For Good Measure

At the U.S. Metric Association, progress is measured in millimeters, meters, and kilometers.

“At the U.S. Metric Association, we view U.S. metrication as having been merely postponed,” says Paul Trusten, Vice President of the 96-year-old organization, referring to this country’s lack of progress in converting to the metric system, making it one of the few holdouts among developed nations. But the USMA — which promotes increased use of the metric system and aims for complete conversion — recognizes that it faces an uphill battle, as metrication (defined as the act of changing from imperial units of measurement to metric units) would require the kind of unified, long-term effort not seen in this country since World War II. But while metrication might seem a million miles — er, kilometers — away, the USMA has no plans to give up the fight. “The nation has a long-term obligation to its citizens and institutions to fix, literally and figuratively, the nation’s measurement standard. We must overcome our old nationalistic prejudice against measurement change if we are to be full participants in 21st-century commerce,” says Trusten.

Metric Legislation in the U.S.: A Short History

The movement towards U.S. metrication dates back to the mid-19th century, beginning with the Metric Act of 1866 (aka the Kasson Act, after Congressman John A. Kasson), which made the metric system legal for use. The next significant development came in 1875, when the U.S. was one 17 countries to sign the Treaty of the Meter, which established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures and “made the U.S. a full player in establishing the international system of units that it won’t adopt for itself,” notes Trusten. Finally, in 1893, the U.S. Superintendent of Weights and Measures, Thomas Mendenhall, issued an order that the meter and kilogram would be regarded as the standards of length and mass in the U.S.

But fifty years after the Kasson Act, the U.S. government was no closer to actively approving a transition to using (only) metric system measurements. So it came to pass that on December 27, 1916, the USMA (known as the American Metric Association until 1974) held its first meeting, with the idea of furthering the use and adoption of the metric system. Most notable among the educators and businessmen who attended that initial get-together was Maria Montessori, originator of the Montessori teaching system, who remarked that “ … the advantage of the metric system over other systems is shown by its simplicity and the ease which it gives to accomplishing all research work.”

Yet despite the strenuous efforts of the American Metric Association, the U.S. made little tangible progress towards metrication until the 1960s and early ’70s, a time when Great Britain, Australia, and Canada were in the midst of converting to metric system usage. Finally, in 1968 Congress passed the Metric Study Bill, which mandated a study to evaluate the feasibility, costs, and benefits of U.S. adoption of metric measurements. Things looked promising when three years later the Dept. of Commerce issued its report, which was titled: “A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come.” Even industry was getting comfortable with the idea. It’s no coincidence that it was during this period that the two-liter bottle was introduced, a product size that has since become ubiquitous.

But as it turns out, the time had not come, despite the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, in which the federal government sanctioned conversion. The Act provided for a 17-member U.S. Metric Board to coordinate the changeover to the metric system, but set no deadline for conversion. “The country was ripe for change, but the legislation created a board with no regulatory powers and no clear mission,” recalls Trusten, before noting that “we have had a lot of pro-metric legislation for a country that has failed to change over to the metric system.”

And Congress — which has the power to “… fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” (Art. 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution) — isn’t likely to pursue new metric-oriented legislation anytime soon. Never mind the fact that in 1988 Congress amended the Metric Conversion Act to say that the metric system is the preferred system of measurement in the U.S. In order to make metrication a reality, “Everyone has to agree to get together and do it. And the U.S. isn’t like that, except in times of crisis,” laments Trusten.

Packaging and Labeling

Meanwhile, the USMA has been advocating for changes to packaging and labeling laws — namely, the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which requires the use of both metric and non-metric units on consumer product labeling. (This explains why the labels on two-liter bottles also indicate ‘67.6 fl. oz.’). “We would like to give manufacturers the option of dropping the non-metric units from labels … but we are having a terrible time trying to get that law changed,” admits Trusten.

There is, however, a state model regulation called the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation that governs packaging and labeling not regulated by the federal government, and 48 states have included a metric-only option. (Alabama and New York are the holdouts.) “Right now I’m working with our membership to urge those two states — as a matter of housekeeping — to join the rest of the country. Then there wouldn’t be any place that would be legally opposed,” concludes Trusten.

Health and Education

Meanwhile, the USMA holds out hope that the metrication movement will soon get an assist from health and safety advocates. Trusten, a registered pharmacist, notes that there is a big problem with having two systems of measurement in health care. That is, it can cost us our health — and even lives — on occasion. He says: “In the past two years there have been enough incidents of children getting the wrong dose — or an overdose — of medication because of a mix-up between teaspoonful’s and milliliters,” that the medication safety issue could become the most important development since the advent of the two-liter bottle.

It’s conceivable that educators could also give metrication a push, as bringing the U.S. in line with other developed countries would give teachers one less thing to worry about. “In the rest of the world, what they use in the laboratory is what they use on the street. American students don’t have that advantage. They have to stop and learn the metric system, and then after they learn it they discard it,” reminds Trusten, who urges Americans to get in touch with their representatives to tell them we need to get around to metrication sooner rather than later. “Demand metric education as a part of improving American education. The children of America should be fluent in the metric system,” he concludes.

Realistically, though, Trusten recognizes that full-on change may be a long time coming, saying, “We’ve let this go on for so long that to change over now would be a big job, and I don’t think people want to face the amount of work that would be involved.”

Official Web site of the U.S. Metric Association