In the United States, standard weights are measured in pounds, right? Well, yesterday morning listening to National Public Radio, I found out the shocking answer. Nope. Believe it or not, the pound is not the basis of our national measure of weight. Yes, pounds are how we talk about it. However, since 1875 in the United States a pound is defined as 2.2046226218488 times the kilogram weight!

How can this be?

In 1875, President Grant’s representative went to Paris, France to attend the Treaty of the Meter. He and emissaries from 16 other countries: including much of Europe, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Venezuela, signed an agreement that made the kilogram the official weight for trade. Sixteen countries received an exact copy of le gran K, and the prototype 1 kg platinum cylinder was placed in a vault outside Paris.

Stores and businesses all across the US have their scales calibrated regularly. I mistakenly thought that they were compared to the Great Pound, not le gran K! Our money and measures were both supposed to be in decimals, according to the wishes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. We’re only halfway there, but they’re history.

In an odd twist of fate, metric measurements feels familiar. In Minnesota, I grew up with an analog kilogram scale in our bathroom at home. My parents spent the first year of the their marriage in München, because my dad won a traveling prize after graduating from college. Upon completing their twelve month furlough, they came home with a VW camper bus (by ship), containing many new belongings. One was a German bathroom scale, in kilos, of course. My sister and I would tease my mom about continuing to use that relic, especially as we became teenagers and used it more frequently. However, since it was durable German technology, the egg-yolk-yellow-colored scale lasted for eighteen years.

My first semester in high school, a friend asked my weight. I said a vague number in kilos without specifying my unit of measure. She said, “That’s impossible, you can’t weigh 60 lbs!” I told her, no, I meant kilos. “How much is that?” she wanted to know. I shrugged, I’d forgotten the conversion factor. That night Mom gave me the magic number, 2.2. The next day I translated kilos to pounds for my friend. “Well, that sounds a lot better. But why don’t you get a new scale?” What could I say? As an adult, I understand better the reasoning, why would I get a something new when the current one works perfectly well and makes my weight look so low?

In Latin America, the countries went metric long ago, as evidenced by South American participation in the 1875 Treaty of the Meter. By 1915, all of Latin America used the International System, the Système international (SI) as France named it. Today, all the world uses the metric system (SI) in daily measurements, except for three countries: the United States, Burma and Liberia. In medicine, science, automobiles, food labels, even large soda bottles the transition has happened in the US. Shall we decide to convert or wait to be converted? Stay tuned, the gears of change are turning…

What if every citizen put the number 2.2 for kilos to pounds in their phone along with 0.6214 for miles to the kilometer? Or, even better, copied a link to a easy-to-use site. The transition may not be as difficult and may have better rewards than we thought. We’re closer than we knew or even wanted to be; perhaps more than halfway to metrication. (Your bathroom scale is ready, right?) What do you think of the International System?

Gracias for reading Fake Flamenco. Olé! -Rebecca

Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic en ¿Ya se convertió al sistema internacional de medidas los Estados Unidos?

kg 2
kilos for anonymous feet

9 thoughts on “Has the U.S. Gone Metric?

  1. I am so impressed that we joined the “Treaty of the K”. After having worked in Europe on the metric scales for 6 months it was easy to convert in my head. Canada tried to convert gradually twice and gave up and converted all at once. Another hurdle to clear for the USA to “catch up”

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    1. I’m happy President Grant thought it was a good idea too. From what you’ve said about Canada, overnight rather than gradual change seems to work best for metrification, like the proverbial band-aid. Yes, Dad, you and your mental calculations and very entertaining! : ) R

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  2. Back in the 70s everyone thought we were going metric. They taught it in school all of the way down to the first grade. We were ahead of Canada. And then, I’m not sure what happened. The Reagan era? But it went away. Of course all science and engineering the world is metric.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, the education of kids in the US part worked well. The 1975 Metric Conversion Act paved the way. Unfortunately, the US metric board was cancelled in 1982. I’ll let the readers draw their own conclusions on that one.

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