Pirates Are Why America Doesn't Use The Metric System

Pirates Are Why America Doesn't Use The Metric System

Patriotism or sheer stubbornness? For centuries now, America has been one of the only countries in the world to not accept the metric system as its measurement master. But the U.S. wasn't always this stodgy diehard about it's (quasi) imperial system. Once, it was a naive new nation on the brink of having its mind changed. And then pirates happened.

In 1793, the baby nation of these United States had to make a very important decision: Which system of measurements were they going to officially adopt? At that point, states used a hodgepodge of the Dutch system, the English system, and … just guesswork. It was a mathematical nightmare that was wreaking havoc on interstate trade. But Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had already made up his mind. Thanks to America's special relationship with France, he had been introduced to this wonderful new thing called the metric system. And he knew just what he needed to convince the other Founding Fathers to adopt it: A nerd with a Powerpoint presentation and some shiny baubles. 

That nerd was none other than esteemed botanist and experienced seafarer Joseph Dombey. With France's blessing, Dombey sailed towards the New World clutching the New Measurements, a copper rod measuring exactly one meter (for Americans, 3.28 falafels) and a copper cylinder weighing exactly one kilogram (2.2 piddles) or "grave" with which to impress the U.S. government. Unfortunately for Dombey, one thing he didn't possess was a metric for wind speed, and before he knew it, a storm had swept the ship to the Caribbean. And do you know what scourge plagued the Caribbean in the eighteenth century? That's right, Johnny Depp cosplayers.

Sergey Sermin/Unsplash
"Where's me seventy centiliters of rum?"

Before long, pirates had raided Dombey's ship. More specifically, they were British privateers, which are simply fancier, French-hating pirates. Despite Dombey's best efforts to pretend to be a Spanish sailor with a thick Pepe le Pew accent, the privateers recognized the aristocrat for who he was and kidnapped him. Sadly, Dombey died in captivity waiting to be ransomed back to France, unable to present his case to the United States to adopt the metric system. And Jefferson clearly didn't have the know-how to convince them, since to this day, America is shackled to measurements invented in a time people still believed in wizards.

But while Dombey never managed to reach the American shores, his copper measurements by some small miracle did. Trying to make lemonade out of dead aristocrats, the British pirates auctioned off Dombey's ship and his personal effects, including the meter rod and kilo cylinder. These rare units of measurement (only six cylinders were ever made) wound up in the hands of a Washington D.C. family, the Ellicotts, who eventually donated the units to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1952. They remain there to this day, with visitors able to gaze through the museum glass at a clean, metric alternative American history that never was.

National Institute of Standards and Technology

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Top Image: Arthur David McCormick


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