By The Metric Maven
The late Pat Naughtin argued that it costs each person in the US about $16.00 per day because we don’t have the metric system. At first this seemed hard to believe, but as I’ve observed, it might actually be a bit low. My reasons for believing this are mostly anecdotal, which is always fertile soil for confirmation bias, but I end up hearing so many examples. For instance here is one I was told recently.
“My mom has a great Metric system story for you. She had the oven looked at over the weekend and when we she went to preheat the oven to 350 F, it wouldn’t get hotter than 290. She opened it to see if it was heating at all and was knocked over by a wall of heat. Suspecting something was very wrong she went to get my dad and a thermometer and found it to be around a raging 550 degrees! I guess reading your post might’ve helped her out a bit here. After my dad took a look at it he found the guy who fixed it turned it onto Celsius instead.”
The vast majority of temperatures around the world are measured in Celsius, only in the US do we waste effort by using Fahrenheit. But we waste more than effort. My father has told me tales of how the lack of metric has cost money and time at his shop. One that I found interesting was about belts on a bindery machine. Bindery machines are used to create books from groups of printed pages generally called signatures. They have belts which convey the books along. I’ve not been in printing for many, many years. As I recall, most belts have a set of metal staple-like fasteners to join their two ends. This type of belt splice has been phased out long ago apparently and now high tech adhesives are used instead. The adhesive is placed at the splice and then an electrical hot-iron like tool is used to heat and set the adhesive.
It was found that the splices would last from about 6 months to one year, despite the fact the manufacturer claimed they should last for five years. This failure rate was not so excessive that it raised ire, but it did cost more time and resources than advertised. The maintenance person began reading the users manual and it stated that the iron should be set to 100 degrees. An infrared thermometer was used to measure the iron. It was 100 F. The temperature was not specified as C or F. They began to wonder if it might possibly be in Celsius. The entire world, other than the US, would assume temperature in Celsius, but here in the US, Fahrenheit is the default thought. Indeed further research indicated the adhesive needed to be cured at 100 C. The iron was set to 212 F, which is, of course, 100 C. When this temperature was used to cure the adhesive, the belts have remained spliced without failure, with a length of duration as long as the manufacturer claimed.
My father also works on many types of machines used in a print shop. One day a machine which ties bundles of printed fliers failed. He looked at the side of the machine, saw it was made in the US, and assumed it was designed with US Olde English Units. He retrieved the US tools and hauled them across the shop. It was only as he began using the wrenches that he realized the machine was metric. He put all the tools back, and then went to get his metric tools. Of course in the US we have the “advantage” that we get to purchase two sets of tools rather than one, doubling our tooling costs.
An opposite situation happened to me many years ago. My father was on vacation when the latch on the copy-board of the process camera failed. A process camera was used to make negatives for printing plates, today it is no longer needed. The problem was simple, after years of latching and unlatching, the threaded fasteners holding the latch had “stripped out.” The hole left in the metal was too large to hold a machine screw of the design size. Myself and the camera person took the fastener to a hardware store. The person there looked at the screw, went over to a cabinet and offered a tap which was “the next size up.” We went back, tapped both holes and the new machine screws fit perfectly. The latch was repaired and I thought all was well.
That belief was shattered when, after he returned from vacation, we told my father about replacing the fasteners. My father asked what size fastener we used. I don’t recall what it was, perhaps a 6-32 or so. When he heard this, my father went ballistic. We were both stunned and asked what the problem was. “This entire camera is metric and you put American fasteners on it, I try to keep all metric equipment metric and all American equipment American. I have no idea if he did anything about it, but clearly if we had become a metric country in 1905, this would probably never been an issue in the latter decades of the 20th century, it would have been assumed at the hardware store, that the fastener was metric. I was very young then. Today I would have measured the fastener myself by determining its size with a screw thread checker, and known better. If we had converted to metric, my only question now would be coarse or fine thread, but alas because we have metric or US Ye Olde English fasteners it is still a toss-up.
The battery on my significant others’ car appeared to have problems one evening. She was across town. It is a Japanese car of mid 2000’s vintage. I brought my metric tools as I have been assured car design is all metric. Well it’s 99.9% metric. In order to preserve the illusion that barleycorn inches from the 14th century are still relevant, the bolts on the battery clamps of cars are US Olde English dimensions. I was very agitated but had the good sense to throw in a crescent (expandable) wrench and was able to get the clamps off and clean the battery posts.
Two or three years later, the car battery finally gave out at an airport. Fortunately, she had AAA. I waited with her as the service truck arrived. The technician pulled out a new battery and laid it on the ground. I saw him pull one wrench out of his pocket and remove the strap which held down the battery. He then put it back into his pocket, he retrieved another and took off the battery post clamps. I asked him “is one of those wrenches metric and the other non-metric?” He smiled back at me and said “yes.” The battery clamps bolts are non-metric and the strap bolts are metric. He pointed out that because they were different types, non-metric and metric, he could not get a single wrench with both sizes on it, so he had to always carry two wrenches.
In my own engineering work, I see small amounts of wasted time constantly. Here is a typical version of the typical story. I receive some dimensions in inches on a sketch drawing to begin a design. I always tell my customers up front I only use metric (only later are some of them shocked when they realize I meant it). I immediately convert the dimensions on the sketch or paper drawing over to metric, and then realize that many are integers, such as 80mm, 150 mm, 225 mm and so on. I wonder if this is a coincidence. I work on the design, and as I confer with my customer about the details I mention that when its converted to metric there are a lot of integer dimensions. I’m then told “oh yeah, this is for a [Fill in the blank with a European, Asian or South American Country] and they sent their designs to us in metric.” I constantly see this happening. It hides the fact that these designs are actually metric, and our US meddling creates pigfish. It wastes time and introduces opportunities for error.
These are US engineering companies with which I work, and they often balk at metric. I have even worked with a medical company which has an engineer who takes umbrage at my use of metric in the designs I’ve presented to them! Medical equipment is supposed to be metric.
Recently I realized that I should buy an actual set of metric taps, rather than the piecemeal way I’ve been purchasing them. When I received the metric-only tap set, it was marked in both English and Metric. This is of course impossible. I had to use my less than optimal eyes with a magnifying glass to insure the taps were indeed all metric. I then covered over the meaningless “English” label so only the metric label was exposed. This just wastes effort. It’s long past time for this dissonance to have been settled by statute or executive order in the US. It just wastes time and money, among other things.
Voltaire once said that “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Americans are oblivious to the wastes of time created by non-metrication, and without seeing these snowflakes of waste, cannot even conceive there might be an avalanche. There may be eight million stories in the Naked City, but it is hard to estimate how many wasteful stories there are in this Non-Metric Country, but these have been some of them.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is not of direct importance to metric education. It is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.