Updated on June 26, 2022
The metric system, the measurement system used by the entire world save the United States (and Myanmar/Burma and Liberia) saw a short-lived promotion in the US during the 70s. The US government made an unsuccessful attempt at converting the country to the metric system.
Why the US didn’t go metric
My guesses why America never went metric:
- Businesses balked at the cost of converting equipment, etc. to metric.
- Reagan’s rise to power in the 80s (and the accompanying deregulation craze he brought) killed off government efforts to promote metric.
- American exceptionalism, plus our stubbornness and indifference (to the point of sometimes being outright hostile) toward how the rest of the world does things, even if it places our country at a disadvantage, or makes a few things more difficult.
- The now-ubiquitous nature of electric calculators and the rise of conversion tools on computers, Google, etc. removed one of the larger arguments for going metric, that “it’ll be easier for us to convert units and do calculations.” Fine for the 1970s when electronic calculators weren’t as common. However, now that anyone can just plug in “18 inches in feet” into Google and get an answer (“1.5 feet”), I think one of the biggest arguments for the US going metric has been removed. At least, unless you work for NASA.
The metric system in the US today
Still, remnants of the metric changeover do linger in the United States today. For one, medicines and mouthwash come in metric containers (such as the 1 liter mouthwash bottle I have in my bathroom), as does some items such as dental floss (my floss package states it contains 50 meters of floss).
All food and beverage labels here contain metric and Imperial units, with Imperial usually listed first and metric units in parentheses, i.e. “1 lb (454 g)” or “20 fluid ounces (591 ml).”
Americans are also used to the now-ubiquitous 2 liter soda bottle, plus the occasional 1- and 3-liter bottles. Water bottles also often come in 500 ml, 700 ml, and 1 L sizes.
Finally, nutritional labels on food products use metric units (grams and milligrams). However, serving sizes are nearly always listed in cups, fluid ounces or teaspoons/tablespoons.
Metric Meets the Inchworm
Animators, of course, have made use of their medium to promote the metric system. One promotional effort is the 1974 short film, “Metric Meets the Inchworm.” An inchworm with actor Jimmy Durante’s voice and mannerisms tries to find a job that doesn’t use the metric system. However, the worm finds to his dismay that the whole world’s using it.
The film’s cute, especially the inchworm’s dismissals/reactions to seeing his new job using metric units (“I quit; see you later, daddy-o”; “show it to your grandmother, buster”; “I’m long gone—see ya in the funny papers…”). The film’s two biggest arguments are that going metric will put the US in step with the rest of the world, and make calculations easier.
The Metric Marvels
In the late 70s, the producers of “Schoolhouse Rock” created “The Metric Marvels,” a short-lived series of several-minute-long films promoting the metric system.
Meanwhile, Canada actually went through with their own 70s-era conversion to the metric system. Canada’s animators produced some animated films that tried to relate metric units to Canadians’ daily lives. One example’s this short with a weird-looking floating head: