25 years after the Metric Conversion Act, Americans have given
barely an inch
by Lisa Friedman Miner, Daily Herald Staff Writer
By now, we should have been Is this more or less
buying broccoli by the gram than 4 liters?
and gas by the liter. Twenty-
five years ago this Saturday,
Congress passed the Metric
Conversion Act of 1975 that
was designed to nudge the
United States into the
Granted, the act asked for
voluntary compliance. But
most people figured that over
time the United States would Is the temperature of this water
trade its pounds and pints for closer to 25 degrees Celsius or
a system that made more 125 degrees Celsius
It didn’t happen, at least not
in the way that advocates
hoped and traditionalists
Instead, as we enter the 21st
century, our country straddles
both the English and metric
systems with mixed results.
We drink pop from 2-liter
bottles, but buy our milk in
We talk in terms of fat grams, Could a Quarter Pounder be
but those grams translate into accurately renamed the
pounds when we climb on 100-grammer in a metric
our bathroom scales. McDonald’s? Would you be speeding at
40 kilometers per hour?
We cheer high school track
stars to victory in 100-meter
runs, but mark our drive home Answers on page 5
in terms of miles.
Such is our complicated relationship to measurement - one that’s not likely to change drastically any time soon.
Change has come, advocates say, but it has come slowly - measured, perhaps, in inches instead of meters.
“People resist change. They don’t understand it. They don’t want to be bothered with it,” says Lorelle Young,
president of the not-for-profit U.S. Metric Association, which has advocated transition since 1916.
“Metric is not a happy word to many Americans,” she adds. “They don’t understand why we need it.”
Why we need it is quite simple. Young says: to compete in a global market, to export our products overseas
and to improve the trade balance.
Metric is the future, Young insists. In fact, the United States clings to its measurement past with only Liberia
and Myanmar - two nations not considered major players in the global economy.
“There truly is no end-use for the inch-pound system in the 21st century. “There is simply no use for it,” Young
says. “These days, it’s like sitting kids down at a manual typewriter.”
An old debate
Our current system of measurement makes sense mainly because we’re used to it. We learn as children that 12
inches make a foot, 3 feet make a yard and 1,760 yards make a mile.
The metric system is based on units of 10. Ten centimeters make a decimeter. 10 decimeters make a meter and
Metric conversion has flitted in and out of the American mind-set for years.
Thomas Jefferson first proposed going metric in 1790; more than 200 years later we’re still toying with the idea.
England began to go metric in 1965; Canada kicked off its transition a few years later.
But while England and Canada made the move, the United States waffled.
Deadlines were set, then postponed. Requirements were enacted, then lifted.
Advocates blame a lack of national leadership. Too often a move toward metric would be blasted by the public
and Congress would back off.
Still, industry made some strides. All American automobiles, for example, are designed to metric
specifications, a process that started in the 1970s. And all bottles of wine and hard liquor bear metric volumes
But, at the same time, American highways are still marked in miles and efforts to change that have met with
Perhaps those who advocated change, who foresaw it by the dawn of the new millennium, underestimated how
deeply ingrained our system of measurement has become.
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“The measurement system that you grow up with and you use helps shape your perception of reality,” says
Gerard Iannelli, director of the federal government’s U.S. Metric Program. “I can see an inch.”
But with time and educations, Iannelli says, Americans could begin to see a centimeter.
A need for change
Cultural differences aside, having two systems of measurement worldwide poses its share of problems - often
In September 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter in part because engineers who helped build the
spacecraft used English units of measurement while the NASA flight team used metric units.
Further, the European Union has set a 2009 deadline by which time only certain products with metric labeling
will be imported.
Of course, the history of metrification is full of deadlines - and postponements. Just ask the folks at the Illinois
Department of Transportation.
At one time, Congress mandated that all highway projects receiving federal funds would have to be designed
using metric measurements. Lawmakers set a deadline of Oct. 1, 1996.
IDOT bid its first metric project in January 1995. Hundreds more followed, according to IDOT spokeswoman
Schiebel says the department spent about $2 million converting to the metric system and rewriting its
specification books for the industry.
“There was no uproar within the department,” Schiebel says. “We would have been very happy to move in that
direction with the rest of the country.”
That never happened, though. First, the federal government pushed back its deadline. Then, federal officials
made the whole thing voluntary.
IDOT went back to the English system.
It’s $2 million we could have spent otherwise,” Schiebel says.
In Arlington Heights, two road projects were designed using metric units.
The first has been completed; the second is about 80 percent complete, according to Mark Schoeffmann,
Arlington Heights’ director of engineering.
The village invested about $1,000 in metric equipment for the “conversion,” which proved temporary. But the
bigger issue has been confusion for workers who must move between projects bid under metric specifications
and those bid under the English system, Schoeffmann says.
“We would rather see it one way or another,” Schoeffmann says. “It’s frustrating for the construction industry
to not have a consistent approach to this.”
Moving toward metric
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On other fronts, the fight to go metric has been far more successful.
The Metric Conversion Act was aimed at U.S. industry, and many companies now make products in metric
sizes. We pour wine from 750-milliliter bottles and put 200-milliliter juice packs in our children’s lunch boxes.
Look around your home and you’re likely to see metric sizes in dog food, shampoo, dental floss and more.
“Can you imagine buying a quart of Coke?” Young asks. “You can’t.”
We’ve long taken our medicine in milligram doses, fitted our lamps with 100-watt light bulbs and photographed
our families with 35-millimeter film.
“We are a whole lot more metric than people realize and it has caused no problems whatsoever,” Young says.
And schools teach the metric system alongside the English.
Carl Slaughter, head of the math department at Addison Trail High School, has taught for 30 years. He
estimates that the school’s math curriculum uses about one-third metric, two-thirds English.
“Twenty-five years ago, (the metric system) was a unit by itself,” he says. “When you were done with it, you
Now, metric measurement is used in many problems and is integrated into the lessons.
“They are familiar with it,” he says of his students. “I wouldn’t say they know it .”
Science classes rely more heavily on metric measurement. In fact, most scientific measurements are done in the
metric system and students have no problem in the classroom, says Bob Grimm, head of the science department
at Fremd High School in Palatine.
Still, he says, measurement notions change when they leave science class. They talk in terms of milliliters
when measuring in chemistry, but think of gallons when pumping gas for their cars.
“Kids don’t convert between the two,” Grimm says. “They use whatever they have to.”
Mark Henschel, a Chicagoan and central area director for the U.S. Metric Association, agrees that math and
science classes promote the metric system. But what about geography lessons? And Home Ec?
Henschel once taught two weeks of metric cooking to seventh-grade girls. He even taped over the Fahrenheit
markings on the oven.
“The neat thing was nobody complained. Nobody argued with me,” he says. “They loved it.”
Cups and culture
Their parents might not love it, however, if they had to change the methods of measurement that are most
culturally ingrained, Iannelli says.
He says resistance tends to come in three areas: highway signs, temperature readings and weight.
We have grown accustomed to climbing on the scale, noting the pounds and figuring out whether we need to lay
off the doughnuts.
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The key to moving toward metric, Iannelli says, is to get people to think in metric units. In other words, people
shouldn’t try to figure out how many pound make up a kilogram. Instead, he says, they could just learn their
optimal weight in kilograms and go from there.
Young and Henschel, of the U.S. Metric Association, say the best way to get people to do that is to plunge in.
Mandate metric, and people will learn - and accept - the new system, they say.
Grimm, of Fremd High School, agrees. He describes our current pace as a “slow, miserable” walk toward
“In this country, we tried to phase in the metric system,” Grimm says. “We tried to soft sell it to the public. It
Iannelli, however, recommends a cautious approach.
“Until we can think in that language (of measurement), I don’t think we should force that,” he says.
“It could take a generation or two,” he adds.
Still, there are those who would fight the change no matter how it proceeds. There’s an anti-metric Web ring on
the Internet. And sites like freedom2measure.org argue that the inch-pound system is part of American culture.
True enough, advocates say. But that doesn’t mean Americans can’t learn a different way.
“Everybody has a heritage,” Henschel says. “But some time or another, old ideas have to give way to things
that are better.”
“We can do this,” he adds. “It won’t hurt, And when we’re done, we’ll be glad we did .”
METRIC QUIZ ANSWERS
40 kilometers per hour A true quarter pound
is just about 24.8 mph, just of beef weighs 113.4
within the speed limit. grams in the metric system
Water boils at 100 degrees
A gallon of milk equals Celsius, so the liquid in
4 quarts - but only 3.8 this pot is closer to 125
liters. degrees Celsius.
11c9b0e4-be12-46b4-b69a-70d8842b1db4.doc 11/22/10 5
Metrics - Barely an Inch Name_________________________
Answer the following questions in complete sentences using the Metrics - 'Barely an Inch' article.
How long has it been since we passed the Metric Conversion Act? Is the United States totally converted to
Why do Americans not really want to change from the English system to the Metric System?
Why do we need metrics on the United States?
What could possibly happen if both the English System and Metric System were used to design something?
List two instances when the U.S. could have changed to the Metric System, but didn’t.
Who is Bob Grimm and what did he have to say about metrics in science classes?
What is the solution for the United States to convert to metrics?
What thought could we give to Americans who are resisting the change to metrics?
11c9b0e4-be12-46b4-b69a-70d8842b1db4.doc 11/22/10 6