The Inefficient Imperial System

By Nynke de Vette

The British Imperial System was a system of units established upon order of George IV on June 17th 1824 and became effective on January 1st 1825. The system was implemented across the entire British Empire, but today all countries except the United States have converted to the metric system. The United States uses a slightly altered imperial system called the customary system.

Arguably, this is inefficient. The co-ordination effects argument as an economic driver of path dependency is reversed here. Usually the more people that use a system, the more profitable it is to use it also. By sticking to the imperial system, the United States kind of becomes an outsider. Furthermore, as with QWERTY and alternative keyboard layouts, it is questionable which of the 2 systems is more efficient. The metric system has certain logic to it its based on multiples of 10, whereas the imperial system units have archaic associations.

Thus, considering the inefficiency, what role do sequence and timing play in the system’s persistence?  

In answering this question, it is important to look at the history of measurement systems in the US. As part of the British Empire the Americans inherited the imperial system, also because the Americans themselves had established no alternative system. Meanwhile in France, after the French Revolution of 1789, the first attempt was made to unify the mix of thousands of traditional units of measure. This did not go unnoticed in the US, but when Thomas Jefferson presented a plan to Congress to adopt the metric system in 1790, Congress did not adopt it. Opponents considered the metric system as atheistic. The years after independence different states started developing their own standards. When the lack of uniformity started becoming problematic it was decided to establish a common system named customary units.

The timing and sequence of the introduction of the US customary units have exposed it to path dependency through the mechanism of positive feedback. The cost of switching is a cost-benefit analysis. However, it is interesting to note that with the rise of globalization (ie. international trade) the metric system has become more common in the United States also.