To meter or not to meter?

It's over six years since Congress established the US Metric Board and four years since President Carter appointed its part-time members. Finally, two major industries are ready to opt for meters, liters, and kilograms. But both the Reagan administration and, apparently, much of the general public would rather cling to feet, gallons, and pounds.

President Reagan has asked Congress to abolish the Metric Board this spring. At this writing, however, its fate was not yet settled. The board is operating under the continuing resolution which has provided temporary funding for the federal government. This gives the board a budget of $2 million, which is less than the $2.7 million requested for fiscal 1982. Considering the resounding apathy with which the country, for the most part, has greeted any move to go metric, the board probably wouldn't be missed.

With no power to force metrication, the board can only coordinate voluntary efforts toward that end. For most of its term, it has had little to do. Now, however, the American National Metric Council (ANMC) - a private group that channels metrication plans to the board - has two schemes it wants considered. Both the chemical and the instrumentation industries are ready to switch.

Although US chemicals, especially, are large-volume products sold on the world market, they still are priced in cents per pound or dollars per (nonmetric) ton. After seven year's work with the industry, ANMC now says 1984 is a ''realistic'' date for shipping and billing industrial chemicals predominantly in metric units, according to the industry journal Chemical & Engineering News. Since this can be done with or without the Metric Board, the flurry of interest in its mission is no guarrantee of its continued existence.

Indeed, the whole exercise with the board has shown how resistant to change standards of weights and measures can be - especially when most people see no need to switch. Unlike clothing styles or language, weights and measures do not undergo continuous, natural metamorphosis. They are set by ''authorities.'' And, once set, people become so accustomed to them that any other system, even one as simple as the metric system, seems painfully difficult to adopt.

Considered objectively, the US system is both cumbersome and illogical, as well as being out of step on an almost totally metricated planet. It's an odd mixture of metric and traditional units. US citizens deal quite happily with electricity in terms of amperes, volts, and watts - all standard metric units. Yet they cling tenaciously to inches and feet, quarts and gallons, ounces and pounds, and that strange unit the acre (43,560 square feet). And if you get into cooking, there are all those teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups.

The needless complexity of this mixed-up system is the bane of schoolchildren and adults alike. Yet, being used to it, most people wouldn't have it otherwise. Metric Board or no, the US has many a league to go before it surrenders to metric simplicity.

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