6 Crazy Things I Just Learned About the Metric System


People have been going haywire over this map of countries that don't use the Metric System. While grams and kilometers aren't exactly embraced here, the US has definitely been flirting with the measurement scheme for a very long time (Jefferson was an advocate!). Here's a look at 6 quirky things I just learned about the Metric System.

1. There Used to Be a Metric Calendar (and Metric Clocks!)

Back when the whole Metric rage was taking place, the French decided to play with time as well. The Metric Calendar (also called the French Republican Calendar) divided the year into 12 months. While the 12 doesn't exactly fit into the scheme, each of those months was divided into three 10 day weeks. Each day was broken down into 10 decimal hours, and each hour was 100 decimal minutes each. While metric clocks and calendars were designed to push the new system, the idea never really took off, and mandatory use of the system was suspended just three years into its launch in 1795.

2. There's a Magazine Devoted to It: Metric Today

Actually, it's more of a bi-monthly newsletter. Published by the USMA (U.S. Metric Association), a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the metrication of society, Metric Today covers all the things you need to know about getting metric in America. The current issue covers topics like:

  • How did John Deere metricate?
  • How will hydrogen be measured when fueling cars?
  • What metric-related holidays occur in October?
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Of course, the newsletter is just a small part of their doings. They also sell give out awards, work with the government to push the metric agenda, and sell flashcards and other metric-centric stuff. This set of posters is my absolute favorite. Sadly, while the USMA is incredibly savvy about their measuring system (each poster is billed at 55 cm high by 32 cm wide), they do not accept orders via the net. Instead, you have to print out a form, and mail it in with your check.

3. There are a Handful of Resisters

As the map above shows, three countries make up the Axis of Medieval. The U.S. is one, but which other nations are willing to join us in brandishing their yard sticks and uniting against the world's most popular measurement system? It turns out that our only allies in this fight are Liberia and Myanmar

4. But America Likes it for her Money

It's funny that while we've shunned the metric system in all other ways, it made total sense to us in terms of our cash. Through the Mint Act of 1792, the U.S. became the first country to create a decimal based currency. Amazingly, the idea of setting 100 pennies to the dollar was novel for the time, especially since the dominant currency back then was the British pound/shilling/pence scheme which, at the time, set 12 pence to the shilling, and 20 shillings to the pound.

5. Thomas Jefferson, Lord Kelvin and Alexander Graham Bell were all Passionate Supporters

In their own words:

Lord Kelvin: "I look upon our English system as a wickedly brain destroying piece of bondage under which we suffer. The reason why we continue to use it is the imaginary difficulty of making a change, and nothing else; but I do not think in America that any such difficulty should stand in the way of adopting so splendidly useful a reform."

Alexander Graham Bell: "After the metric system has been adopted by the U.S. and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ."
Thomas Jefferson was also an early and vocal advocate. You can read his proposal from 1790 here.

6. It's Illegal to Discriminate Against It

Or at least it was. According to the Metric Act of 1866, the USMA reports that "This law made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities." Please bring that up the next time you want to purchase a 2x4 (or rather, a 5.08x10.16) at Lowes.