What are the Advantages of the Metric System vs the Imperial System?

Collection of lab containers labeled with metric measurements.

We measure things in a variety of ways. Early civilizations developed systems of weights and measurements based on what was available to them. Over time, standardization of measurements has become important as the global economy has evolved. The most classic example is the metric system.

There are only three countries in the world that don’t use the metric system and the United States is one of them. The benefits of the metric system are universally acknowledged which is why it’s used in the scientific community even in countries where it is not the standard. 

What is the History of the Metric System?

The metric system is a system of weights and measurements based on a decimal (multiples of 10) system. It was created in post-Revolutionary France as part of an attempt to remove power from the church and state and give it to the people.

The need for such a system was apparent in France and around the world. Before the revolution, France had an estimated 250,000 different units to weigh and measure things. The original version of the metric system also measured time on a decimal system, with each day having 10 hours broken down into 100 minutes, and each minute broken down into 100 seconds.

The task of creating a universal system of measurement was given to a group of French scientists who expected the task to take less than a year. It ended up taking seven years but their work has proven to be world-changing.

While it took France more than 100 years to fully adopt the metric system, it is now used by 96% of the world. The three countries that have not yet adopted it completely include the US, Liberia, and Myanmar, but even these countries use it for science and global trade.

What Are Metric Sizes?

The metric system uses mathematical prefixes to indicate the relationship between one measurement and another, with applications to measure weight, distance, and volume.

For example, the gram is the basis of the metric system’s weight measurements. Here are some examples of how ‘gram’ may be modified to indicate different sizes:

  • Hexagram = 6 grams
  • Decagram = 10 grams
  • Kilogram = 1,000 grams
  • Centigram = 1/100 of a gram
  • Milligram = 1/1,000 of a gram

The same system may be applied to meters, which are the basis of distance measurements. A kilometer equals 1,000 meters and a centimeter represents one one-hundredth of a meter. 

Volume measurement uses liters, with a milliliter representing one one-thousandth of a liter, and so on.

Differences in the Metric System vs the Imperial System

The differences between the metric system and the Imperial system are not unlike the differences between a planned city and a city that grew organically. In a planned city, streets are typically straight and laid out in a grid, making it easy to navigate. By contrast, an unplanned city is typically difficult to navigate and may be confusing and illogical in its layout.

The Imperial System evolved by incorporating terms from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Roman, and local units of measurement that were used in the Middle Ages. These units were not standardized. An example is the foot, which was originally based on the length of the human foot, something that varies from person to person.

Over time, these measurements were standardized, with 12 inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and so on. Despite standardization, imperial measurements can be confusing because they are broken down inconsistently. When something is communicated using imperial measurements, it may be necessary to convert it to the metric system to ensure consistency.

Road sign indicating curve with measurement in meters.

Advantages of Using the Metric System

The advantages of using the metric system are many and they apply in a variety of circumstances, including international trade, travel, and scientific exploration.

International Trade

In international trade, it’s essential for all parties involved to be clear about what is being bought and sold. The metric system has made it easy for trade to occur between countries and across great distances. A gram of flour is the same amount whether it originates in the Ukraine or in rural Iowa. The same is true of a liter of oil.

Travel

Traveling to a country where measurements of distance are standardized makes it easy to understand how far cities are from one another or how far one can expect to travel with a full tank of gas. In the absence of standardization, travelers may get lost or start on a journey unprepared for how long it will take.

Scientific Exploration

Scientific experiments must be repeated to be verified. Repetition and replication are easy with the metric system because scientists in different labs–or on different continents–can easily replicate what another scientist has done because all measurements are standardized. Such a thing would not be possible if scientists were using an incompatible system.

The Metric System Makes a Global Economy Possible

Using the metric system has undeniable advantages, so much so that it is difficult to understand why the United States has not fully adopted it. The standardization of weights and measurements allows people from different cultures who speak different languages to communicate clearly about everything from scientific findings to commerce.

This entry was posted in Education, Geography, History, Mathematics, Science, Travel and tagged , , , , . By Aimee Parrott