A snapshot from planet USA

A reader has returned from an extensive tour of the USA, and has provided Metric Views with a personal view on their version of two-system systems of weights and measures. (Article contributed by Tony Wilson)

Having just returned from the US, here are some weights and measures observations of my trip, from a British perspective. Hopefully any American readers will excuse any generalisations and opinion, and appreciate an outsider’s observations.

Firstly, I was struck by the amount of metric supplementary labelling on packaged food and drink, which unless I’m mistaken is a great improvement on the situation when I have been in the States previously. I don’t recall seeing a single packaged product which did not include the metric size as well as customary (“English”) units. Admittedly, almost anything not imported was in a rational customary size, but this seemed to me to be progress from previous trips.

I hope the final blockages to metric-only labelling are removed as soon as possible, which should lead to some rationalisation of sizes to international norms and a greater practical knowledge among Americans of grams, kg, litres and ml. We are only a few years ahead on that one in the UK, but we’re nearing the end of the gradual replacement of virtually all imperial sized goods with rational metric sizes and metric only labels with just one or two exceptions, such as fresh milk.

Road signs are my biggest bugbear in the USA. The American signs I saw were almost exclusively in customary units, and I did a lot of travelling. The only exceptions I passed were about four signs with distances in kilometres alongside miles, all in California, and all in areas with a high chance of foreign visitors (Death Valley and on the Pacific Highway towards Mexico). A most interesting observation was that I found (as I have found on previous visits, and others reported last week) warning distances in feet were of very little use to me at all. When I see a sign in yards here, I think metres. Feet, though, are readily comprehensible for me only as far as people’s height is concerned, any distance longer than that I can’t picture easily or quickly.

I did not see any height warning signs which included metres on public highways or on private land or in entrances to buildings/car parks, and this surprised me. In Canada, signs with both units are provided on the public highway, even close to the US border, and are also very common on private land and car parks, but tough luck on a foreign driver crossing into the US. The UK at least has made some progress in this area with metres fairly common on these signs, but only in addition to the imperial at present.

Temperatures were Fahrenheit across the board. I do get frustrated how long some people in the UK cling onto the F scale, but going to the US shows just how far the UK has actually come, even if we are slowcoaches by Commonwealth standards. Even information given out by tourist attractions, weather bulletins covering tourist or international business areas, airlines etc. all omit any reference to Celsius. How do they suppose visitors understand this information?

Drinks were pretty much universally served by the US fluid ounce. I can do pints (and halves/multiples thereof) and litres/millilitres, but not ozs, so this creates some problems in knowing how big a drink I’m ordering.

Public information: basically all in customary units, including places like tourist attractions. A large amount of the detailed information that was given would be useless to a foreign visitor. I am interested in architecture and among the highlights were trips up both the Sears and Hancock towers in Chicago. However these were somewhat spoilt by the complete lack of any information at all about the buildings’ heights in metres. I can tell you to the metre how tall most of London’s current or proposed tallest buildings are, and various other tall buildings around the world that I have admired or visited. But at Sears and Hancock, it was all feet this and feet that, and while I divided it by 3 in my head to get an idea of scale, that’s not accurate enough to compare similar buildings with heights in metres.

My main conclusions were:

1. Some progress is being made, such as in metric labels on packaging, but it seems to an outsider to be very slow, with no governmental support for change.
2. Assisting international visitors seems to be an even lower priority than in the UK. Is this because there is a negative reaction to the idea of bending to foreigners’ ways, or have the responsible people never stopped to think that their visitors won’t understand them?
3. British proponents of the imperial system point to the US as an example of why we needn’t change anything. However, the differences between the UK and US in the application of these measures are significant, and I often felt as excluded as, say, a French visitor would when being told about weight in pounds, long distances in feet, drinks in ounces, temperatures in Fahrenheit.
4. Finally, we have already come a long way in the UK. It’s not a matter of changing to metric, it’s just a matter of finishing the job.

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2 Responses to A snapshot from planet USA

  1. Alex Bailey says:

    I am also a regular visitor to the USA and share many of these experiences and have also been lucky enough to see some of the metric road signs in California (and even have some photos!!!).

    I've also spent some time on both sides of the US/Canada border and recall seeing a number of helpful road signs on the US side explaining differences in speed limits but clearly Canadians are expected to figure the rest out for themselves.

    One or two good experiences though, I seem to recall the Kennedy Space Center giving some information in metric several years ago but I have vivid recollection of the pre-recorded commentary on a helicopter trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon which game ALL heights, distances and speeds in metric alongside their "customary" equivalents!

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  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Tony Wilson correctly concludes his article with the observation that it's just a matter (in the UK) of finishing the job of metrication. Whoever manages to convince the DfT to allow gradual placement of metric road signs in place of the existing Imperial ones (even if they have Imperial overlays for the time being) will have struck the "coup de grace" to the Imperial set of weights and measures in the UK. (And as Hamlet would likely respond: "Aye! There's the rub!")

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