A brief history of metrication in the U.S. and in the world, excerpts from recent metric legislation, and a description of SI.
Throughout the history of industrialization, people have been trying to limit the number of measurement systems in use so that today, only two systems, inch-pound and metric, predominate in the industrial nations. Since its inception two centuries ago, the metric system has been gaining ground while all the others have been losing.
The pressure for unification on one system is mounting. For over a decade, ours has been the last and only country that remains uncommitted to the unification in the sense that no nationwide mandate for metric that includes the private sector has been established. Individual industries, societies and organizations have, however, been making steps to adopt metric for some time.
The metric system that the groups listed above are adopting is different from the one common a generation ago. As with all systems of units, the metric system has been evolving and several modifications were devised to match the progress of science and technology. Today all nations, including the U.S., have been unifying on one version, officially known as the International System of Units, or SI. It was established in 1960. The letters SI have been adopted by all nations and languages of the world to identify the new system.
Recent Developments in Metricating the U.S.
Congress voted on making this country metric several times, starting as long as 200 years ago. Most of the voting is little known in the general public. Among the more recent legislations that caught public attention was the 1975 Metric Conversion Act.
That law called for a voluntary conversion; as such it had no deadline, and accomplished little. Most consumer oriented U.S. companies did not change their product. A voluntary move was perceived by them as possible annoyance to their customer, the American public. A few years after the law, it seemed metrication was losing ground rather than gaining. Even the U.S. schools that started teaching metric relaxed it later, acquiring the dubious distinction of becoming the only school system in the world that matriculates metric illiterates.
Outside the general public sphere of interest, however, a great deal of work had been done in the global and export oriented companies, particularly in the automotive and agriculture industries. For example, the design work on new automobiles started changing in the late sixties and was fully metric by the late seventies; the new cars reached the showrooms some five years later. Without the public noticing, the wine and spirits industries changed to solely metric packaging in the early eighties. And while the American public was relaxing on the issue, all the remaining non metric countries (Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Canada, ... Brunei) adopted SI.
Recognizing the nation's isolation and yielding to the urging of NATO, commercial allies, U.S. citizens and lobbying groups, Congress was moved to modify the 1975 law to make it “less” voluntary and give it a deadline.
In 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act. A section in this document, Public Law 100 418 designates the metric system the preferred system of measurement for the Federal Government. It amends the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 by requiring that:
“.... each Federal Agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurements, grants, and other business related activities, except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies ....”
The subsequently issued Executive Order directed the Commerce Secretary to coordinate the effort of the Federal Agencies in complying with the law. A country-wide effort had begun within the government and it is now impacting contractors and state agencies.
In 1992, the Federal Highway Administration established 1996 as the deadline for metricating federally-aided state highway construction but in 1995 Congress changed the deadline to 2000 and eliminated it all together in 1998. Nonetheless, the majority of states have converted their highway programs to the metric system and together issue well over $10 billion in metric highway contracts each year.
Federal building construction--including work performed by the Army, Navy, Air Force, General Services Administration, NASA, VA, Coast Guard, Bureau of Prisons, NIH, and others--is almost completely metricated and federal metric contracts total about $10 billion annually.
Metrication is progressing, albeit at a slow and jerky rate. That rate results in unnecessary cost. Consumers and taxpayers of this and future generations will spend billions more than the past generations would have, had they taken care of the conversion then. It should have been done, and it could have been done in a manner exemplified by the conversion to the "metric" currency this country accomplished 200 years ago. Think of the accumulated cost of the inefficiency had that change not taken place, think of the cost of the change should it be done today. Similarly, the sooner the metric changeover is finished, the less it will cost and the sooner everybody will start accumulating the savings brought on by a simpler system of measurements.