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In recent years I noticed that the USA system of measure in inches, miles and feet got more widespread worldwide. Many standards of computer storage and periphery (monitors, printers) measure length in inches.

Sometimes the imperial system is forced upon us throgh international organizations, such as Interstate Aviation Comittee, under pressure from which Russia recently (2011) switched in measuring echelon height in aviation from meters to feet.

Most people here in Russia are not familiar with all those miles, feet, inches and so on but now they are forced to learn how to convert it all into meters and back.

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    Any sources for your claims? I can't seem to find any aviation organization named "International Aviation Committee". The standards body for international aviation is ICAO, which requires its members to use SI, with feet being the only permitted variation. That's not really something new, and Russia being a member of the ICAO for as long as it's been a member of the UN certainly adheres to that standard. The same goes for the US. – yannis Apr 6 '13 at 5:18
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    Furthermore, strictly speaking the Imperial system would be the UK's (and Canada's and Australia's) metric system, not the US's. The US uses a system that's very similar, but (afaik) their standard system in sciences, government and the armed forces is SI. And I'm quite certain about the armed forces, as I was dispatched to NATO for 9 months during my military service. Although, obviously, if a change was very recent, I could have missed it. – yannis Apr 6 '13 at 5:20
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    As I already mentioned, the ICAO follows SI, with feet being the only permitted variation. That's not a recent development, that's been the international standard for quite a while. Your article mentions that Russian airspace were measured in meters, but it doesn't mention how Russian airliners measured height when in non Russian airspace. Which would be in feet, otherwise communicating with everyone else would have been a bit of a problem. – yannis Apr 6 '13 at 6:17
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    @Annix Ok. That makes sense. The IAC recently conformed to what have been the standard for quite a while, and what Russian airliners were already using when outside Russian airspace. And the only thing that's new is feet. – yannis Apr 6 '13 at 6:21
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    Worldwide, Metric units are replacing Imperial, slowly but steadily. – DJClayworth Apr 8 '13 at 16:53
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tl;dr> First mover's advantage.

Heavier-than-air flight was, inarguably, pioneered by the United States of America. While inventors from several nations tried, the truth is that the Wright Flyer was the first commercially successful entrant into the field, and the most major advances of the early industry were, indisputably, American. That coupled with the fact that the first international destinations were to countries still using the Imperial system (to wit much of Europe) meant that a custom of using customary units was strongly entrenched before the metric system came into major prominence.

Internationalization typically proceeds not by fiat, but by custom. As a result, American measurements within the device and external to the device, were initially English measurement. As regulation evolved, the custom stuck in order to avoid confusion - as evidenced by the fact that when a Russian pilot lands at a Russian airport, the conversation is still held (at least in theory) in English. (Note: This is the regulation - not always the actual practice)

Put another way, when Lindbergh first crossed the Atlantic, his charts were American. When flights began to regularly cross the Atlantic, some standardization needed to occur. Being the originator of the device, Americans were at an advantage in negotiations when declaring what the standard would be. Having declared a standard, however, there was no compelling reason to change it.

Most standards evolve in this way - the first to market has an advantage that is only overcome if there is a sufficiently compelling reason to do so. We all know HTTP is insecure - but we all know everyone can speak it. So, even if a better standard exists, it will continue.

Robert P. Crease talks about this in his book "World in the Balance: The Historical Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement". He relates the reason the United States initially adopted the English system of measurement as follows:

If machine parts had to be changed, or if the dimensions of most of England’s exports had to be altered, untold confusion would result in the national economy and the entire nation would be thrown into a recession or a depression. (Similar arguments have been presented by anti-metric spokesmen in the United States throughout the present century.

Indeed, the United States is thus no more "imposing its system" on other countries, then the French did on the United States many years ago. Crease writes of the adoption of the metric system as follows:

Dombey’s meter and kilogram were purchased by someone who sent them to a French official in Philadelphia. This official put them into the hands of someone who, not realizing their significance, never conveyed them to the U.S. Congress. Had Dombey’s mission succeeded, it might have provided momentum to advance the metric system in the United States. “The sight of those two copper objects,” Linklater writes, “so easily copied and sent out to every state in the Union, together with the weighty scientific arguments supporting them, might well have clarified the minds of senators and representatives alike

The metric system is inarguably simpler than the English system. Pure decimalization makes the math easier - but there is custom to overcome. Indeed, the very units you would have the international system use - namely the meter, which in turn is derived from the second, a unit of time, had to ultimately be derived from its reference to London. While Paris had the 'meter stick,' it was turned into a unit of time (namely the amount of time it took for a pendulum to swing) which, in turn, came from London. The kilogram - the only remaining unit of measure still judged against a physical device - is based on a French artifact.

The point with all of this is this - there is no truly non-nationalistic unit of measure. Indeed, reading through Crease's book, you find how odd it is that we settled on any standard. To attribute some imperial motive (no pun intended) is silly, though, because it merely pushes the envelope back.

You are arguing for a French unit. The United States is asking for a compelling reason to change the convention. Both are nationalistic. Neither is "pure"

  • I think you are way overstating the case of US dominance. When Alcock and Brown flew across the Atlantic in 1917, ten years before Lindbergh, their charts were British. Of course they were still in Imperial units. Much of the world was using Imperial units, but not because of the US. – DJClayworth Apr 8 '13 at 16:50
  • Agreed - editing my answer to include the Europeans using the Imperial system. – Affable Geek Apr 8 '13 at 17:09
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    "as evidenced by the fact that when a Russian pilot lands at a Russian airport, the conversation is still held (at least in theory) in English." - evidently, this is not true. One can listen to many flight recordings and see that communication between Russian pilots and flight controllers is always in Russian. – Anixx Apr 8 '13 at 18:17
  • @Anixx See the clarification (along with supporting link) in the answer. This is the official guidance of the ICAO - but as you point out, it doesn't always match the reality. – Affable Geek Apr 8 '13 at 21:11
  • @Affable Geek it is English proficiency requirement, it does not mandate the language of communication with the flight controllers. The pilots just have to know English at some basic level. – Anixx Apr 8 '13 at 22:26

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