Personal Opinion: Weights and Measurements

Courtney Lehrmann

You see it every day on food items, scales and mathelete’s t-shirts: the United States customary system. Since the American Revolution, this system of measurement has been used in lieu of the metric system. While it made sense at the time, as time marches on, it makes and less and less sense that we opt out of the metric system.

Over 95 percent of the world uses the metric system. Only three countries – the United States, Burma and Liberia – do not use it. Systems of measurement are a form of communication internationally, and as such, it is illogical for anyone not to use the metric system. It is a universal system within math and science, and something that transcends one’s native language. The U.S. customary system, however, is not something that other scientists and doctors around the world could look at and immediately understand. It’s a dialect all its own, and it leaves us somewhat isolated from the rest of the world when we have to translate between the two systems.

The U.S. customary system is commonly seen on items for sale and commercial items, but only in our own countries. This poses an issue towards our citizens when purchasing imported goods or traveling abroad. As an example, let’s say that someone who is on a special diet for a medical condition was never been taught the metric system in school. If they were to travel to Australia, where they are used to seeing ounces listed on food packaging, they would find milliliters; instead of calories, there would be kilojoules and kilocalories. While the advent of the smartphone has made conversion much simpler, the fact that we are one of the few countries to have to need a conversion chart just to understand something as simple as a food label is just embarrassing.  

The metric system makes more sense than the U.S. customary system. There is no need for both liquid and dry measuring cups, only a scale and liquid measuring cups. There are also significantly fewer units to learn. To wit, our system uses 50 different units of measurement and few prefixes, while the metric system only uses 13 units and eight prefixes. When it comes to conversion, all one needs to do in the metric system is shift the decimal point a certain number of places rather than do a slew of fractions to multiply or divide by. 

It begs the question, then, why the U.S. ever neglected to adopt the metric system in the first place. Answer: the Industrial Revolution. While the U.S. customary system was developed in response to the American Revolution so as to serve the needs of the thirteen colonies, the system was cemented in place by the economic boom of the Industrial Revolution. Once engineers and developed machines and tools dependent upon the U.S. customary system, it became too impractical and expensive in the longterm the U.S. to suddenly change to the metric system.

While it would still be expensive and time-consuming to replace one system with another, today, the benefits would greatly outweigh the costs when one considers the positive longterm impacts to trade, business and travel. The U.S. needs to catch up with the rest of the world and convert to the metric system. It is an universal language, and can only serve to bring our country closer together to the rest of the world.