Just about daily we battle between using the Metric System of measurement and the English system of measurement. Some of our customers use only the Metric system while most still use the English system with a bit of Metric thrown in here and there. Let's explore the question of which came first as well as the bigger question; are those companies in the USA the only ones in the World that are still dragging their feet on this issue?
Going as far back in time as the story of Noah's ark, the lack of a yardstick was not a serious drawback. Most measuring was done by one craftsman completing one job at a time, rather than assembling a number of articles piece-meal to be assembled later. It didn't make much difference how accurate the measuring sticks were or even how long they were. Generally, it doesn't make much difference how long a mile, a yard a meter or an inch are or how heavy a pound or an ounce is. What is really important is that everyone means the same thing when referring to each unit of measurement. Measurements must be standard to mean the same thing to everyone. Imagine your business with no way to measure the product...
The First Yard
When the Roman Empire passed into history about six hundred years after the time of Christ, Europe drifted into the Dark Ages. For six or seven hundred years mankind generally made little progress with regard to standardizing measurement. Sometime after the Magna Carta was signed in the Thirteenth Century, King Edward I of England took a step forward. He ordered a permanent measuring stick made of iron to serve as a master standard yardstick for the entire kingdom. This master yardstick was called the "iron ulna", after the bone of the forearm, and it was standardized as the length of a yard, very close to the length of our present-day yard. King Edward realized that constancy and permanence were the key to any standard. He also decreed that the foot measure should be one-third the length of the yard, and the inch one thirty-sixth. King Edward II, in 1324, reverted back to the seed concept of the ancients and passed a statute that "three barleycorns, round and dry," make an inch. However, seeds as well as fingers and feet were no match for a world that soon was to emerge from the ignorance and unrefined practices of the Dark Ages.
The First Meter
As the scientists were experimenting in their laboratories, practical tradesmen were making themselves permanent standards. In 1793, during Napoleon's time, the French government adopted a new system of standards called the metric system, based on what they called the meter. The meter was supposed to be one tenth-millionth the length of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator when measured on a straight line running along the surface of the earth through Paris. With the meter now determined as the basis of the metric system, other linear units of the system were set up in decimal ratios with the meter. With this system, all units are in multiples of ten: ten decimeters in a meter, a hundred centimeters in a meter, and a thousand millimeters in a meter. In the other direction, there are ten meters in a dekameter, a hundred meters in a hectometer, and a thousand meters in a kilometer. Compared to the yardstick, the meter is just a little longer: 39.37 inches long.
The French government thought it had an infallible system of weights and measures that would be easy to use and would be embraced by everyone. But people were accustomed to thinking in terms of yards, inches, pounds and quarts. At first the new meter as a measure of length proved confusing. Most Frenchmen thought in the old familiar terms, doing some mental arithmetic to convert one quantity into another and, after nineteen years, Napoleon finally was forced to renounce the metric system. However, in 1837, France again went back to the meter, this time for good, hoping to make it universal throughout the world.
While France was evolving the metric system, England also was setting up a more scientifically accurate determination of the yard. Where the French relied on the assumed constancy of the earth's size as a basis for the permanency of their standards, the British turned to the measured beat of the pendulum. Galileo already had learned the secrets of a pendulum. He found that the length of time it took for a pendulum to complete a swing depended upon the length of the pendulum itself. The longer the pendulum, the slower it swung. He also found that a pendulum a little over 39 inches long would swing through its arc in exactly one second. Since a pendulum always behaves exactly the same way under the same conditions, here was another unchanging distance upon which to base a standard measurement.
In 1824, the English Parliament legalized a new standard yard which had been made in 1760. It was a brass bar containing a gold button near each end. A dot was engraved in each of these two buttons. These two dots were spaced exactly 1 yard apart. The same act that legalized this bar as the standard for England also made the provision that, in the event it was lost or destroyed, it should be replaced using the pendulum method to determine its length. A few years later, copies of both the English yard and the French meter standards were brought to the United States. The English system of measuring was almost universally adopted in the United States.
In spite of repeated requests in Congress, there was no legal length standard in the U.S. until 1832. More or less authentic copies of the British copies of the yard were used as length prototypes. In 1832, the Treasury Department decided to admit as a legal Yard the distance between the lines 27 and 63 of a certain bronze bar, 82 inches in length, bought in 1813 in England for the Federal Survey Department. When the British yard bar, which was destroyed in 1834, was replaced in 1855, a new bronze copy No. 11 was sent to the United States which became the legal American Yard Standard.
Converting the United States
Since the mid nineteenth century the United States has made several attempts at converting over to the World Standard. On May 20, 1875 the United States became a charter member of the metric club, having signed the original document (The Treaty of the Meter), in Paris. They were the only English-speaking nation to do so. Since then, 48 nations have signed this treaty, including all the major industrialized countries. In 1975 the US Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and although made with good intentions, the Treaties, Acts, established Institutes, and passed legislation have yet to push through the change.
To answer the second half of the question - it is not true that the US remains the last holdout. While the rest of the world is pretty much standardized on the metric system of measurements, when it comes to mandatory use, the United States has company in its foot dragging. Great Britain, Liberia and Burma are right there along with the United States. Some international organizations have threatened to restrict U.S. imports that do not conform to metric standards and rather than trying to maintain dual inventories for domestic and foreign markets, a number of U.S. corporations have chosen to go metric. Some Motor vehicles, farm machinery, and computer equipment are now manufactured to metric specifications. We have a feeling that you will be seeing more and more of your customers in the US using the Metric system in their purchases with you as their customers make more and more original specifications in Metric.
One More Important Thing To Know: SI is the abbreviation for the Système International d'Unités, the modernized version of the metric system that most nations have agreed to use. It defines the length of a Meter as the distance light will travel in a vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second. Talk about calibrating your measuring tools!
Thanks goes to Cool Fire Technology for the reprint permission on much of the History contained here.
Written By Mark Batson Baril