The Ecphorizer

Metrication Update
Perr Cardestam

Issue #22 (June 1983)

Contrary to popular belief, metrication is not something that we have tried in the seventies and discarded. In fact, metrication is very much alive.

[quoteright]The reason for this misconception is most likely the deactivation of the US Metric Board (USMB), which was created

in the decade since the Act not much has happened in the U.S......

in 1976 as part of the implementation of the Metrication Act of 1975 (PL 94-168).

The original metric system of measurements was developed in France and adopted by the French National Assembly on 1795 April 7. Most countries in Europe, Central and South America adopted the system for commercial use during the middle and last half of the 1800s. The United States Congress legalized the use of the metric system throughout the US on 1866 July 28. The Act of 1866 reads, in part, as follows:

It shall be lawful throughout the United States of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system; and no contract or dealing, or pleading in any court, shall be deemed invalid or liable to objection because the weights and measures expressed or referred to therein are weights or measures of the metric system.

On 1875 May 20 the United States, along with 16 other nations, signed the Treaty (Convention) of the Metre which provides for an International Bureau of Weights and Measures, and for a General (International) Conference on Weights and Measures. This action makes the U.S. one of the original signatories to the Treaty of the Metre.

As of 1893 April 5 all legal units of measure used in the United States have been metric units or are defined as exact numerical multiples of metric units. This action, however, which established metric units as the ultimate and fundamental base of all U.S. Customary Units, is known as the Mendenhall Order, after T. C. Mendenhall, U.S. Superintendent of Standard Weights and Measures.

It was not until 1960 October, however, that the metric system of measurements came of age. At that time, during the Eleventh General Conference of Weights and Measures, with Dr. A. V. Astin representing the United States, the metric system of units, based on the metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, and candela was given the name Le Systeme International d'Unites or SI for short. From the foregoing it must be quite clear that the SI metric system cannot possibly be called a foreign conspiracy or, better yet, a communist plot, as the U.S. has actively been involved in the creation and worldwide adoption of the system.

U.S Activity
During the first thirty years of this century several bills, which would have made the use of the metric system mandatory, have failed in Congress by very small margins.

It was not until 1968 that the Miller-Fell Metric Study Bill was passed. This bill authorized the Secretary of Commerce to conduct a study to determine the impact of the increasing worldwide use of metric units on our nation, and to determine what action should be taken to counteract this impact.

The results of the study, contained in a report titled A Metric America - - A Decision Whose Time Has Come, were presented to Congress in 1971. Then-Secretary of Commerce Maurice H. Stans said about the report: "For many years. this nation has been slowly going metric, and it should continue to do so regardless of national plans and policies. At the same time, the worldwide use of the metric system is increasing, and today ours is the only major nation which has not decided to take such a step. As the report states, a metric America would seem to be desirable in terms of our stake in world trade, the development of international standards, relations with our neighbors and other countries, and national security."

The Congressional response to the report was the enactment of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 signed into law by then-President Ford on 1975 December 23. The Act declares a national policy of coordinating the increasing use of the metric system in the United States and provides for the establishment of the U.S. Metric Board to coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system.

In the decade since that Act not much has happened in the U.S. as perceived by the common man. As a contrast we may look to some other English-speaking countries where something did happen: South Africa and New Zealand have completed their metrication program. Australia will complete its program within the next year (1984), whereas progress in the United Kingdom and Canada is relatively slow because of intimate trade ties with the U.S.

Current Status
There is a prevailing notion nationwide that metrication has been put on the back burner, that the government does not want it, that it is too costly. etc. The reason for this notion is that the Reagan Administration in its drive to reduce and possibly balance (a dubious endeavor indeed) the national budget went out to look even for relatively small expenditures to prune. Three million dollars were found in the USMB budget and this amount, coupled with the Administration's conviction that metrication is not a government issue, but something that should be accomplished in the private sector, was cut in total without much of a struggle. That maybe ten times the amount was lost on negative publicity and lost momentum is rather immaterial at this point.

One significant advantage occuring with the deactivation of the USMB should be noted. The seventeen-member board was made up of proponents as well as strong opponents of metrication. Consequently the Board was rather ineffective, spending an unrealistic amount of time on the interpretation of the Metrication Act of 1975 and having opponents blocking many of the actions necessary to implement the Act.

This stumbling block has now been removed, and most of the USMB activities have now been taken over by the Office of Metric Programs (OMP) within the Department of Commerce.

Metric Organizations
Today there are two prominent organizations in the U.S. advocating conversion to the metric system. The oldest one, to which the author belongs, is the United States Metric Association (USMA) which was established in 1916. The younger one is the American National Metric Counsel (ANMC). The former is primarily directed towards individuals, the latter towards industry. 

Perr Cardestam, our metric maven ("metric nut," he writes), is a computer engineer who reads or speaks a dozen languages.  He sang with the Honolulu Opera for four years.

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