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English units of measurement

Differences between American and British Systems

Many American units of weights and measures are based on units in use in Great Britain before 1824, when the British Imperial System was established. Since the Mendenhall Order of 1893, the U.S. yard and pound and all other units derived from them have been defined in terms of the metric units of length and mass, the meter and the kilogram; thus, there is no longer any direct relationship between American units and British units of the same name. In 1959 an international agreement was reached among English-speaking nations to use the same metric equivalents for the yard and pound for purposes of science and technology; these values are 1 yd = 0.9144 meter (m) and 1 lb = 0.45359237 kilogram (kg). In the United States, the older definition of the yard as 3,600/3,937 m is still used for surveying, the corresponding foot (1,200/3,937 m) being known as the survey foot.

The English units of measurement have many drawbacks: the complexity of converting from one unit to another, the differences between American and British units, the use of the same name for different units (e.g., ounce for both weight and liquid capacity, quart and pint for both liquid and dry capacity), and the existence of three different systems of weights (avoirdupois, troy, and apothecaries'). Because of these disadvantages and because of the wide use of the much simpler metric system in most other parts of the world, there have been proposals to do away with the U.S. Customary System and replace it with the metric system.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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