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Jeruba's avatar

Why are we still measuring in barleycorns? and other nonmetric questions.

Asked by Jeruba (50610points) June 23rd, 2016

Here’s a reminder of what inches and teaspoons and bushels are all about:
English measure

Apparently the U.S. is one of only three nations still holding out for nonmetric measurement. And the other two are not especially forward-looking:
Can we convert?

Are you ready and willing to adopt the metric system in the U.S., or are you secretly hoping that it won’t happen in your lifetime? It sure didn’t happen in the lifetimes of my chemistry and physics teachers.

Tags as I wrote them: measurement, metric system, inches, feet, meters, liters, diehards, retro stubbornness.

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31 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

As the saying goes, most of the world has gone metric, except for the USA, which has gone to the Moon with Imperial units.

I agree that we will and should make the switch one of these days (one of these Solar Units), but I’m going to miss so many of our colorful Imperial sayings.

thorninmud's avatar

There’s no question whatsoever that metric is a far more rational system. The transition, though, would be painful, and not just because we’d have to learn to think in metric terms. The absolute best way to do such a conversion would be to take a “tear off the Bandaid” approach, where industries across the board agree to a simultaneous switch. That’s the kind of thing that can happen in highly regulated societies, but it’s hard to imagine anything of the sort here.

Failing that, you have what I come across often on my job. Manufacturers of wheelchairs these days are haphazardly adopting the metric standard for their hardware, with roughly ¼ of the new equipment out there using metric hardware. My tool bag already weighs 50 lbs (22.73 kg), and that’s without being equipped with a full complement of metric tools and fasteners. This leads to quite a few “oh crap!” moments when I realize that I have no way to replace a stripped screw (one that I probably stripped in the first place because I didn’t realize it was metric).

And I’m just one little guy. Multiply my little annoyances at having to navigate this ambiguous hardware landscape by millions across multiple industries and you can begin to understand the inertia. All of us want the metric system, but we all dread navigating the long, chaotic transition. And who, exactly, is in a position to dictate the fateful moment at which an abrupt transition would take place? The government? What government?

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I hope we convert soon.

Seek's avatar

I’m teaching my son in the metric system, with the exception of cooking and baking, and that’s only because I 1) lack a kitchen scale and 2) still have a hard time thinking in metric terms myself.

Hopefully the coming generation will get it better than mine did.

Jak's avatar

Metric jihad, convert or die!

Strauss's avatar

I still use imperial, because that’s what I learned to cook with, most of the recipes I use are in imperial, and all my measuring utensils are imperial. If I had a recipe in metric, I could convert it, because I know a teaspoon is approximately 5 ml, and go on from there.

@Seek Here’s a little something to cut and paste and put on a fridge magnet:

1 C=8 oz=16 Tbsp=48 tsp=237 ml
¾ C=6 oz=12 Tbsp=36 tsp =177ml
⅔ C=5⅓ oz=11 Tbsp=33 tsp=158 ml
½ C=4 oz=8 Tbsp=24 tsp=118 ml
⅓ C=3⅔ oz=5⅓ Tbsp=16 tsp=79 ml
¼ C=2 oz=4 Tbsp=12 tsp=30 ml
1/8 C=1 oz=2 Tbsp=6 tsp=30 ml
1/16 C=0.5 oz=1 Tbsp =3 tsp=15 ml

LuckyGuy's avatar

We’re working on arguably the most advanced equipment on the planet yet the program leader uses Knots to describe.air speed. Seriously?!

(@Yetanotheruser ¼ cup is 60 ml)

cookieman's avatar

My math teacher asked a similar question…in 1978.

If it’s gonna happen, it is certainly on a slow burn.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I can remember during the panic after Sputnik, the Federal governmennt was right on the verge of mandating the implementation of the metric system, but the resistance was fierce from the then powerful manufacturing sector, concerned about retooling and calibration expenses, and the forced obsolescence of existing stockpiles.

stanleybmanly's avatar

It really is a tragedy that we failed to carry out the conversion while we were at our vibrant economic best. The rise of China might very well force the issue, as the waste involved with 2 separate product lines (one for domestic purposes and the other world wide) becomes ever more apparent. There were those people in our government then prescient enough to regard the issue as a matter of natonal security. What is really interesting is that the Defense dept. is very much about designating everything in meters and liters and has for decades.

zenvelo's avatar

Because it is analog and experiential, and based on the real world.

Metric is not ta all natural, and ends up with odd measures for quotidian uses. Metric is only really useful for a scientist using measurements to multiply in a formula into a derivative measure.

Force =Mass*acceleration is very easy in Metric, but not in Imperial measures. But how many times in your day to day non engineering or scientific life do you need to know what the magnitude of Force is?

I just spent some time in Europe, and went to the grocery store.They sell vegetables in half Kilo measures. Wouldn’t a pound be easier?

A meter is too big for measuring a room or a bookshelf; a kilometer is too small to measure how far you walk. A kilo is too heavy for measuring food, a liter is too small for buying gasoline.

Love_my_doggie's avatar

The adjustment is much less painful than people imagine. For many years, soft drinks have been sold in metrical units (a litre of soda); nobody cares. A bottle of wine is 750 ml; so what? Alcohol hasn’t been sold by the pint, fifth, or gallon for ages, which has no effect on anyone. Medications are expressed in milligrams, and people are fine with that.

It’s really just a matter of acclimation and comfort.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

My vote is for the US to convert to the metric system. I’m old enough to remember when it was taught in public schools, and it just made more sense.

imrainmaker's avatar

Would you like to weigh in lb or kg? Depends on you like it heavier / being lighter..)

zenvelo's avatar

@Love_my_doggie Beer is sold in 12 oz or 16 oz (pint) sizes.

CWOTUS's avatar

Believe it or not, US manufacturers have very widely converted to metric measure. When we (for example) do work in the power industry for overseas contracts – which with coal-fired steam generation equipment is “all of our work” these days – the units are metric without exception. And all of our suppliers provide equipment, drawings, specification sheets and instructions in metric units, as well. As long as the project specification says “metric measure required”, that’s what is done, without quibble and usually without a problem, either.

Some of us who have grown up in Imperial units but who mostly work in metric units now do a lot of in-our-head conversions (pressure units of bar to psi, for example, temperature in °C back-figured to °F and measurement in mm to inches, meters to feet, just to “get a sense of scale” and to be sure that the numbers we use sound reasonable in the real world), but once you learn them, units are units.

But I also agree with @zenvelo that there’s nothing inherently “rational” about the metric unit of length, for example (from which the units for volume are derived, and upon which units for power are also derived). The only “rational” thing about it – and in this sense it is a very sensible thing – is that the units are multiples of ten. That makes sense to us, instead of feet being 12 inches, yards being 3 feet, rods being 16.5 feet, miles being 320 rods – or 5280 feet – for example.

LostInParadise's avatar

There is one nice thing about having 12 inches for a foot and 36 inches for a yard. 12 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12. 36 is additionally divisible by 9 ,18 and 36. This is convenient for dividing things up. 12 and 36 along with 24 (as in hours in a day), 60 (as in minutes and seconds) and 360 (as in degrees in a circle) are all what are called highly composite numbers, which just means they are each divisible by more numbers than any smaller number.

There are those who say we should switch our number system from base 10 decimal to base 12 duodecimal. That would definitely mess up the metric system.

Seek's avatar

There are those pushing for Base 8, too, but I see little reason to make such a drastic change when base 10 is literally as easy to learn as counting on your fingers.

Love_my_doggie's avatar

Things got wacky with the French Republican Calendar, an attempt to decimalize time. Days were divided into 10 hours of 100 minutes, and each minute had 100 seconds. Imagine trying to measure time that way! The reform was briefly mandatory but abandoned after a few years.

I’m very comfortable with base 10 measurements, but not on a clock.

@CWOTUS Yes, the metric system is fairly widespread throughout the U.S., but often unnoticed. The volume of any canned or packaged food is listed both ways. People grab a quart container of a beverage but don’t pay much attention to the 946 ml.

Strauss's avatar

How ironic that we’re talking about this at the time the home of Imperial measurememnt (UK) is breaking away from the bastion of metric (EU)!

Love_my_doggie's avatar

^^^ Let’s not forget that England stayed true to the pound sterling and never went with the euro.

zenvelo's avatar

@Love_my_doggie Some might say that England has never been the same since decimalization, they were better with Pounds/shillings/pence

Strauss's avatar

Overheard in a pub, shortly after liquids were metricized:

“Get used to it!? I’ll never get used to it! All my life, a pint has quenched my thirst. Now I can’t down a liter without my bladder runnin’!

LostInParadise's avatar

While we are praising the English units, let’s discuss Fahrenheit vs Centigrade. In human terms, 100 degrees Fahrenheit is meaningful as being very warm when the thermometer registers it and 0 degrees is very cold. A person with a 100 degree temperature has a fever.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Here’s a nice chart that sums up the English Measurement System -
Attribution:By Christoph Päper – file:English length units graph.svg, CC BY 3.0,

LuckyGuy's avatar

@LostInParadise I find Centigrade to be more intuitive.

0 C is freezing!
10 C and below you need a sweater
20 C is gorgeous
30 C is hot
40 C Where are you?! The desert?!

CWOTUS's avatar

That was an interesting chart, @LuckyGuy, and it includes some English / Imperial units of distance measure that are unfamiliar to me. But the out-of-scale comparisons make the chart less meaningful and useful than it might have been. And that includes the out-of-scale metric units on the right side. Still, interesting to look at some of the units. Thanks for that.

LostInParadise's avatar

@LuckyGuy , I never thought of Centigrade that way. That is how it should be taught. What matters is not the conversion of Centigrade to Fahrenheit but the intuitive sense of what a given temperature means.

SmartAZ's avatar

I remember people casually assuming that the USA would force itself to accept metric measure as early as 1955.

The answer to all your whining is “convenience”. Bead merchants have built a world wide industry making and selling beads measured in mm. Jewelry dealers have built a world wide industry making and selling necklaces measured in inches. Nobody even blinks at bead necklaces listed as something like “8 mm x 24 in” because everybody is familiar with those terms and nobody wants to learn a new language just to sell necklaces. So likewise the soft drink manufacturers measure their bottles in liters and the fruit juice canners use quarts and ounces because they are set up that way and it would be an inconvenience to change.

What I don’t understand is why anybody cares enough to keep whining about it.

basstrom188's avatar

It’s the measurements that got you to the moon! Hope when we in the UK finally throw off the shackles of Brussels we will return to our traditional measurements rods, poles, perches and all.
[really though metric measurements have lot going them but don’t tell anyone I said so]

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