Prototype Metre and the International Prototype Kilogram in 1890, and the Mendenhall order of 1893, which stipulated that the fundamental standards for length and mass in the U.S. be based on metric units.

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In 1959, English-speaking countries agreed to new and improved conversion factors for both yards and pounds-mass.

Which basically means that, despite popular discourse, the U.S. has recognized the metric system for 145 years, and has based the units of its standard weights and measures on metric units for nearly 120 years.

Of course, we still don’t actually use the metric system in our day-to-day life.

When Mendenhall died, the thought of making the metric system compulsory in the U.S. basically died with him, despite pushes in 1971, and again in 1975, to make it happen.

As society became more global, more issues arose. Factories built overseas, products delivered to European consumers, all had to face the challenge of converting money and other units to suit the rest of the world. Congress passed amendments to the Metric Conversion Act in 1988, hoping to head off many of these issues at the pass, and designated the metric system as the “preferred system of weights and measures for the United States trade and commerce,” and required federal agencies to use “the metric system of measurement in its procurements, grants, and other business-related activities” in 1992.

Private industries were exempted, which means most have made slow – if any – progress. Estimates say around 30% of products manufactured by American companies have gone metric, though some have done more than others.

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The pharmaceutical industry, for example, displays only metric units, while the beverage industry typically displays both. Film, tools, bicycles, and a handful of other items are typically sold in metric measurements, too, but for the most part, people have been lazy about making the switch.

Of course, it’s not only laziness that’s in play here – money is always a big factor, and it remains the biggest reason the U.S. has been slow to adapt. Doing all of the necessary conversions would require many man hours that would cost millions of dollars.

The trademark stubbornness of Americans, combined with their insistent individualism also likely factors in – basically, you can pry our inches and pounds from our cold dead hands.

The hard switch would require an act of Congress, because allowing states to adopt the metric system at will would lead to a huge, chaotic mess.

And while America also enjoys those on occasion, when it comes to something as necessary as being able to sell and buy things of reliable size, we’d rather not.

For today, anyway.