The ‘Imperial’ – and why the United States is way behind in fully implementing the International System of Units


Metric&EnglishMeasurementStandard-530In 1981 and early 1982, I would describe the metric system of measurements to my electronics and computer science students and tell them why it was better than the Imperial or English standard that was then in use. Our classrooms were newly equipped with 24-hour clocks. Around the nation, freeway and other road signs noted distances in Kms and speed limits in Kms/h; gasoline station pumps displayed Liters for quantities bought. The country was undergoing a change – for the better.

But before 1982 came to an end, alas! The classroom clocks were replaced with old 12-hour timepieces. Signs along the freeways reverted back to indicate miles, and gas station pumps once more served gallons instead of liters of fuel. Americans who travel abroad had to remember how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit just so they would know whether to feel warm or cold.

What happened and why?

Politicians warmed up to big businesses – notably the American automobile and tool-making industries. Converting to metric would have been a costly re-tooling disaster. We’re pure English today as far as tools are concerned. American-made tools like screwdrivers and wrenches are useless in much of the rest of the world. [Only two countries in today’s world are officially non-metric: Liberia and Myanmar (Burma). As I will show later, the US is officially a metric country, contrary to what some pundits believe.]

Is the US totally non-metric? Somewhat – or not quite. The United States does not formally conduct business using the metric system, but it is a metric-system nation. Aside from the fact that the US congress had enacted a Metric Conversion law, the US uses the metric system in electronics, food products (including nutrition information labeling), and sporting activities (except American football). But for many other things, like land measurement, the country stalls: how much land area makes an acre?

Why is there so much opposition to going completely metric? Why do our school children have to memorize things like “16 ounces make a pound, 12 inches make a foot, and 3 feet make a yard” when school kids in just about the rest of the world have it easy?

Politicians and big businesses blame the American people for the country not being fully metric. They allege that Americans are used to measuring things by what they do and can do – like an acre is how much land one can plow in one day! Silly nonsense! If you leave it up to the people to decide, yes, they will not want change. The reason we have leaders and big business and government is so we could have rules and systems put in place that would be good for us – the people.

Here are the facts. The US Congress authorized the use of the metric system in 1866 and in 1876 the US signed the international “Treaty of the Meter.” In 1960 the Treaty of the Meter was updated and became known as the SI (its French acronym) or the International System of Units. In 1975 the US Congress enacted the Metric Conversion Law which declared metric as the preferred system and with it created the US Metric Board. The 17-member Metric Board was to implement the conversion of the US to a nation of metric systems.

In the early 1980s, under Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the US started setting up road signs and speed limits in kilometers and Km/h and American-made motor vehicles had speedometers that included Km/h indicators. But then in 1982 – the doom year for the full implementation of the metric system in the US – President Ronald Reagan disbanded the 17-member US Metric Board in a budget-cutting initiative. And that’s how we got to where we are today. President Reagan’s act makes the US an officially metric country that has no program to implement metrication.

Will the US ever go completely metric? The answer is YES! New technologies, the compulsions of international trade, and our ever-creative people will eventually force the complete and permanent use of the metric system.

Except maybe for American football.

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About Julius Willis

A former Philippines newspaperman and businessman, Julius resettled in California, USA, where he simultaneously worked as an instructional and technical writer and engineering department manager and taught college for 26 years. Now retired, he serves as a member of the City of Hayward's Planning Commission, the Alameda County Housing & Community Development Advisory Committee, and the Advisory Board of CSU-East Bay's Center For Filipino Studies. He is also on Hayward's General Plan Task Force.
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