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Pirates may be to blame for the U.S. not being Metric

The Système International d'unités, also known as the Metric System, is the most widely-used system of measuring things in the known universe. Of the 7.57 billion people in the world, somewhere around 7.2 billion use SI. The laggards are almost all here in the United States.

Sarah Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post Science Alert today, blames English privateers:

In 1793, botanist and aristocrat Joseph Dombey set sail from Paris with two standards for the new "metric system": a rod that measured exactly a metre, and a copper cylinder called a "grave" that weighed precisely one kilogram.

He was journeying all the way across the Atlantic to meet Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson - a fellow fan of base-ten systems who, Dombey hoped, would help persuade Congress to go metric.

Then a storm rolled in, knocking Dombey's ship off course. The unlucky academic was washed into the Caribbean - and straight into the clutches of British pirates.

The brigands took Dombey hostage and looted his equipment. The luckless scientist died in prison shortly after his capture; his belongings were auctioned off to the highest bidders.

France sent a second emissary to promote the metric system. But by the time the replacement arrived, America had a new secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, who apparently didn't care much for measurement.

As the person who sent me this article said, perhaps the pirates just preferred saying "yarrrrd?"

But really, I put this into the same category of "American exceptionalism" that keeps us executing criminals, not getting passports, and thinking that we're somehow #1.

Comments (1) -

  • David Harper

    9/21/2017 6:11:21 AM +00:00 |

    The global adoption of the metric system was also proposed at the International Meridian Conference in 1884.  This was the occasion when the Greenwich Meridian was adopted as the prime meridian for navigation and cartography, despite strong opposition from France, which championed the Paris meridian.  The resolution to adopt the metric system was added to mollify the French, as the metric system had been created in France.  It wasn't binding, however, and the imperial (or English) system continued to be used in Britain and its empire and in the United States.  France continued to use the Paris meridian for some years afterwards, referring to the Greenwich meridian as "the Paris meridian, retarded by 9 minutes 21 seconds".

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