Metric System vs Yardstick System: Just Don’t Lose Your Satellite

By sheiler on

image of soda can

–>What would you call this?

What’s in a Name

In some places, like Chicago or St Louis, people call this pop.  In other places like Philadelphia, people would call it a soda**.  We’ve even heard people in Massachusetts call this tonic.

There’s no risk having different ways of naming something like soda pop.  It’s no big deal when you buy something to drink to go with your sandwich while you’re visiting the museum of science.  “Pop? You mean soda?” the lady at the cash register asks.  “OK, that’ll be $1.25.”

See?  Easy.

But talking about measurements can be tricky.


Your mom goes to the gas station and fills up the car with 10 gallons of gas.  Your father puts a 12 ounce sirloin steak on the grill.  Gallons and ounces are a couple of examples of how we measure stuff in the US.  We use a system that was based on the Imperial system from England but changed slightly.

In Canada, the Imperial system is different than the Imperial system in the US.  Confusing, right?

Here’s how Americans used measurements in the time of Thomas Jefferson:

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 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 hoghead are a pipe; two pipes are a tun-and there my story is done!


We need to be able to have a standard of measure so that if a grocery store buys a bushel of corn from Iowa, and it gets delivered to Washington State, that everyone will know exactly how much corn they’ll be getting, as long as it’s in the US.

The same is true at a hospital.  The doctor tells the nurse to give you 10 ccs of some medicine.  CC means cubic centimeter, which is part of the metric system, or SI, the International System of Units.  It’s a completely different way of measuring than the American standard.  So the doctor has two ways of measuring inside his or her head.  At the gas pump?  American.  At the hospital?  Metric.

Science uses Metric

If you’re a biologist, chemist, physicist, botanist, zoologist, or any other kind of scientist, you, too, work in the metric system.  Doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist in Brazil, Bangladesh, Spain, Canada, or the US.  Scientists use the same system*.  But Americans who don’t work in the sciences, who have other jobs like carpenter, receptionist, police officer, all use the American system of measurement.

Who’s not using Metric

Right now there are only three countries in the world that do not use the metric system for everything.

image of the map of the world

which countries in the world do not use the metric system?

The countries on this map (courtesy of Kate Sedgwick at Matador Nights) in pink are …

the United States, Liberia, and Burma.


Seems like everybody else uses the metric system for everything, steaks and gasoline, included.

Will this ever change?

* NASA lost its satellite – the Climate Orbiter – due to some of their scientists accidentally using English measurements, when everyone else was using metric.  Read more about that here.

** Where do you stand on pop or soda?


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