Metric System

The metric system standardized weights and measures enabling trade and improving communication. Before the metric system, every country and also countless regions, used different forms of measurement. This vastly complicated international trade.


The metric system derives from the natural world and uses a decimal counting system for simplicity.

Length derives from the meter, a measure of one ten-millionth the distance from the North Pole to the equator. One thousand meters is a kilometer, kilo being Greek for thousand. A centimeter is 1/100th of a meter. A landmass 100 meters squared is a hectare.

Volume derives from length: a liter is the volume of water that fills a container 10 centimeters cubed.

Weight derives from volume. A kilogram is the weight of one liter and a gram is 1/100 a kilogram.


Like countless countries that came later, the French initially resisted the metric system. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the metric system became widely used in France. The system spread to other countries based on its simplicity and objectivity. For example, there was no need to adopt the length of a foreign king’s foot as a unit of measure.

Only three countries in the world have failed to adopt the metric system, Burma, Liberia, and the United States. Metric is the official system in the UK but, thanks largely to the US refusal to switch, many British change between metric and imperial measurements.

Metric in the US

The United States officially adopted the metric system in 1866 but, except for the limited use of liters, Americans largely refuse to use metric. Even liters are still confined largely to soft drinks but larger measurements of fluid are referred to in gallons.

If Americans realized how much simpler metric is they’d surely switch. Since most liquids weigh about the same as water it is easy to measure liquid, say for recipes, by weight. Kilometers are shorter than miles but, as anybody who has driven in Europe knows, they are easy to estimate. American runners routinely run “5K” (five kilometers) and don’t complain about using the metric system. There is no need to remember arbitrary measurements; the number of quarts in a gallon or cups in a quart.

The US last attempted to change to metric in 1975. However, the move failed. Many argue the change was too fast. All signage, weights, and measures changed seemingly overnight to an unfamiliar system.

One notable failure based on a refusal to convert is the crash of the Mars Climate Orbiter, a 1998 spaceship. One group worked in metric and another using the imperial system. Due to a mismatch between metric and imperial, the ship flew too close to the planet and crashed.

Condensing Steam Engine

The Watt condensing steam engine is widely viewed as the primary machine responsible for the Industrial Revolution. It enabled the use of engines anywhere, not only next to coal mines. Whereas factories before the Watt engines needed to be near high-volume streams, to derive power for water wheels, the Watt engine operated at a low enough cost that it could be placed anywhere, enabling the creation of factories.


Watt worked at the University of Glasgow as a mathematical instrument maker making rulers, slide-rules, etc.

In 1763, Watt asked to repair a Newcomen engine the University owned. He realized the Newcomen engine lost enormous energy by expelling its steam every cycle. That is, the boiler would create enough steam to make the engine stroke then simply expel the steam into the atmosphere rather than recycle the hot water. This required the boiler to constantly boil cold water.

Watt’s technological innovation was to add a condenser that captures the steam, transforming it back into hot water, and returning it to the kettle where it can be boiled again. This keeps the overall water temperature much hotter by requiring vastly less coal than the Newcomen engine. Watt filed his first steam engine patent Jan. 5, 1769 though the device did not entirely function.

He worked to produce an engine, eventually selling part of the rights to industrialist John Roebuck for investment funds. Watt spent years trying to produce a working condenser, but blacksmiths of the time – more accustomed to making horseshoes and canons than condensers – did not have the skill. For about ten years, Watt worked odd jobs – at the University, as a land surveyor … whatever paid the bills – as he worked to commercialize his engine.

Roebuck eventually went bankrupt due to a financial crisis and sold his patent interest to Matthew Boulton, who worked with high-end blacksmith shops. They renamed the company Boulton & Watt.

Boulton & Watt

Boulton’s involvement made an enormous difference. He secured Watt’s patent in 1775 and found better tradesmen who perfected the condenser. The first working Watt engines were installed in 1776 but due to the Revolutionary War, they were banned for export to the US.

Boulton & Watt had a unique business plan. The firm charged one-third the cost of coal saved by using a Watt engine over a Newcomen engine. That is, they charged a percentage of the value the technology created. Whereas the Newcomen engine was only profitable at coal mines – where scrap coal was effectively free – the Watt engine was useful everywhere. Factories and mills that had relied on waterwheels, and were subject to weather conditions, could suddenly be placed anywhere and run in any weather.

The Industrial Revolution

Watt’s engines kicked off the first industrial revolution. Combined with Arkwright’s model for unskilled labor there was a sudden need for concentrated labor in urban areas.

Watt went on to create other improvements and patents; he was a prolific innovator. Obvious innovations included modifying the steam engine so it produced power on both the up and down stroke and less obvious ones included the sun and planet gear that eventually allowed gears in engines.

Watt failed to recognize two major innovations created at his company. One was the adoption of coal gas for lighting. Senior Boulton & Watt engineer William Murdoch harnessed coal gas to create coal lighting. Watt allowed the experiments to continue but, despite that coal-derived gas lighting in factories was a natural extension to coal-powered steam engines, forbid Murdoch from moving forward on a full-fledged commercialization project. The second was his aversion to high-pressure steam engines, that would eventually drive everything from locomotives to industrial sawmills.

Watt retired in 1800 and died in 1819 an extremely wealthy man. One overlooked coincidence is that while Watt was at the University of Glasgow developing the steam engine, that would usher in the industrial age and modern capitalism, Adam Smith was simultaneously at the same University writing Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the seminal book describing capitalism.