Metrics. Why So Difficult?

We have been actively pursuing adopting the metric system in the US roughly since the latter part of the 1700’s. Its been dubbed “Mandatory” in 1809. The success of those efforts has only been eclipsed by Y2K and the great reveal of the contents of Al Capone’s safe. In fact, for a quick chuckle, if you can still find a veteran businessman, mention you heard we are going to be exclusively adopting the Metric System in the USA next year.

At best we can say today that we have had success adopting the metric system in some of, but not all areas of measurement. Wikipedia does a nice job delineating areas where metric measurement has successfully been adopted in the US, (science, military, medicine). The only example of metric measurement that came to mind, however, was the 2 Liter bottles of soft drinks are now illegal in New York. At best we can say Americans are not keen on jumping quickly into metric measurement and saying goodbye to “foot-long” hot dogs and jokes about the inability of men to measure correctly.

A word of caution; while we are “actively” transitioning between metrics (written in decimal notation)

and “fractions”. Make sure both parties understand the exact point of accuracy that is being discussed. If you purchase a bar of 3-1/4″ Diameter, is your supplier visualizing the same 3-1/4″ Diameter bar (in fractional context?). Or are you really expecting a 3-1/4″ Diameter bar that is 3.250″ Diameter, accurate to the third decimal? What about 3-15/16″ Dia. (3.9375″ Dia. Are you expecting accuracy to the fourth decimal?). True, one topic is diameter size, while the subsequent text refers to accuracy or diameter tolerance. Normally, that would not be an issue. The two would be understood to be separate considerations. However, when you are ping-ponging two different measurement systems as interchangeable, there is a potential for surprise. Mishaps of this nature occur more often than should be the case.

For now, in the United States, think of any changeover of our measurement system sort of like METRXIT. It will likely still take a while. Over time, you will likely see dual notation on things like automobile speedometers, etc. But when it comes to steel bar sizes, fractional annotation may be here for a while. The “fractional” system, sometimes referred to as: The English System, or Imperial Units, has served us well. Change is inevitable. We know that. We’re workin’ on it.

-Howard Thomas, March 5th 2020

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