To most of the world today, the temperature is in Celsius, the road is in kilometers, and the butter is by the gram. The United States uses Fahrenheit, miles, and pounds.
However, in much of the British commonwealth, confusion rules in many places. You can still get a pint in a pub, before walking a mile or two to the station.
To create the Metric System, we needed a couple of things. One was the Arabic numerals, which were invented in India, and came back to Europe with the crusaders, along with the Gothic arch and other strange and interesting things. Why? The Metric System was based on the idea of tens, or tenths. Before the Arabic numerals, Europe used Roman numerals. Quick, how much is “IV” time “L”? Never mind. “IV” is four, and “L” is 50, so the answer is 200 or “CC”.
John Wilkins in 1668 was one of the first to propose a decimal system of measurement for length and mass in a paper to the Royal Society of London. Imagine an alternative history where this was accepted.
After the French Revolution, the new government created a department of Weights and Measures. This department recommended the country create a new system to replace the multitude of different systems throughout the country.
As France conquered Europe, it introduced its new standards for measuring distance and weight. After its defeat, some places returned to the old ways. However the simplicity of the Metric System gradually won acceptance for parts of Europe, starting with the Netherlands. By 1875, two thirds of Europeans and half of the World’s population had started to use the new system. Initially, England and Russia resisted. Russia switched to it in 1924. England adopted it in 1965.
Interesting fact. The gram was originally 1/100th of a grave. However, a grave was also a synonym for a count. That was too aristocratic a term for the egalitarian revolution. So the term was replaced with the kilogram.
Strange as it may sound, there is a strong American connection to the creation of the Metric System. In 1782, Jefferson argued for a decimal currency. He succeeded and the first American currency had one hundred cents to the dollar. The British retained their pounds, shillings and pence system until 1971. Jefferson also tried to create a decimal system of measurement, suggesting 10 inches to a foot. However, in this case, his efforts failed.
The American relationship with Metric continued. The Metric law of 1866 made it unlawful to refuse to trade or deal in metric quantities. Then in 1927, several million people sent over 100,000 petitions backed by the Metric Association and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs urging Congress to adopt the metric system. Finally, in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Metric Conversion Act which declared the Metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce.” A complete failure.
Personally, I like the old system. I like a world measured in inches, hands, spans, feet, yards, rods, furlongs, miles and leagues. I like a world where weight is measured in teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, pounds, stones, and tons. Still, when I want to do arithmetic, I revert to Arabic rather than Roman numerals. When converting cups into teaspoons I do the same thing, switch to metric to find the answer.
The point for any writer of historical fiction is simple. Remember metric measurement didn’t exist before 1790.
To see some of my short stories go to www.edwardmcdermott.net