ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If the U.S. were more like the rest of the world, a McDonald's Quarter Pounder might be known as the McDonald's 113 Grammer (ph). John Henry's 9-pound hammer would be a 4.08-kilogram hammer, and any gorillas in the room would weigh 362 kilos. As NPR's Joe Palca explains, we might have adopted the metric system of weights and measures if it hadn't been for pirates.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: At the museum on the Gaithersburg, Md., campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, there's a small artifact that could very well have changed the course of history.
KEITH MARTIN: It actually is a little dull looking, to be honest with you.
PALCA: Clearly not a salesman - Keith Martin is in fact a research librarian at the Standards Institute. And what did this dull-looking but nonetheless remarkable artifact look like?
MARTIN: It's just a small copper cylinder with a little handle. It's maybe about 3 inches tall and about the same wide.
PALCA: This object was intended to be a standard for weighing things, part of a weights and measures system being developed in France now known as the metric system. The object's weight was 1 kilogram. In 1793, the brand new United States of America needed a standard measuring system because the states were using a hodgepodge of systems.
MARTIN: So for example, in New York, they were using Dutch systems. In New England, they were using English systems.
PALCA: Martin says this made interstate commerce difficult. The secretary of state at the time was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson knew about the new French system and thought it was just what America needed. So he wrote to his pals in France, and the French sent a scientist named Joseph Dombey off to Jefferson with one of the new kilograms. Crossing the Atlantic, Dombey ran into a giant storm.
MARTIN: It blew his ship quite far south into the Caribbean Sea.
PALCA: And you know who was lurking in Caribbean waters in the late-1700s.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL")
GEOFFREY RUSH: (As Barbossa) Prepare to board.
PALCA: Yes, pirates.
MARTIN: The pirates took Joseph Dombey prisoner on the island of Montserrat.
PALCA: They weren't interested in Dombey's kilogram, but they thought maybe they could get a ransom for the French scientist. Unfortunately Dombey died in captivity, and the kilogram never made it to Jefferson. Would it really have made any difference if Dombey had been able to deliver his kilogram?
MARTIN: We don't know for sure, but it does seem like it was a missed opportunity there.
PALCA: This wasn't the only missed opportunity. Every so often, there's a futile push for America to go metric. But for now we're stuck with Quarter Pounders and 9-pound hammers. And, oh, yes, how did the kilogram Dombey was carrying make it to a museum in Gaithersburg, Md.? Well, it seems the pirates auctioned off the contents of Dombey's ship, and the kilogram made it into the hands of one Andrew Ellicott, whose descendants gave it to the museum in 1952. Joe Palca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.