Failure to convert: why the United States still uses Imperial measurement
The story of Fahrenheit versus Celsius is a story of colonialism, industry and stubbornness
Originally published on Jan. 3, 2021.
As Canada heads into the coldest months of the year, you're likely to come across an outdoor thermometer with temperature readouts in both Celsius and Fahrenheit.
Even though Canada uses the centigrade system in line with its adoption of the metric system, this country's biggest trading partner continues to use the older and by many accounts, antiquated, Imperial system of measures.
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There are both social and economic reasons for why the United States of America continues to measure distances in miles and sell gasoline in gallons.
Those reasons spill into business decisions which can affect how Canadians and the country's economic players interact with U.S. counterparts, beyond measuring height in feet rather than centimetres.
So why hasn't the United States converted to the metric system? It's a story with ties to colonialism, the industrial revolution and American individualism, so join The Cost of Living for a bit of a jaunt through history first.
Celsius versus Fahrenheit in the 1700s
Only a few decades separate the invention of Dutch physicist Daniel Fahrenheit's temperature scale from Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius's system of measurement.
"If you look back, the creation of Fahrenheit and Celsius are happening at around the same time in the late 1700s," said Harry Krashinsky, associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto.
Fahrenheit puts the freezing point of water at 32 F and the boiling point at 212 F.
In centigrade, as most Canadians know, freezing happens at zero and boiling at 100 C.
Centuries ago, which country or which colony you lived in dictated which system you used.
In France, the metric system and centigrade ruled. In Great Britain, it was Imperial weights and measures and Fahrenheit.
"Because Britain had so much influence here in North America, Canada and the United States sided with the Imperial system as well," said Krashinsky.
Industrialization heats up the temperature divide
Once the 1800s hit, the tools we needed to survive and where, how and what we did to make a living were changing rapidly. Suddenly workers were indoors for hours a day, manufacturing items en masse.
Economist Harry Krashinsky points to the industrial revolution as where things start to really set habits in place when it comes to measurement.
"As you might imagine, all these factories start going up and workers have to get trained in the sort of systems that are used to build the factories and do work in the factories. And it was all in Imperial," said Krashinsky.
Workers in North America learned the British system of measurement as part of their working lives, but they also used it at home too.
That meant buying meat by the pound, milk by the quart and measuring height in feet and inches. Kids grew up learning the imperial system at school.
There's a much longer tradition of individualism in the United States … people don't like to move off of things because transitions are costly.- Harry Krashinsky, economist, University of Toronto
Once North America was running under one rule of measurement, change wasn't something many people willingly embraced, especially since conversion would cost a lot of money.
Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, legalized the metric system in 1871 but neither industry nor Canadian society chose to put the system into practice as it wasn't mandatory.
"Basically, you have an enormous amount of investment that's occurred to get us set up on a particular system," explained Krashinsky.
"And so, as you might imagine, once we're into that system, it has a lot of momentum and people don't like to move off of things because transitions are costly."
1970s: Metrication moves into Canada
By the middle of the twentieth century, more and more of the world was using metric measurement.
Industries started lobbying the Canadian government to convert measurement systems, to facilitate international trade and join the trend toward standardization around the world.
In 1970 the government commissioned a "White Paper on Metric Conversion in Canada" which found that converting was, in fact, in Canada's best interests.
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"Historically, both Canada and the U.S. governments form metric councils in the 1970s and most of the world is on metric at that point," said Krashinsky.
"The imperial system was very clearly on its way out."
More than $1B, and fifteen years of slow conversion
From 1970 to 1985, every sector in Canada converted to the metric system.
The changes ranged from schools, to industry, to the arts. The federal government, under former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, made conversion mandatory.
While the process was supposed to be gradual and gentle — not everyone was happy with it.
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There were lawsuits and protests, angry constituent meetings and complaints over the cost of changing hardware.
By the early 1980s it was estimated metrication cost Canadian taxpayers over one billion dollars.
In 1982, when questioned on metrication in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Trudeau said "the metric system is world-wide in its scope" and he called people who refuse to convert "dinosaurs."
"Canada has to live in the world if it wants to trade with the world," said Trudeau. "I'm here. I know. The metric system was first brought in by Tory Prime Minister John A McDonald. So much for the dinosaurs, Mr. Speaker."
Why the U.S. never converted to the metric system
From our road signs to our gas stations to our grocery stores and beyond, metrication was almost entirely complete in Canada by 1985.
In the United States, meanwhile, the American Metric Council made no headway.
"There's a much longer tradition of individualism in the United States," said economist Harry Krashinsky.
The United States' metric council did recommend the country covert to the metric system, but they refused to make it mandatory.
Instead, it was just a recommendation. As such, it was largely ignored so that industry could avoid transition costs that weren't mandatory.
Whereas Canada decided we're just going to bite the bullet, bear the cost and change the way in which people are taught measurements. This just didn't happen in the U.S. and hence the difference," said Krashinsky.
Does the metric vs. Imperial divide hurt business?
Short answer? Some experts say no — but it can get annoying.
University of Toronto economist Krashinsky pointed out that business dealings between Canada and the United States are not hugely affected by the different systems.
While Canada's largest trading partner is almost alone in the in the world when it comes to using the Imperial system, it's mostly an annoyance for industry at this point.
"It's a little bit of a pain in the neck if you work in the refrigerator business," said Krashinsky. "You have to recognize what the Fahrenheit measurements are as opposed to the Celsius measurements."
But he pointed out in this day and age, it's really not that difficult to convert quickly. You just have to recognize the difference in measurements — and remember to do it.
"So although it is a little cumbersome, it's more of a curiosity than it is anything like a major impediment."
Written and produced by Tracy Fuller.
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