Going Metric, Sort Of

A conversation about metric measurement started last weekend when I visited my son and his family. On a long and colorful urban walk through west Asheville, my “smart” watch measured the distance in both steps and kilometers. When I announced that we’d travelled 5.81k, my granddaughters asked how many miles that was.

I knew from back in the day when I competed in road races that 5k equals 3.1 miles. But I had to google the conversion of 5.81. It’s 3.6 miles.

All of which led to a discussion of why my watch measures distance metrically. The answer? I don’t know. It’s a budget watch, not an Apple brand. I’ve turned off the features that would allow me to receive texts and phone calls and emails and news headlines and weather alerts because all I really want to know is what time it is and how many steps I’ve taken on any given day. None of my tech-savvy friends or family members who’ve tried to change the watch from kilometers to miles has succeeded.

So I’ve adapted.

When I told my kids that, a much bigger conversation ensued. First question: Why doesn’t the United States use metric? Well, we do. Sort of. We buy two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola and 750 milliliter bottles of wine. We measure the aforementioned foot races in kilometers. Medicine is measured in milligrams. Nutritional labels on the back of food packaging are in metric. The ruler in my desk drawer is marked in both inches and centimeters. The measuring cup in my kitchen cabinet lets me choose between ounces and milliliters, though I’m pretty sure I don’t have a single recipe that contains the word milliliter.

Way back when, the United States made efforts to join most of the rest of the world by converting exclusively to metric. (Myanmar and Libya are currently the only other countries in the world on our “team.”)  The 1975 Metric Conversion Act, signed into law by President Gerald Ford, designated the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce and directed federal agencies to convert to the metric system, to the extent feasible. It also established the 17-member United States Metric Board. During the Carter administration, road mileage signs showed both miles and kilometers and many automobile manufacturers installed speedometers that displayed both.

Public response was less than enthusiastic. Some naysayers pointed out that American scientists were already using metric. And our money system is base-ten, right? That should count for something. There was apathy. There was confusion. There was downright resistance. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa insisted that “converting to metric is against our democratic principles.” Others pushed back against what they perceived as caving in to a “global monoculture.” Still others pointed out that a ruler has twelve inches, not ten. A clock has twelve numbers. A year has twelve months. So there.

In 1982, the United States Metric Board was dissolved.

So here we are, still—and perhaps forever–using a hybrid system. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Even though I know it makes sense to say water freezes at zero degrees and boils at 100, it’s hard to lose the mindset that a temperature of 32 degrees means I probably should put on a coat to go outside. I’ll always love the saying “A pint’s a pound the world around,” though most of the world probably doesn’t know what that means. If I hear that someone weighs 136 kilograms, I don’t know if they’re obese or emaciated.

I don’t believe that makes me inflexible or an ugly American. It just means that I’m comfortable with what I’m used to. But I’m also grateful that my smart watch has forced me to be a just a tad more in touch with the rest of the world when it comes to figuring out how far I’ve walked.

(May 4, 2024)