Pirates Are to Blame For Why The US Doesn’t Use The Metric System

Pirates Are to Blame For Why The US Doesn’t Use The Metric System, by Sarah Kaplan.

The proposal, conceived by a bunch of pointy-headed Parisian philosophers, sounded brilliant: A universal system of measurement, derived from decimal-based units and identified by a shared set of prefixes.

More significantly, the units are aligned to our number system — all base 10. Anyway, carry on with the story….

It would end the era of merchants buying goods according to one unit, selling in another, and pocketing the ill-gotten profit. It would simplify scientific calculations and enable the free exchange of ideas around the world.

It was an enlightened system for an enlightened time. If only the French scientists could persuade other countries to adopt it.

But pirates have a way of ruining even the best-laid plans.

In 1793, botanist and aristocrat Joseph Dombey set sail from Paris with two standards for the new “metric system”: a rod that measured exactly a metre, and a copper cylinder called a “grave” that weighed precisely one kilogram.

He was journeying all the way across the Atlantic to meet Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – a fellow fan of base-ten systems who, Dombey hoped, would help persuade Congress to go metric.

Then a storm rolled in, knocking Dombey’s ship off course. The unlucky academic was washed into the Caribbean – and straight into the clutches of British pirates.

Technically, they were “privateers” because they were tacitly sanctioned by His Majesty’s government so long as they only raided foreign ships. But it amounted to the same thing.

The brigands took Dombey hostage and looted his equipment. The luckless scientist died in prison shortly after his capture; his belongings were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

France sent a second emissary to promote the metric system. But by the time the replacement arrived, America had a new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, who apparently didn’t care much for measurement. …

Had Dombey made it to the US on schedule, he and Jefferson may have talked Congress into caring about how we measure distance and mass. …

As the rest of the world adopted the metric system, the US continued to bumble around with unwieldy imperial units. Aaaarrrgh! …

In the days just after the Revolutionary War, this country had no standard system of measurement.

We barely had a single currency. A bushel of oats purchased in New Jersey contained 32 pounds of grain; but a merchant could then take his wares north to Connecticut, where a bushel was just 28 pounds, and turn a tidy profit. It was madness.