As an engineer and genuinely tech interested guy, I’m generally all up for global standardization and enforcing consistency wherever possible. However, there is this nuisance that keeps stinging me at least once a week: the Imperial System with all its outdated ways of measurement and nonsensical units. I mean, seriously, the entire world got rid of it except “La Résistance” – a small number of indomitable countries fighting with overwhelming reluctance against the thorough introduction of the metric system.

Oh gee, so you can’t deal with it?

It’s not that I can’t deal with it. The problem is that irritating thought process that’s going on in my head every time someone tells me some object is 6 feet long and weighs 8 pounds. Even though brain.exe is able to yield somewhat acceptable approximations, I hate not being able to come up with a result that feels correct enough without the use of a calculator or conversion tables.

“Alright, so 6 feet is…well one foot is about 30cm, so that’s like 180cm which is 1.8 meters –  actually a little more since a foot is slightly longer than 30cm. Also, since a pound is close to 0.5kg, 8 pounds must roughly be 4kg. Nah, that’s too much, maybe like 3.5 or 3.6 – whatevs”. Ambivalent (exact: 1.829m, 3.629kg)

This is just something that needs to be fixed. Generally, we’re heading in the right direction, although some trends seem to suggest otherwise.

Disclaimer: technically, there are different variations of the Imperial System, e.g. the British Imperial Units and the US Customary Units (with different definitions for surveying), based on English Units. While some units may differ slightly, all these variations suck on the very same logical level, which is why I’m referring to the idea here, not to one particular system. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to use US Customary Units for numerical examples.

“You Had One Task!”

Let’s have a look and find out who those hipsters are that still think they’re too cool to use a concise, practical and international system of measurement that just makes sense and isn’t based on the width of an average man’s thumb or the size of a barleycorn.

Map Showing Non-Metric Countries

As indicated by the map above, there are three countries left on earth that have yet to fully adopt the metric system. These countries are (in increasing WTF order) Liberia, Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) and, of course most notably, ‘ole Uncle Sam that just can’t get this thing straight.

Reasons Behind

Why Does The Imperial System Suck?Now, I’m not completely sure why these countries – especially the US – did not manage to completely switch to the new system. People seem to be downright opposing this idea and try to be conservative by sticking to their own system. Whenever I mention this topic in a conversation with American friends, they usually get defensive and start listing their reasons and explain why they think their system is superior (which evidently contradicts the apparent opinion of the rest of this planet).

I noticed that I get to hear the same old story each time: supposedly, the old system feels more natural and you can do sorcery like flawlessly dividing larger units into thirds. Also, the Fahrenheit scale is so much more accurate because apparently they have never heard of decimal places. Smile

Well, I call bogus. Seriously, if there are any actual legit reasons, please let me know, I’d be happy to reconsider my position. For the time being, just look at all the other countries that have previously been using the Imperial System until not that long ago. For example, the United Kingdom and Australia fully adopted the metric system and made it official. While some use of traditional units remains, the imperial units are now officially defined in terms of metric units. Countries like Canada use a hybrid system of both, though officially switched to the metric system as well.

It’s a good thing that most people I have to work with are familiar with both systems but also prefer SI units for obvious reasons. While I do recognize that the old ways had their uses in the old days, I also want to remind that everyone we’re currently in 2014. Wink

Definition Madness

We’re having a base 10 system, so it makes sense to divide units of measurement accordingly:

Logical, straightforward and easy to remember. Perfect. Thumbs Up Similarly, the “concept of tens” also applies to volume measurements.

Now if we compare this with the imperial system, we get 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 22 yards to a chain, 10 chains to a furlong, 8 furlongs to a mile and 3 miles to a league. Ambivalent

At this point, I highly recommend you to go watching Matt Parker’s take on the Imperial System over at Head Squeeze in case you haven’t seen it yet. It’s more extensively and it highlights the stupidity behind the system even more clearly. Also, it simply is hilarious. Smile

Furthermore, I found this interesting graphic that’s just too awesome to be left out. It answered all my questions and instantly activated my facepalm reflex:

English Length Units

Author: Christoph Päper

The major advantage that comes with the metric system (i.e. with SI units), compared to that silly system explained in that diagram, is that all units are tightly coupled together in a coherent set. Kelvin (temperature), second (time), meter (length), kilogram (mass), candela (luminous intensity), mole (amount of substance) and ampere (electric current) are all connected and therefore simplify calculations.

Unnecessary Confusion

Well, to sum it up, I just think being stubborn and keep sticking to the Imperial System just causes unnecessary inconsistencies and confusion – and the occasional loss of a multi-million dollar spacecraft. It might not be that big of a deal and the situation is improving, but it definitely is an annoyance that could be avoided.

An Accurate Statement

I’d like to finish this article with a quote I found that hits the nail on its head and perfectly describes what’s wrong with the Imperial System and why the Metric System should be fully adopted globally, without exceptions.

It is safe to say that after the metric system has been adopted by the U.S. and our people have become accustomed to its use we would no more dream of going back to the present system of weights and measures than we would think of carrying on the processes of arithmetic through the medium of the old Roman letters in place of the Arabic numerals we now employ.

– Alexander Graham Bell, 1906

As I have mentioned, please let me know your opinion and ideas. Perhaps there is some enlightening secret I have yet to discover, though I highly doubt it.


…and that’s why it should be abandoned.

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  • luis

    I wholeheartedly agree, it’s madness.
    Very nice article.

    • Thanks! I think the real madness are people who still use the old units but can’t understand the metric system. Brits for example are doing it right. Even though they sometimes still use imperial units, they also understand the metric system perfectly.

  • There are areas where diversity is desirable, such as linguistic diversity, biodiversity or the diversity of lifestyles. But weights and measurements are not one of them. We are in full agreement there!

    Like you I “think” in metric units. Imperial units drive me to distraction. The only area of life where I speak Imperial fluently is beer. Pints of beer, that is.

    • larrybud

      I would say linguistic diversity is just as bad as weights and measure diversity. They’re both a means of communication, but at least with weights and measures the translation is exact.

    • Christopher-trier

      No. Everyone should speak the same language. It should be Chinese. Don’t be a luddite, learn Chinese.

  • larrybud

    When’s the last time you heard it was 21.3*C out? Even sites such as Accuweather report temp in only in whole number Celcius. While your pictorial is accurate, it’s misleading. Let’s be honest, besides feet/inches/yards/miles, nobody is using any of the other measurements unless you race horses.

    On a personal note, I cannot visualize metric distances. As a golfer and woodworker, I can look at a putt an estimate “25 feet” without a problem, or when cutting a board I know this piece is 36″. But can I look at it and say it’s … (36*2.54…)~ 91 cm? I cannot. Sure, it’s just a matter of practice, and when dividing up board lengths I will grab my metric tape measure, but visualization is an issue.

    • entdx

      1 meter is one men full step, it is quite easy to visualise.
      Over there (I live in Europe) is even primitive triangle device for measurement who is 2 meters wide: /
      Put one end to the start, put other end forward, stand in the midle, then take one step while holding forward end firmly in ground, and begin rotate it, complete second step, then it would look like this:

      Now you have 4 meters. Rotate one more time (make two steps while holding forward end in the ground) and you have 6 meters. ____/
      It was used to measure land, with some accuracy for a long time. It is pretty simple when you get used to.
      Cutting board is also done in say 90cm or 1m, which is pretty easy to visualise.
      Cups come in 200-250-300 ml varieties, small cola bottle(as beer) in 330 and 500 ml, wine bottle in 750ml. and so on. I heard that even in US pepsi uses 2L bottles.
      They are pretty easy to visualise in daily life.

  • Albert Tam

    So… if it’s harder to convert, why does it suck? It doesn’t mean anything.

  • yor mom

    Meh. It’s not a big deal, seriously. As long as you’re consistent in your engineering practice use whatever measurements make sense.
    I don’t understand this fetish with making everyone follow a particular standard when it really doesn’t matter like you think it does.
    We’ve been doing pretty good science here in the United States for hundreds of years and it hasn’t come to a stop just because our speedometer’s say “MPH”, or I measure my wiener in inch(es).
    As it turns out, scientists here are not flogged for using the metric system or any other system that meets their needs.

    TLDR: Doesn’t really matter, get over yourselves.

    How come we don’t have a discussion about getting rid of all time zones and daylight saving’s time?
    Why is it that when somebody said, “If we all use the same clocks, then some people might be eating dinner at midnight.” another person didn’t respond, “So what?”

  • Michael Pohoreski

    First, this article fails to mention _why_ the US gallon is different from Imperial gallons: Politics. Americans had too much pride to accept everything ‘as-is’ from the British so they came down with NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome and changed it as a silent way to give the British the middle finger.

    Second, there is most certainly is some truth behind the Natural/Organic vs Scientific reasoning behind the Imperial units. For example, Fahrenheit’s 32 and 100 were chosen as “fixed points” due these numbers being natural units for ice melting and the human body temperature, respectively.

    Third, the metric system *still* has a major problem:

    The 7 fundamental (sic.) units are NOT independent from one another; that is, the definitions for Candela, Mole, Amp and Kelvin, are *dependent* upon the definition of the kg !? Worse, the mole and candela are completely _redundant_. So much for being “fundamental units.”

    Picture from Blaze Lab’s “Unified Theory Foundations – The ST system of units”


  • Joe

    fuck you commie…

    I prefer to call miles Freedom Meters.

    There are two types of countries. Those that use the metric system, and countries that have been to the moon.

  • Christine

    It’s Reagan’s fault. I was studying physics at the time and remember it well.
    There also were businesses who opposed the change because it would have meant buying new machinery or re-calibrating the old. Add in the math-phobia of the average American, and there you go.

  • Torsten Dietrich

    Question: How much is the mass of 1 Liter water at freezing point?
    Answer: 1kg.

    Question: How much is the mass of 1 Gallon water at freezing point?
    Answer: Uhm, let me look for a conversion table, okay here we go,
    1 gallon is 0.134ft³ and the density of water at freezing point is, uhm…
    let me search for another conversion table,… ah, okay, it is 62.418lb/ft³,
    so 1 gal weights, … uhm, let me search for a calculator, okay, here it is,
    8.364lb, and yes I mean pound-mass not pound forces, to be precise.