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Whatever happened to adoption of the metric system in the U.S.?

Dear Cecil:

A few years ago there was a lot of noise about the U.S. finally going metric. We saw road signs with mile and kilometer equivalents and soda bottles containing peculiar fractions of liters that corresponded to quarts and ounces. Then what happened? No one talks about metric anymore. How come? Is there any serious metric movement? Is not going metric part of the decline of U.S. industry in world markets?

Eric Gordon, New York

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Like hell. Had U.S. industry suffered a real (as opposed to relative) decline, Americans would have quit screwing around and converted to metric long ago, just as the UK did — and remember, the British are the ones who invented this dram-bushel-inch stuff. As it is, U.S. industry is sufficiently prosperous and the domestic market is so large that the country can afford the luxury of supporting two separate systems of measurement. Which is basically what it has. Most big multinational firms use metric for goods they sell abroad, and some (e.g., the automakers) have abandoned the inch-pound system altogether. Smaller companies serving primarily the U.S. market and of course most ordinary folks have clung to the old system, mainly for lack of a compelling reason to change. If significant numbers of midsize firms routinely had to convert from millimeters to inches (how fast can you multiply by .03937?), opposition to metrication would evaporate. But in the U.S. they don’t, and it hasn’t.

One of the reasons the U.S. will probably never fully convert to metric is the country’s genius for compromise — its saving grace in politics, maybe, but not so useful when it comes to weights and measures. The first round of attempted metrication, which took place following passage of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, is now remembered as the time when “we made a mistake … trying to force metrics down people’s throats,” one advocate says. Baloney. It was a typical let’s-please-everybody muddle. Dual posting of highway signs in miles and kilometers cost money without any compensating advantage and, by calling attention to the fact that one kilometer equals .621 miles, made the metric system seem needlessly complicated. The folly of dual measurements persists to this day. Rather than baffle consumers by pointing out that a gallon of milk equals 3.78 liters, it would be better to simply replace gallons with four-liter containers. The two-liter pop bottle no doubt succeeded because it was just that simple.

Opponents of metrication have succeeded in painting it as a one-world plot, with the introduction of an alien system of weights and measures the obvious prelude to a takeover by the Bolsheviks. To this day you’ll hear media commentators moaning that recalculating football fields and baseball diamonds in meters threatens the integrity of American sport. Converting to metric will cost money, the critics say, and unless you’re involved in foreign trade it confers no benefit.

These arguments are specious. If people still calculate horse races in furlongs, a medieval measure, there’s nothing to prevent them from using feet and yards in sports indefinitely (although the Olympics have gotten people used to meters). And while converting to metric costs something, much of the money has already been spent. Rare is the auto mechanic, for example, who doesn’t have metric wrenches.

As for the metric system conferring no benefit — come on. For many everyday purposes the inch-pound system is useless. How many people understand fluid ounces, bushels, pecks, rods, and grains? How many can visualize an acre? (A hectare, the comparable metric unit, is 100 meters on a side.) Two centuries ago the U.S. adopted a decimal system of currency, and today everybody’s happy they did. A decimal system of measurement would be at least equally useful.

Officially the U.S. is still trying to convert to metric. In 1988 Congress reiterated that the metric system was the “preferred system of measurement.” Federal agencies, which procure more than $300 billion in goods and services annually, are supposed to require their vendors to supply metric products. Most still don’t. But who knows? In an age when every dieter can quote you “fat grams,” the metric system may sneak up on us yet.

Cecil Adams

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