How did the metric system evolve?

Metric vs. Anglo-American: Two types of measure

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There would be so much to unify between the EU and the USA! But it is not done: Milliliters and ounces, meters and miles - the checkered history between the two rival systems of measurement in the USA and the rest of the world is not over yet. Not even with the much-criticized TTIP free trade agreement.

In the largely secret negotiations, the merging of the US measurement system into the metric system is not an issue, confirms Johann Sollgruber from the Austrian representation in the EU. Why this is so can be explained historically, but it is not logical.

For many Americans, the metric system with its kilometers and meters, tons and kilograms, liters and milliliters, which is valid almost everywhere around the world, is a horror. They prefer miles, feet, and inches. With ounces, quarts, and many other units of measure that may seem exotic and confusing to the rest of the world: a mile is 5280 feet, while a kilometer is thousands of meters. A meter is one hundred centimeters while a foot is twelve inches. And one inch in turn measures 2.54 centimeters. This is not for mentally weak Europeans who have not developed a feeling for the US system of measurement.

"Devil's work"

Conservative Americans, of whom there are always particularly vocal advocates, like to refer to the metric system, which originated in Europe, as "the work of the devil", as a system based on revolutions, communism, wars and other despicable political events.

Somehow that's true. The metric system was invented and implemented by the representatives of the French Revolution and was then often adopted by other states when they lost a war.

The metric unit system was introduced in Paris in 1793. In the process, earlier systems in France, which went far back in time, were virtually abolished in a flash. Many European states followed in the 19th century. Paris has remained the center of standardization to this day. The original kilogram has been kept in a safe in Paris for over 125 years.

In 1871 Austria signed the "International Meter Convention" together with 17 other countries. Even earlier under Maria Theresa, old weights and measures were standardized, that is, "metrified". The fathom was set at 1.89648384 meters and the old Austrian post mile was defined as 7.585936 kilometers.

This standardization was extremely important for a flourishing trade. In the area of ​​what was later to become the German Empire, there were around 300 different surface dimensions until 1870, according to the Wikipedia Internet dictionary. Misunderstandings and mistakes when dealing with units could easily happen.

During a changeover, something that was historically familiar and a hope for the future clashed. Therefore: The fact that the USA - only together with Myanmar and Liberia - has not switched to the metric system to this day is astonishing and contradicts the actually forward-looking, positivistic American thinking.

It should be like that, as the US author John Bemelmans Marciano sums up in his book "Whatever Happened to the Metric System" (2014): Americans don't like to get on later because they then have to ride in the back seat.

A few attempts have been made in the USA to introduce the metric system. The first who wanted to do this was the American founding father Thomas Jefferson. Alone, something always came up, there were always prominent, eloquent opponents. The writer Thomas Wolfe described kilos and meters as a colonialism of the Europeans.

Pint stays pint

The mainland Europeans also felt rejection from the British, where the Anglo-American system of measurement has its origin. Actually, the British should have converted miles on road signs into kilometers in compliance with the EU, but tacitly opposed them. They were appeased by the fact that they were allowed to maintain the typical British liquid measure of pint (0.568 liters) with beer. This is important for national identity.

It is not always defiance or justification if a unit of measure does not reach the consumer. The change from kilocalories to joules, which was prescribed many years ago in the EU, never worked, the joule is simply too unwieldy: 350 calories are 1465 joules, nobody remembers that. Or another example: The fact that screen sizes are given in inches (which no one in the world will find out about when making a purchase) is due to the dominance of the USA in the computer sector.

As a rule, the metric system draws elegance and self-image from science. For example, the meter that the Parisian revolutionaries decided to use was ten millionth of the distance from the pole to the equator. Today the meter is defined as the distance that light travels in 299,792,458th of a second. The original Paris meter, of which some copies were made, which were passed on to the partner countries for purposes of reference, is kept in Paris.

The temperature unit Celsius, which also belongs to the metric system, is mathematically beautiful. Water freezes at zero degrees Celsius and boils at 100 degrees. With US Fahrenheit, 32 degrees that take getting used to correspond to the Celsius zero mark.

Now it doesn't matter whether the housewife weighs the ingredients for the cake on the kitchen scales exactly in grams - or whether she counts spoons and cups full of flour and sugar. Also, a double award for the producers of the most diverse goods is not really complicated. In our computerized, digitized world there are thousands of websites and apps that can be used to convert any measure quickly and easily. Nevertheless, if this is not a trade barrier that can be abolished in the course of the TTIP free trade agreement, what then?

Some industries in the USA have tacitly converted or are driving twice: for example, information technology with its digitization. In public invitations to tender, technical documents are always emphasized on meters, liters or other metric dimensions.

Nasa plays it safe

Nasa also relies on it after the crash of the Mars probe Climate Orbiter in 1999. "This country has still not adopted the metric system one hundred percent," said Chris Jones of the NASA laboratory JPL at the time, according to "Spiegel". The builder of the satellite, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, made a mistake when transferring flight data from the American to the metric system. (Johanna Ruzicka, January 31, 2016)