As a physics teacher, I am well versed in the metric system.  The world’s scientific community operates by measuring things in the metric system; meters or kilometers (distance), grams or kilograms (mass), newtons (force), joules (energy), and watts or kilowatts (power).  Some of these you have heard of and others you have not.

Early in my teaching career, a local garden club contacted my school and asked if they could send a person well-versed in the metric system to their club meeting on Saturday morning, 8:00 a.m., to explain the metric system to them.  Since I was the rookie, I was chosen.  I was happy to explain the metric system to them, but not at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.  But as the rookie, I went to do just that.

I wanted to make a good impression.  So I prepared an organized 10 minute presentation and then planned to do a Q & A just as they had instructed.  I even took a flip chart and markers so I could add a visual component to my remarks (this was long before all of the technology gadgets).  And then I got stunned with the first question.  I didn’t have an answer to this question.  It was something like, isn’t the metric system a communist plot? 

We are only one of three countries today who have not officially adopted the metric system.  The other countries are Myanmar and Liberia.  Now, the US Congress did pass the Metric Act of 1866, but that did not seem to take.  The United Kingdom does still use a few non-metric units, but they are required to also put the equivalent metric unit alongside of their imperial measurement, dual signage.  You know how stubborn the American public can be.  It didn’t happen.

The Metric System: comics

Then the US Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 (this is why the garden club was interested in this topic at that time).  It was meant to plan and coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system.  I remember when all of the speed limit signs had the dual units, miles per hour and kilometers per hour.  To this day our car’s speedometers have both mpg and the metric speed.  The government even created a United States Metric Board (USMB) to help with the planning, coordination, and education in the metric system.  This board was dismantled in the 1980s as a budget cut.  Once again the public response was resistance, apathy and sometimes ridicule.  Ridicule such as, it is a communist plot to confuse us. 

We are comfortable with an inch, foot, mile, and pound because we use them every day. If we used centimeter, meter, kilometer, and kilogram every day, it would seem natural. If you watch cop shows on TV, your familiar with a kilo. The drug kingpins know what a kilo is too. And when they heft that kilo package (kilogram) of heroin around, it’s just 2.2 Lbs. The difficult numbers are when you convert between our Imperial system and the metric system. Once in the metric system, the numbers are really quite easy. For example:

  • 100 centimeters = 1 meter
  • 1000 meters = 1 kilometer
  • 1000 grams = 1 kilogram, which is called a kilo.

Today, we remain a country using two different measurement systems.  The science community using the metric system and everyone else using the U.S. Customary Units.  In fact, it was confusion over using two different systems that led to the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998. 

So I am a proponent of the metric system.  It is not a communist plot.  Happy Newton, Jule, and Watt!

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