To metric or not to metric? Is that (still) the question?

Recently, in response to an article headline that included our good ol’ Fahrenheit temperature unit, a reader took us to task for not using the international Celsius standard.

That sparked a conversation about the U.S.’s continued use of the imperial system of measurement, both in the wider culture but especially in the design engineering world.

So what do you, our Engineering Exchange members, think? Is it worth it to revisit the subject of using only metric units, or do we continue to accommodate both metric and imperial units?

And what about the wider culture? Do we start with teaching our children only the metric system from a very early age and let them lead the way? Do we begin to calculate kilometers per liter instead of mpg?

Tell us what you think.

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Comment by Roger Davies on June 10, 2011 at 7:24am


HA, HA! No, although that would fit.


Seriously, You are exactly right. I do not understand why kg-meter is not used. While I have some understanding of "acceleration due to gravity", feet per second per second, why would that unit be used to describe something that rotates? Or is trying to rotate? You can't pick a newton's worth of stuff and hang it on the end of the bar!

Comment by Miles Budimir on June 10, 2011 at 7:06am

Roger, while the ft-lb may be more intuitive, I'm sure there's some equally intuitive way to explain it, i.e. with kg-meters perhaps. (Also, your word of warning wasn't referring to a "fig" newton, was it?) 

Paul, politics and inertia are probably the biggest issues, you're right. (Feel free to make "inertia" puns...)

Comment by Roger Davies on June 9, 2011 at 1:57pm

The only problem I have with the metric system is the torque value. What's a newton? Pound, ounce.... I can understand and teach someone about these. If I have a one foot long bar protruding horizonally from a bolt, and hang one pound of stuff on the end of it, I produce one of torque. What do I hang from the end of a one meter bar to produce one newton meter?


This is a trick question. Be careful how you answer.

Comment by lawrence paul stich on June 9, 2011 at 1:38pm
I believe we should have our kids taught metric in school along with standardin my field of automotive and CNC machine tools I must use both so learning at an early age can only help not hinder
Comment by Paul J. Heney on June 9, 2011 at 12:38pm
I'm not sure if Andrew was purposefully trying to bash the right, but I do agree with his premises. In other words, politics is (sadly) an issue for something as big as this. Similarly, if Bush would have tried to push conversion, the left would have made Imperial rulers a badge of liberalism.

I'm amused to see foreign airlines that still give out their frequent flier points in miles. Why don't they use kilometers? Always struck me as odd!
Comment by Miles Budimir on June 9, 2011 at 12:26pm
Good comments fellas. I think if we're really serious about making a complete change to the metric system, it definitely starts with children's education. Teach them only metric and reenforce what they're learning in the larger culture around us. Of course, that means all of us "old timers" will have to step it up and do what is most painful for us; change.
Comment by Roger Davies on June 9, 2011 at 12:13pm

Andrew: I was with you right up the point where you started bashing the "right". I am as "right" as they come, and would like to convert to the metric system. Had a contract at IBM back in the early '80's. Hard metric. It was very easy to get my head wrapped around the system.


It would simply be a matter of selling it to the public. A good PR firm, that knows what they are doing, could sell it. Set a date, firm, done deal. As for the cost, if we get rid of several federal departments that are not supposed to be there, Ed., Energy, EPA, HUD, to name a few, we would have plenty of public money to get the job done.


Now, before you, meaning anyone from the "left", go off half cocked, please, think about those various departments, and what they have done TO our Country.

Comment by Andrew Werby on June 9, 2011 at 11:54am

I remember when I was in grade-school, back in the Sixties  they told us about the metric system and how it would shortly be adopted as the standard in the USA. I don't know what happened with that, but here we are almost 50 years later, still "inching along". It's like this country's in its own little world, unable to come to grips with the basic units of measurement used by absolutely everyone else on the planet. It's really way past time to make the switch. I'm as guilty as anyone, I suppose, since I still use inches in all my own work, but I'd stop if everyone else did. The very worst thing is to have a mishmash of Imperial and metric tools, fasteners, and specifications, so nobody really knows what's what - and that's what's happening in every shop in the country, since we have to deal with imported goods as well as our own.The Hubble fiasco was a good example of what happens then - I imagine it's being replicated on a smaller scale all over as we speak.

To make the change on a national level would take leadership, some funding, and a unified citizenry willing to follow that lead- all things that are in rather short supply of late. If the President made a point of it, I'm sure the "red" states would refuse to go along, and Republicans everywhere would be wearing Imperial rulers as a badge of conservatism. The Tea Party would definately get a lot of "milage" out of it. Eisenhower (or Kennedy) really should have done it when he had the chance.

Andrew Werby

Comment by Mark Smith on June 9, 2011 at 9:16am

In my designs for my shop, everything must be in inches.  In my former job, if the part print was in metric, the design must be in metric, if the part print is in inch, the design must be in inch.  I think this is a good rule of thumb to go by.


Mark Smith

Precision Devices Inc.


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