Of all the countries in the world, only the United States, Burma, and Liberia have not adopted the International System of Units, more commonly known as the metric system. It may seem odd that the USA, as leader of the free world, has resisted the system that works so well for everyone else. Some chalk it up to good old-fashioned American independence. Others point the finger at stubbornness. Would you believe that the blame most properly rests with pirates?
The year was 1793. Joseph Dombey sailed from Paris, France on a mission. He carried with him a copper cylinder of exactly one kilogram of mass and a rod that measured exactly one meter in length. These two standards were representative of a proposed international system of weights and measurements that would come to be known as the metric system. His mission was to take his cargo and the concept across the Atlantic Ocean and persuade the US Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson to move the United States toward this base-ten system.
Had that meeting taken place, there is a good probability that the USA would being using the metric system today. Jefferson was sympathetic to the concept, and his support would have been crucial in lobbying Congress to adopt the proposal.
Unfortunately, Dombey’s ship ran into someone else who was interested in his cargo: pirates. They were even pirates of the Caribbean, although none of them appears to have been known as Captain Jack Sparrow. They took Dombey captive and seized his belongings, all of which were sold to the highest bidder. Dombey died in captivity, shortly after being captured.
When word of the fiasco reached France, they sent another emissary to the United States to promote the metric system, and this one arrived safely. Unfortunately for him, Jefferson was no longer Secretary of State. His successor, Edmund Jennings Randolph, was not nearly as taken with French ideas as Jefferson was, and after giving the emissary a proforma meeting, dismissed him and went on with business, apparently not giving another thought to the metric system.
Had it not been for this unhappy act of piracy, the US could be part of the metric community today and have avoided such embarrassing and costly blunders as — oh, say forgetting which system of measurement to use in a $125 million Mars mission, just to pick a random, hypothetical example.