Metric System Vs Imperial System: How Feet and Inches in the US Drive Track and Field Enthusiasts Crazy

Long Jump in meters

Whenever I write a story on an American high jumper, long jumper or a discus thrower, I have to go through the painful back-and-forth conversion between feet and meters, inches and centimeters.

It used to be the holy grail in the United States and Britain to run a mile in fewer than four minutes, until Roger Bannister broke it, which broke the mental barrier and allowed others to blast through the four minute wall. Today, however, no one really cares about the mile, as the standard racing distance is the 1,500 meters, which is a little less than a mile.

Now, track and field in the US has generally gone metric. For example, the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hold the same distance running events that other countries do: 100 meters, 800 meters, 5,000 meters, 110 meter hurdles etc. In fact, the organization, USA Track and Field, adopted distances using the metric system in 1974.

They were ahead of their time apparently, because in 1975, the US Congress passed an act that states preference for the metric system of weights and measures, which was followed by an executive order from President Gerald Ford. Essentially, the entire world had already adopted the metric system. Politicians and businessmen alike wanted the US to get with the international game plan. However, for some reason, probably related to a tremendous resistance to change, the act and the order watered down by stating adoption was voluntary.

What was this resistance? Listen to this fantastic podcast on design, 99 Percent Invisible, and their story on America’s implementation of the metric system, titled Half Measures. History professor, Stephen Mihm is quoted as saying in the podcast that interestingly, uncommon bedfellows united to resist: astronomers, theologians and industrial engineers:

But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people, including and influential group of “astronomers, theologians, and cranks,” Mihm explains. “And keep in mind that those categories which we consider separate and distinct today were not at this time.” This group spun together scientific arguments with other wild and nonsensical ideas, and developed a theory that to abandon the inch was to go against God’s will. Converting to metric, they argued, would be tantamount to sacrilege.

But the real core resistance to metrication came from a different group entirely: some of the most innovative industrialists of their day. Engineers who worked in the vast machine tool industry had built up enormous factories that included everything from lathes to devices for cutting screw threads — and all of these machines were designed around the inch. The manufacturers argued that retooling their machines for a new measurement system would be prohibitively expensive. They also argued there was an “intuitiveness” to the customary system that made it ideal for shop work.

Imperial Metric Conversion for cooking
Imperial – Metric Conversion for Cooking

This reluctance for to fully shift to the metric system can result in engineering miscalculations, sometimes with tragic or costly consequences:

  • In 1983, an Air Canada Flight ran out of fuel mid-flight because the ground crew and the flight crew all calculated fuel requirements in pounds instead of liters, granted this mistake happened just after the Canadian government required conversion to the metric system. Fortunately, the pilots managed an incredible “dead-stick” landing, gliding safely to a nearby airstrip.
  • In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft because engineers in Lockheed Martin calculated thruster data in pounds to NASA while NASA engineers were making their calculations in metric units called “newtons.”
  • In 2003, a car on the Space Mountain roller coaster ride at Tokyo Disneyland derailed due to a broken axle, resulting in the injury of 12. Apparently, new axle parts ordered in 2002 were measured in inches as opposed to millimeters, making the new axles off spec.

In the end, there are bigger issues than the momentary confusion of trying to know how far 5,000 meters is in feet or miles. And to be fair, American institutions have gradually adopted the metric system due to its partnerships and obligations internationally.

And yet, the fact that America still clings officially to inches, quarts and Fahrenheit can be a pain. Don’t we know that we are shooting ourselves in the foot?