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Berginski: Why Not Convert to the Metric System?

By Staff | Jun 19, 2015

The metric system; anyone who’s watched movies in the past 30 years would know it’s the reason why McDonalds establishments in France serve a “royale with cheese” rather than a quarter pounder. Since 1799, it has been an internationally agreed upon system of measurement based on decimals and units of ten. There are only three countries in the world that have not fully adopted it as their official systems of measurement: Liberia, Burma and the U.S. But some want that to change, including Democratic Party presidential candidate Lincoln Chaffee, and for good reason. The way we use two systems in our society confuses anyone coming to our country from other countries, and if you really give it some thought it will confuse you too.

Chaffee believes that adopting the metric system would move the U.S. toward a more internationalist approach. It is not a new argument by any means; scientists and some citizens have been pushing for converting to metric for years.

In the 1800s, President Andrew Jackson (the guy on the $20 bill) made use of the metric system lawful. In the 1970s Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act. That effort slowly fell into a coma, mainly because adopting it was left voluntary. However, in 1988, Reagan then called for federal agencies to adopt the metric system by 1992. His successor, George H.W. Bush, declared in an executive order that is is the “preferred system of weights and measures” for U.S. trade and commerce.

But with the exception of science, trade and commerce, the metric system is present in our society in a confusing way, if you think about it. Take track & field for example; in all running events distance is measured in meters, but in events like softball throw, discus, shot put and jumping it’s feet. Soda comes in 12-ounce cans and 20-ounce bottles, but for a family or a thrifty individual it comes in two-liter bottles. Beer is in a 12-ounce can or bottle, but wine and liquor are in milliliter bottles. People run marathons, which are 26 miles, but also run 5K’s, which is short for five kilometers. The Bremer Bank clock in Rugby shows the temperature in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.

Let me throw some more your way. There are eight fluid ounces in a cup, two cups in a pint, four cups in a quart and four quarts in a gallon; that’s eight, 16, 32 and 128 ounces. There are 12 inches in one foot and 5,280 feet in a mile (63,360 inches). Sixteen ounces make a pound, and 2,000 of those make a ton. Our way of measuring things uses a whole bunch of different numbers; it’s a mathematical nightmare. The metric system is based on units of ten, in other words, 10, 100, 1,000, etc. That sounds a lot more simple.

In some ways, our customary units of measure are also outdated. The word “mile” comes from the Roman phrase mille passum, which means “1,000 paces”. In 1592, it was decided the actual length of a mile was eight furlongs, a furlong was 660 feet or the length of a furrow an oxen team can plow in a day. Feet is based on the size of King Henry I of England’s feet. We live in an age where anyone can whip out his or her smartphone and not only find that out, but also how many milliliters are in a cup (236.5882). The metric system is still relatively new.

It will be costly in the short term, changing speedometers in cars to show kilometers per hour. Changing your grandma’s cookie recipe to milliliters and milligrams, and the cups and spoons as well, will take some time. But in the interests of simplicity and the age we live in, it’s time to consider changing to the metric system.

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