Converting to Metric?


This is what a child (back then) needed to know about measurements. I don’t want to ponder on the method used to measure a mouthful. Eww!
Two mouthfuls are a jigger;
two jiggers are a jack;
two jacks are a jill;
two jills are a cup;
two cups are a pint;
two pints are a quart;
two quarts are a pottle;
two pottles are a gallon;
two gallons are a pail;
two pails are a peck;
two pecks are a bushel;
two bushels are a strike;
two strikes are a coomb;
two coombs are a cask;
two casks are a barrel;
two barrels are a hogshead;
two hogsheads are a pipe;
two pipes are a tun–
  and there my story is done!

The curious thing about reading S. Carl Hirsch’s 1973 Meter Means Measure is his assurance that the metric system would be ensconced by now into our society. His opening sentence:

A healthy American baby girl born in the year 2000 may tip the scales at exactly three kilograms–instead of 6.6 pounds. And her body temperature will undoubtedly read about 37 degrees–Celsius. At school age, when she is perhaps 100 centimeters tall and drinks a liter of milk a day, she may ask her father, “Daddy what was an inch?”

I found this history of measurement fascinating.  In the same way that working with different base numbers in mathematics takes you outside your comfort zone, thinking through different methods of measuring length, weight, time, and temperature boggles the mind.  Thomas Jefferson suggested this master plan for linear measurements:

10 points make 1 line
10 lines make 1 inch
10 inches make 1 foot
10 feet make 1 decad
10 decads make 1 rood
10 roods make 1 furlong
10 furlongs make 1 mile

Four questions illustrate the difficulty the English system of measurement.

How many acres in a square mile?
How many cubic inches in a bushel?
How long is each side of a square one-acre lot?
What is the weight of a quart of water?

Hirsch waxes eloquent on the superiority of the metric system. Yet there is great resistance to switching over. “Change,” Hirsch assets, “is strange.” It took Japan forty years to change over.  Great Britain did it in ten years. 

The United States, Myanmar, and Liberia are the only countries in the world not using the metric system. I admit that I was ambivalent about metrication before reading this book. We cling to what we know, how we were taught. Yet, I see the benefits of going metric. More on Metrication in the United States. And, just for comparison, Metrication in Canada.

What do you think?


12 thoughts on “Converting to Metric?

  1. Brazil is on the metric system so I’m somewhat accustomed to using it.  For many years I had two thermometers so I could know what my children’s temps were in fahrenheit (for my sake) AND yet be able to tell the doctor in centigrade.  Kilos and grams made perfect sense to me in the grocery store, BUT when it came time to weigh myself I still had to mentally convert back to pounds because kilos in that quantity had no visual meaning for me.  What I’m saying is that I’m half-converted already and think I could make the crossover in a pinch. 

  2. Way back in the Dark Ages, when I was in middle school, there was this great surge of metrification.  I was the audience for all that was touted by Hirsch was preaching to in the 1970’s.  We had to do all kinds of metric exercises in math…and that’s where it stayed; in the text book during math class.  A few years later we started seeing it on the labels a bit at the supermarket, and that’s kind of where it lurched to a halt.  I’m not proficient with metrics, and honestly, feel no guilt.  I don’t have time to learn something that, even though they said differently throughout my school years, about which the government clearly doesn’t give a fig.  Since I don’t have to, I don’t.    I know rough conversions (on a good day) and could convert if the rest of the country does.  I’d always think in standard, though.  :)Interestingly there was this idea of eating worms during the ’70’s, too.  That doesn’t seem to have advanced much more than the metric system.  (Happily….)My grandfather used to deliver milk. He delivered ‘jills’ of cream, and my mom had a little ‘jill’ jar.  However, they spelled it ‘gill’. ??

  3. Interesting post, Carol. In the early “60’s our country converted from Imperial to Metric. So I’m a “metric” product. The latest editions of mathematical literacy books used in our school system present – more so as in the past – exercises on conversions between the two systems. But alas, the students feel … as cellphones do any conversion with a press of a button – and only the diligent students will study the conversion methods for their math tests. And, really, metric is easier than Imperial

  4. I’m still being converted.  True, in more senses than one :)As Linus put it, “How can I do ‘new math’ with an ‘old math’ mind!”

  5. When in our home school we studied the ancient pyramids, I ran across a book by this man who, after measuring the Great Pyramid in thorough detail, became convinced  ” that the pyramid inch [virtually identical to that of the British system] was a God-given measure handed down through the centuries from the time of Shem (Noah’s Son), and that the architects of the pyramid could only have been directed by the hand of God.” His strong advocacy for the traditional measurements have ever since colored my thinking on the subject. If it was good enough for the pyramid builders….    I’ve always understood that we would be converting to metric “anytime now.” but I haven’t seen it happening, and I don’t see any reason to hope for it.Thanks for a fun review!

  6. I much prefer the regular system.  Do you know an acre is how much an ox can plow in one day?  Nearly all the linear measurements are based on the human body.I think of the metric system the same way I’d think if a ballet dancer decided that since French is the language of dance we should all speak it — or a musician suggest that we all use Italian.  Just because metric is handy for scientists doesn’t mean that the rest of us should be subjected to it.Did the author mention anything about the French Revolution?

  7. I use metric all day long in my medical practice – the English sytem is completely impractical for doing anything scientific. The English system is beautiful however, kind of like an old estate without central heating.

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