The metric system in America

P. Schatzman of Whitefish Bay, Wis., asks, 'Whatever happened to...?'

The United States has been intending to "go metric" since 1866, when Congress first authorized using metrics. The decimal-based system of weights and measures is simpler to use, so it's faster and one is less apt to make mistakes using it, which means it saves money. Today, the US, Liberia, and Burma (Myanmar) are the world's only nonmetric holdouts. Even Britain, which gave us yards, miles, and pounds, went metric in 1975.

In 1971, a National Bureau of Standards study concluded that the US was already metric in some ways and would inevitably join the metric world. It advised Congress to pass a law to assist in a voluntary, orderly conversion. The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 created a Metric Board to head the effort. By 1981, the board had concluded that it lacked a strong enough mandate. It was dissolved in 1982.

Increased trade competition abroad prompted Congress to try again. The Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 included an amended 1975 Metric Conversion Act and designated the metric system the "preferred system of weights and measures."

Metrics is still sneaking up on the US. Some industries have already gone metric, especially those with global markets: construction, farm, and office equipment, for example; cars, too.

"People are moving more metric than they think," says Lorelle Young, president of the US Metric Association, an 83-year-old advocacy group based in Northridge, Calif. "They buy liters of Coke, ski on metric skis, ride on metric bikes, and read electric meters that are metric. People are accepting the metric system, but if they thought they were, they probably wouldn't like it."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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