USMA — 100 Years Part II

The Ineffectual Apotheosis of Voluntary

By The Metric Maven

The long flat-line of metric discussion in the U.S. began in the 1980s and vanished into a ghost of a whisper. In September of 1982 the US Metric Board was phased out. The U.S. Department of Commerce took over the “Office of Voluntary Metric Conversion” and changed the name to the Office of Metric Programs. The Department of Education’s metric education program was eliminated. Republican Congressman Eldon Rudd (1920-2002) of Arizona introduced “a bill to repeal the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.” Legislation that even suggested the metric system be used in the U.S. was anathema to him.

The USMA editorial comment in the January-February issue of the USMA Newsletter leaves the impression that Louis Sokol (and probably much of the USMA staff) had no idea what to do in response to the marginalization of metric in such a short period of time. Failure earns ridicule in the U.S. and in November of 1981, popular comedian Erma Bombek (1927-1996), who was syndicated in over 900 newspapers, ridiculed the metric system. This situation had to be demoralizing. In March 1983 Louis Sokol lobbied for the allowance of metric only packaging in the US. He was rebuffed, and metric only packaging remains illegal to this day in the US.

By the end of 1984 Sokol noted: “Metric meetings are now far less frequent than they were during the golden years of the seventies; so when one takes place it is newsworthy to persons interested in the metric changeover.”

The USMA co-sponsored a conference with NASA in October of 1985 to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Metric Act of 1975. It is difficult to understand why their would be a celebration. Louis Sokol in the September-October USMA Newsletter states:

“Ten years have elapsed since “voluntary” metrication was legislated, and it is quite obvious that this method is not succeeding. No one wants to lead under a voluntary plan,…”

It is often the case that nature presents the test first and then the lesson. I see it as tragic that Sokol, and others at the USMA, were so caught up in the heady metric rhetoric found in the 1970s media, that it never occurred to them to carefully read the history of past U.S. metrication failures. It had not been ten years since the adoption of the first voluntary metrication plan, it had been more like 100 years.

In 1866 John Kasson was certain that the American public was so quick of mind and innovative, that they would adopt the metric system on their own in the very near future without a government mandate. John Shafroth realized that voluntary metrication had accomplished nothing in the 19th century. At the dawn of the twentieth century, he introduced mandatory metric legislation over and over.  Congress made certain that year after year his mandatory metric legislation would never see the light of day. Shafroth finally resigned when he realized his committee had been stacked with anti-metric members. Charles McNary listened to some of the most thoughtful and well reasoned Congressional testimony about metric conversion in 1921 and then rejected it all claiming that if metric was useful, it would occur spontaneously. He suggested a “voluntary” plan.

Had Sokol and others looked at the legislative history, they might not have been so quick to sign on to a 1970s situation which was essentially identical with the two earlier failures. Sokol now understood this mistake, but the moment had been lost—perhaps forever. It is doubtful the USMA could have turned the tide of the anti-metric Congressional testimony, (they didn’t have a single member on the Metric Board, and could not get phone calls returned) but they could have been on the record as supporting a mandatory metric switch-over, and attacked the very notion of voluntary metrication as nothing but repeating the same failed policies of the last 100 years. Sokol must have had some familiarity with the metric hearings of 1905 and also 1921 as he knew who Fredrick Halsey was.

By this time Sokol had completely realized the folly of voluntary metrication. At the beginning of 1986 he penned an editorial entitled Voluntary Metrication Will Not Succeed. Here is some of what he had to say:

With each passing day it becomes more apparent that “voluntary metrication” will not succeed. This comes as no surprise, because no major public undertaking ever gets accomplished in a voluntary manner. Most taxes would not be collected, and highway speed limits would not be adhered to if they were voluntary. It is obvious that the Congress failed to recognize the unworkability of volunteerism when they passed the Metric Conversion Act ten years ago, or they deliberately intended that metrication should not be accomplished. I believe it was more the latter….

Sokol claimed that formerly enthusiastic USMA members had lost interest in the issue of a metric changeover. And:

Recently I asked why the Office of Metric Programs does not take a more forceful stand for metrication, and their response was that they were specifically told by the Department of Commerce that they should not promote metrics in any way. Commerce is under the executive branch of government, so this means that the [Reagan] White House in effect has minimal interest in metrication and certainly is doing little to further it.

While Sokol claimed that organized labor was the force which stopped metric from happening, a reading of the 1975 metric hearings shows they were but one of a pantheon of anti-metric organizations. The anti-metric GAO report is asserted to have been generated at their request in a May-June 1986 editorial.

Correspondence with the U.S. Post Office was filled with historical irony. Postmaster General, Preston R. Tisch, when Louis Sokol suggested they use the gram and centimeters, (yet again with the cm—millimeters please!) it was pointed out that the U.S. Post Office could not be a metric island in the U.S. and they would change when everyone else did. Ironically, it was the international agreement to use the gram which caused John Kasson to introduce his legislation in the mid-19th century so that the U.S. Post Office could continue to operate internationally. Still, the U.S. Post Office would not use grams after over 100 years of its unanimous international acceptance. The failure of “voluntary metric” was becoming more and more painfully obvious.

Lorelle Young became USMA President in 1986.

In 1987 new metric legislation was introduced into congress. It would make the metric system the “preferred” system of measurement in the U.S.. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) opposed the bill which would require the metric system for all federal government programs by 1992. They claimed this “would be an unrealistic and harsh burden on small business currently doing business with the government…..” So much for the idea that business and the market respond to the customer.

The USMA Newsletters began to decrease legislative discussion, and increased their discussion of metric use. The fact that metric only packaging was still not allowed in the U.S. continued to be a subject of interest, and the pronunciation of Kilometer was also of concern. The Omnibus Trade bill was passed, but was only one more piece of impotent and lifeless legislation. It emphasized voluntary metrication yet again. It also required each federal agency to be more or less metric by the end of 1992—unless it’s too “impractical” or “is likely to cause inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms…”

Dept-of-Commerce-1989-LogoIn 1989 The Department of Commerce released its new logo for the Office of Metric Programs, and the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was renamed the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in August of the previous year. The March-April 1990 issue of the USMA newsletter is renamed Metric Today. It was reported by the GAO that only 3 of 37 government agencies had “advanced very far in metric conversion planning.” NASA eschewed metric at that time and decided to design the space station with U.S. units, then claimed against all evidence that “overall” it will go metric. Other than Ye Olde English, they clearly use a lot of Friedman Units at NASA in place of metric ones.

In July of 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed Executive Order (EO) 12770, which told government agencies that they must have metric conversion plans completed and approved by November 30, 1991. The July-August 1991 issue of Metric Today quotes Department of Commerce Undersecretary for Technology Robert M. White:

The Executive Order demonstrates a solid commitment from President Bush for the Federal government to lead the way in metric usage, and to assist American industry as it voluntarily converts to the metric system.

In August of 1991 The University of Colorado honored Louis Sokol with a Distinguished Service Award for his past and ongoing efforts to bring the metric system to the U.S. Then the Government Service Administration (GSA) decided to implement four metric construction pilot projects. The group felt that a “practical approach” would be to use “soft metric.” Soft metric is just using metric equivalent dimensions to designate current material dimensions. This does not actually produce any change that demonstrates the usefulness of metric construction. It’s really just Ye Olde English/metric dual-dimensioning without one of the dimensions included. The GSA would then work on “hard metric” standards. The construction locations would be Washington DC, Kansas City, a warehouse in Lakewood Colorado, and a border station in Sasabe AZ.

One could see pro-metric people thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, change of some manner might occur. A nebulous September 30, 1992 “deadline” had been established, an executive order put in place, and some “metric” construction of government buildings was planned. The January-February issue of Metric Today reported:

The 5-year plan of the federal Construction subcommittee recommends each federal agency select three metric pilot construction projects per year, beginning with 1992,…

Metric Guide for Federal Construction was produced, and by 1994 federal agencies were to use metric for all new facilities. This push was spearheaded by Professional Engineer Thomas R. Rutherford P.E..

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) was to be amended so that metric values would be the primary ones. The food industry lobby objected to the word primary. In the end Medieval Units and SI would be required on packaging, but not on foods packaged at the retail level (by stores). This attenuated version was passed and signed by President George H.W. Bush on August 3rd of 1992.

NASA-Metric-Awarness-1993Louis Sokol stepped down as the editor of Metric Today in October of 1992. He had been editor for over 26 years and originated the periodical. Valerie Antoine became the new editor. In 1993 there was a lot of talk about programs that promote “metric awareness.” NASA had a metric awareness program as did the Veterans Administration. National Geographic magazine had been toying with metric units since 1985, but by 1993 it was all back to medieval inch-pound usage.

There is also the ubiquitous notion of “greater metric usage” but never a metric cold turkey switch-over. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena stated it thus in 1994: “….it is clear that our country will benefit by a greater use of metric in our daily activities.”

There were statements that after September 30, 1996 waivers for non-metric construction would not be “readily issued.” Once again it looked like there might be some hope for optimism. Did they really mean it this time?

Metrication-1992In the March-April issue of Metric Today Louis Sokol’s guest commentary pointed out that in October of 1992, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) “decided in the interest of safety, the foot should be the only unit used worldwide for the measurement of altitude, elevation and height…until such times as it is possible to change to the exclusive use of the metre.” This was clearly a reactionary imposition of medieval measures on a metric world at the behest of the U.S. FAA. This imposition of a U.S. only unit continues to this day. One finds excuse after excuse offered for the lack of U.S. metrication. We don’t have the authority. It will cost too much. Any ad hoc excuse is immediately offered, and only punctuates the need for a national mandatory metric law with a plan.

Senator Clayborn Pell continued to offer legislation, and promote metric, but never does he use the word, mandatory. There seems to have never been a change in Pell’s view that voluntary metric would work, as he contended in the 1975 Metric Hearings. A constant drum-beat for more “metric education” is offered to prepare students for the world of the United States of Non-Metrica.

In 1994, the construction of a warehouse using metric units was completed at Denver’s Federal Center. It was noted that “…some of the subcontractors converted drawing dimensions to inch-pound units before using them.” (September-October 1994 Metric Today). Without a metric-only mandate, the few singular exceptions of metric construction will be “worked around” using current Ye Olde English units and metrication will not occur. There were contractors in Australia who tried to constantly convert their drawings back from metric, but when the entire ecosystem of measurement which surrounded them had been converted to metric, they evolved or became extinct.

Go-Metric-1992When reading through these old issues of the USMA’s Metric Today, it seems like a bit of a selection bias may have been occurring. In the world of Metric Today, it appears that the country is changing rapidly.  When looking at an actual machine tool catalog, a hardware store, grocery store or elsewhere in the actual world, this is clearly a non-metric country which is arrested in time. Teachers are encouraged to teach metric, but they and their students are discussing an abstract far away exotic land of metric. The proposal to teach metric in the U.S. seems as absurd as teaching Australian students imperial, and then expecting them to see any reason for doing so, when nothing but metric exists in their classroom and in the outside world. They cannot relate the lessons to anything tangible.

Metric advocate Senator Clayborn Pell (D-RI) announced he would not run for reelection again. Anti-metric Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) who spearheaded the take-down of metric implementation in the U.S. remains in the U.S. Senate to this day.

In 1995 the nationwide 55 mile per hour speed limit was repealed. There was no discussion of the cost associated with changing roadway signs with medieval units when the 55 MPH speed limit was imposed, or when it was repealed, but there is always a cost objection when metric signs are proposed. The DOT indicated that metric road signs would be installed in the US by 1996.

In 1996, Metric hearings were held which proposed that the Metric Conversion Act be amended to allow inch-pound products when fulfilling metric construction contracts. The 100 millimeter module size would be ignored and current medieval sized products would simply be described in metric. This legislation is often known as the infamous Cox Bill. USMA President Lorelle Young was there to testify against the measure. The Orwellian name of the legislation, HR2779 The Savings in Construction Act of 1995, was clearly chosen to suggest that metric construction is more expensive than the current practice. Concrete block and lighting fixture companies wanted an exemption, but Cox was pushing for all industries to be exempt from a metric requirement. It was simply a reactionary anti-metric bill which was written for business interests in response to non-existent problems. After all metric in the U.S. is voluntary, voluntary, voluntary! The legislation was passed on July 23 1996. The bill allowed for “soft metric” construction, which is essentially no metric construction whatsoever. The old materials do not fit into 100 mm modules (600 mm center to center) and so there would be no metric construction required.

The history of attempts to implement metric road signs on U.S. highways is often met with anti-metric people taking the total number of signs in a state, multiplying by $100 or some figure near that and arriving at an astonishingly large figure like 500 million dollars per state. The September-October Metric Today contains an article written by Byron Nupp of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which rightly points out that at most only about 25% of U.S. road signs are measurement sensitive.

Metric conversion was attacked as an unfunded mandate under the Unfunded Mandate Reform Act of 1995. It was recommended that the metric mandate be repealed. The metric mandate already contained enough loopholes and provisions for waivers as to be meaningless, but it was still in the cross-hairs of The Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR). Thankfully the ACIR report was not adopted.

On October 11, 1996 Louis Sokol, USMA President Emeritus died. He began the USMA Newsletter and witnessed the unjustified heady optimism of the 1970s, as well as the evanescent rebirth of metric in the 1990s. His editorials had begun to fade away before his passing, and now they ceased completely. He belonged to the USMA from 1947 until his passing in 1996, almost 50 years.

In 1997, legislation was introduced into Congress, which forbids the Secretary of Transportation from requiring the states to use the metric system for federal highway projects, and canceled the DOT (Department of Transportation) deadline of September 30, 2000 to comply with the metric requirement. The legislation, HR 813 (S 532) was not enacted.

In the Spring of 1998, Congress canceled the year 2000 deadline for metric highway construction. The July-August Metric Today reported that the new legislation:

…cancels the Department of Transportation (DOT) year-2000 deadline for all states to use metric in transportation areas such as federal road and bridge construction, maintenance and repair.

With the passage of this anti-metric legislation, a number of states began to move back to medieval units. The September-October Metric Today reported the chortling of Tennessee’s Representative Jimmy Duncan (R-TN): “There was never a good reason to go to the metric system in this country.” The one constant in the U.S. is the scientific ignorance of its political representatives.

On September 3rd 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost. This was because the ground based computer navigation programs output non-metric quantities, instead of providing metric quantities, as was specified in the contract agreement between NASA and Lockheed. The loss cost a minimum of $125 million dollars.

The European Union passed an amendment which moved their mandate for metric-only labeling on imported products from December of 1999 to December of 2009.

In Part III we examine the the 21st century.

USMA — 100 Years Part I

Metric-Lapel-Pin-1971

USMA Metric Lapel Pin 1971

The Education of Louis Sokol

By The Metric Maven

Get a cup of coffee—this is long

In 1916 The Metric Association was formed. Its mission was to promote the metric system and educate the public. The Metric Association would become known as the American Metric Association during the 1921 metric hearings. It exists to this day after changing its name to the US Metric Association in 1974.This year marks this organization’s 100th anniversary.

Fredrick Halsey, the anti-metric polemicist who wrote The Metric Fallacy and who was as tireless as he was misguided in his opposition to the metric system, took note of this new pro-metric organization around 1920. Mr Halsey called the headquarters of the American Metric Association and stated with certainty that “We have killed the metric system before and we will kill it again.” (1921 metric hearings page 41). Halsey demonstrated that stopping legislation in this country is much easier than passing reform. The 1921 metric hearings contain some of the best expositions about how countries successfully changed to metric. The hearing results were a forgone conclusion, there would be no metric switch-over in the U.S..

The period from the 1920s to the 1960s was one of deafening silence and at best indifference to the metric system. As more and more countries began to switch over to the metric system in the 1960s, this period began to suggest that some optimism for the introduction of the metric system into the US might be justified. In 1966 The Metric Association published its first Metric Association Newsletter. The Newsletter was conceived by USMA member Louis Sokol. These newsletters provide a glimpse into the history of the battles over the metric system in the US. The first newsletter contains an editorial comment which states:

There is much latent interest on the subject [of the metric system] from people in the fields of commerce, industry, engineering, education, and science who are looking for leadership that should come from the federal government.

The editorial indicates that metric critics complained that the US should have better “sold” the world on the decimal inch. Our solipsism knows no end.

It is noted that by the end of 1966, India completed their metric changeover, and it had been 100 years since the metric system was legalized in the U.S. by John Kasson. That year was also the 50th anniversary of the Metric Association.

The introduction of dual-dimensioned engineering drawings is celebrated as a great breakthrough. In the April 1967 newsletter.  Editor Louis F. Sokol states:

Most significant is the increasing use of dual dimensioning (both millimeters and inches) on new engineering drawings of our largest industrial organizations.

In April 1968 Sokol continues to promote “an effective educational campaign plus the application of those actions for them to become effective.” There is no call for mandatory metrication. Each of the Metric Association newsletters from 1966-1968 contain editorials which are rather banal. They generally deal with legislation and pedantic details. A November 1968 editorial by Sokol was pounced upon by John Bemelmans Marciano for use in his cartoonish work Whatever Happened to The Metric System. Here is the introductory paragraph:

Sokal-Editorial-1968-CroppedMarciano offered this quotation as an example of how “out of touch” the Metric Association was with the rest of the country. It was quoted and left for the reader to assume it was a typical statement. After two years of published newsletters, the quotation has clearly been cherry-picked to maximally assail Sokol’s personality.

Sokol’s editorial continues and takes up over another full page with discussions of the signing of the metric study bill by President Lyndon Johnson and what the Metric Association might do to assist this study. The use of metric by the US military in Vietnam is addressed, the difficulty UNESCO encountered in trying to compile resource maps that are non-metric is touched upon, and the fact that Johnny Carson had a metric system segment on the September 12, 1968 showing of The Tonight Show. Apparently Marciano did not see the need to point out how “out of touch” Johnny Carson, possibly the most popular talk show host of all time, was by taking an interest in the metric system. Marciano’s editing and representation of Sokol is clearly for the purpose of lampooning, and misrepresenting his overall tenor.

The Metric Association offered centimeter-millimeter rulers, marked as centimeter-only, for a thin dime, with a minimum order of four. I will not belabor what long time readers know, I see the use of centimeters as a detrimental pseudo-inch and this type of ruler only harms metric adoption in the US.

In May 1969 Louis Sokol points to Cessna offering metric equivalents for its performance data as an indication of increasing metric use in the U.S. He ecstatically proclaims: “The Halsey philosophy is dead!” in an editorial. The first signed editorial is by Metric Association president Douglas V. Frost PhD in August of 1969. Until this point it is assumed that Louis Sokol, the editor, wrote them.

The August 1970 newsletter announced that Botswana, Ceylon, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Rhodesia, and Zambia were all planning to adopt the metric system. New Zealand had already announced its intention to become metric a year earlier. In November of 1970, Louis Sokol, in a signed editorial, described the spectrum of metric opinions from a National Metric Study Conference, but claimed:

Everyone expressed the feeling of the inevitability of metrication but felt that very slow progress would be made [if] it were left to an evolutionary process. No single industry or professional group can bring about metrication by itself, because of the interdependence of various sectors of our economy on one another. There is a need for direction and guidance on this problem, and that can only come in the final analysis from the government.

The February 1971 Metric Association Newsletter announced that Nigeria planned on switching to the metric system in the near future.

Go-Metric-1971The US metric study precipitated a number of conferences and discussions around the country at a level not seen before or since. In May of 1971 Sokol praised the work of the Metric Study Group for its unbiased and objective work. Sokol saw it as a good sign that the US had undertaken a study with such a large scope prior to a metric changeover. Only “Burma, Gambia, Guyana, Jamaica, Liberia, Malawi, Sierra Leone and the United States!” had not committed to metrication. The August 1971 Metric Association Newsletter headline was: A Metric America — A Decision Whose Time Has Come. The Metric Study Group of the National Bureau of Standards had submitted its report. The report looked forward to the day, ten years hence, when the U.S. will have become “predominantly though not exclusively metric.” It was noted in an unsigned editorial that: “While the conversion recommended by Secretary Stans is a voluntary one, it will require the approval of Congress to authorize such a program.” Senator Clayborne Pell (D-RI) introduced the “Metric Conversion Act of 1971.” This introduction of legislation would repeat itself annually for another four years.

The publicity surrounding the Metric Study Report, and the large number of countries converting to the metric system, produced a belief among the general public that the US was going to become metric. In 1972, the May Metric Association Newsletter reported that Richard Nixon saw metrication as an important step, but: “Should such a change be decided on, it would be implemented on a cooperative, voluntary basis.”

Despite Nixon’s voluntary view, Louis Sokol had this to say in his editorial in August of 1972:

It is quite evident that the debate on whether we should go metric is now a thing of the past. We are going metric! The only question is about how and when.

It seems very likely that Sokol had never read any of the 1921 Metric hearings, or those of the early twentieth century. The U.S. had a voluntary “plan” in place since 1921, and after 50 years, there should have been no need for metric legislation, because the US should have been metric already, if voluntary metrication actually had the asserted affect. The Metric Association, despite its long tenure, seemed to have lost historical context, and did not learn from its past.

In 1973 Sokol was beginning to promote the idea that metric is better by 1000, and chastised new metric resources for pushing the prefix cluster around unity. He saw them as of little use, but like many metric advocates, he could not let go of inch nostalgia and made an exception for the centimeter:

Sokol-1973-1000-but-centi-exception-croppedBy 1973 the AFL-CIO and Small Business associations were arguing against a voluntary bill with a ten year “suggested” term. In 1974 parliamentary procedures were used to keep a metric bill from appearing for a vote.

In late 1974 Louis Sokol noted that “1975 will mark the centenary of the signing of the “Treaty of The Metre”…” which was signed by the US. “…it would be most fitting if 1975 would go down in history as the year the U.S. Congress finally gave its official approval to authorize a national 10 year metric conversion program.”

Ever optimistic, Sokol editorialized in February of 1975 that: “The promotional efforts of the USMA for the past 58 years are finally bearing fruit.” The Metric Association was now the U.S. Metric Association or USMA. There was a pervasive belief among the metric advocates of the time that metric conversion was moving along at a break-neck pace—independent of government intervention. The lack of government coordination is seen as simply making the process more costly and inefficient. There seems to be some cognitive dissonance when Sokol was:

…amazed to discover that no model, whether of domestic or foreign manufacture, was obtainable with a kilometre odometer/speedometer unit. Not one dealer had such a unit in stock with which the miles unit could be replaced by a mechanic in a few minutes.

This situation points out the crying need for some governmental direction and guidance. ….

USMA-1975-Logo

USMA Logo 1975

The May 1975 USMA Newsletter reported that Alan Harper visited from Australia to provide an overview of the first four years of Australia’s metrication.

On December 23 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the “Metric Conversion Act of 1975.” The USMA Newsletters spend a considerable amount of time throughout this era discussing the pros and cons of meter versus metre and liter versus litre when spelling these metric units. While Louis Sokol seemed sanguine, a short column written in the August 1976 USMA Newsletter offered up a more cautionary viewpoint. The USMA had 14 regional directors at that point. Frances J. Laner was the director of the Rocky Mountain Region. Laner looked back at US metric history and saw reason for alarm. She noted that John A. Kasson expressed hope that the US would become metric after he was rebuffed in his attempt to make metric mandatory. The current law “…reflects a similar directive to that of Congressman Kasson in 1866. No target date, no compulsory measures, but rather advisory assistance with a hope for a changeover completion.” Laner continues:

With the absence of a target date, will the metric issue continue for another 200 years before the nation discards the “beloved” 57 traditional units in favor of the 7 base metric units? Will the metrication issue become a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records because of its long history of pro and con debate? Prior to December 1975, when a lecture or seminar on metrics was given by me, many attendees expressed the need and desire for metric legislation. Now with legislation on the books, a curious downturn appears evident. Many of the audiences appear less motivated.

Indeed it appears that the metric “legislation” of 1975 acted as a sop, and redirected interests elsewhere. Frances Laner does not mention the 1921 metric hearings and may have been unaware that in many ways they were a repeat of Kasson’s hope that the US would voluntarily become metric. She had every reason for concern, and a 200 year wait might be optimistic. She had the foresight to see that the passed meaningless legislation was nothing but apparent action and not actual action.

In 1976 the USMA began offering metric rulers with millimeter markings and diminished the importance of centimeters:

1976-USMA-Ruler-NiceIn April of 1977, Louis Sokol wrote a letter to President Carter urging him to quickly appoint a US Metric Board. The May 1977 USMA Newletter pointed out that the Department of Defense would only encourage the use metric units in new weapons only “when there are nonsignificant technical or cost penalties.” ….”The DOD says its “evolutionary pace” on metrication will be guided by industry’s progress,..” US Metrication was a game of chicken without any participants.

The August 1977 USMA Newsletter would report that the Federal Highway Administrator, William M. Cox would not convert the nations highway signs to metric. The excuse offered in the Newsletter was that 5000 letters were received which were against metric road signs. The fact that Congressman Charles Grassley called for no metric road signs was also mentioned. This would alleviate any demand for metric speedometers and odometers. Louis Sokol had recently installed metric speedometers in his cars.

In November of 1977, 15 of 17 nominees for the Metric Board were announced. The USMA did not have a single member appointed to the Metric Board, nor were they consulted about prospective nominees. Peggy Rainwater, who was in charge of the nominations on behalf of President Carter, would not return calls or solicitations by the USMA.

By 1978 it was clear to Sokol that metric conversion was under siege in the press, and the general public was not engaged, and possibly hostile. A representative of The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was nominated to the Metric Board. That organization had lobbied against the passage of any metric legislation—including the earlier Metric Study. It did not bode well for the future. The February 1978 USMA Newsletter has an almost siege mentality within its prose. A conversion graphic from km/h to MPH is offered and demonstrates that constant conversion versus metric-only was still considered something which would not be detrimental to metric adoption.

Thirteen metric nominees were finally confirmed. Their statements about metric during their confirmation did not raise any anti-metric concerns. The last four members of the Metric Board were seated in June of 1978.

The British, under pressure from the Conservative Party, the Liberals, and others, withdrew their plans which included mandatory dates to cease the use of imperial units for bulk foodstuffs and other retail goods. Metrication was to proceed on a voluntary basis. In hindsight, one can see this as a portent for the US.

On October 20th of 1978, the General Accounting Office issued an anti-metric report. The USMA indicated this was a report that was generated with anti-metric political motives behind it. The excessive cost estimates did not comport with the experience of other countries.

Louis Sokol’s editorial comment in the November 1978 USMA Newsletter summed up the situation with its title “Metrication On The Defensive.” Sokol found himself in the position of trying to use rational argument with people who only relate to emotional truthiness. He finally came to the conclusion:

In the light of recent events it is quite obvious that the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 with its strictly voluntary approach with no “M” days is inadequate to assure successful completion of the metrication process now underway. Nothing of the magnitude of metrication can be successfully accomplished with a strictly voluntary approach…..

On December 14-15 of 1978 The Metric Board adopted a logo.

US Metric Board Logo

US Metric Board Logo

The Metric Association (USMA) had been attending American Association for The Advancement of Science (AAAS) conferences, and nothing in their newsletter leads me to believe the USMA was met with anything except amity. At the January AAAS meeting in Houston two academics with PhD’s spoke. One took issue with metrication claiming that the current units are “more natural” and the other academic claimed that metric units are of inconvenient size.

Paul Harvey (1918-2009), Nicholas Von Hoffman (1929- ) and Bob Greene (1947- ) attacked the metric system in their newspaper columns.

The US Metric Board continued to meet. Alan Harper who lead the successful metrication of Australia was asked if he could have metricated Australia under the current US law. “No” was his emphatic answer.

The words “Voluntary Metric Conversion” hung around the neck of pro-metric persons like an albatross. As other countries were finishing their metric switch-over, the ship of metric conversion sat in a dead calm, dying of thirst.

The September-October 1979 USMA Newsletter reported that during a discussion of the interpretation of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, it left “..some board members feeling the Act does not charge USMB [US Metric Board] with encouraging metrication and that Congress did not intend for the U.S. to go metric when it passed that bill.”

I have to side with this interpretation.

The Metric Board indicated its purpose was to coordinate a voluntary metric program. Well, if no one volunteers, and they don’t want any advice, the Metric Board is moot. The few businesses which did convert, like a gas station in Minnesota which sold in liters, soon found themselves alone. The US road signs did not change, the US weather reports did not change, the measures at US grocery stores did not change, US consumer products did not change, US rulers did not change (and have cm/mm on them), the US Post Office did not change. The emphasis on metric education left U.S. teachers holding the bag. There was no external world of metric to which they could teach. Metric was but an abstraction.

In the January-February 1980 USMA Newsletter Sokol comes to the conclusion that metrication is both a technical and a social change. By the end of 1980 Sokol would find hope with the election of a new congress: “…it seems more of its members will be influenced by the needs of commerce and industry. Hopefully, the climate will improve for enacting legislation which would expedite metrication by Congress setting some goals for its completion.” Sokol had also become the USMA President Emeritus, and Valerie Antoine became the USMA president.

The May-June 1980  USMA Newsletter  announced that Australia completed its metrication.

The US Metric Board continued to meet, and there was speculation about who the new board members might be with the change of administrations. Then it became known that the Reagan administration was likely to call for the abolition of the US Metric Board. In the January-February 1981 USMA Newsletter Louis Sokol registered his dismay that the MX missile had been awarded to a contractor for design in inch-pounds.

The US Metric Board (USMB) met in California during the month of January. President Reagan’s daughter Maureen Reagan (1941-2001) was running for office in California. She addressed the USMB meeting and said while she favored strengthening the metric act, she would not back the inclusion of mandatory wording. Sokol began to wonder if the US was drifting into a “Metric Purgatory.” He stated in his March-April editorial:

As I see it, the planned demise of the U.S. Metric Board will not be a great loss to the cause of metrication. Its anti-metric members will lose a forum for their retrogressive actions. The few good, pro-metric members of the Board have been effectively out-maneuvered all along by the obdurate, anti-metric minority. Our only hope for completing national metrication is to have Congress pass more effective legislation which spells out a definite metric commitment as well as target dates for major areas of the economy such as weather reporting, motoring, and consumer buying.

This statement echos back to John Shafroth’s experience in the early 1900s when his metric committee was stacked with anti-metric persons. Sokol had no idea how dramatic a political change was taking place in 1980. As the years would pass by, his Metric Purgatory would ossify into Metric Carbonite.

The Metric Board was disbanded. It existed for but a single presidential term, that of Jimmy Carter, where it found itself an immediate orphan left exposed to the blood-sport of Washington. This was the end of any governmental attempt to usher the metric system into the United States. The USMA continued, but the one moment in history where metric switch-over was a world-wide phenomena, and change was in the air, was instead suffocated by the same reactionary U.S. politics which were on display in 1866, 1905, 1921, 1937 and 1975.

It appears to me that the USMA of the 1960s and 1970s promoted metric ideas which continue to hinder metric adoption to this day. The most damaging, in my view, was the idea that completely voluntary metrication is a workable idea. It was not understood by Sokol that a “voluntary plan” had been “in place” since 1866, was reaffirmed in 1921, and in each case had the identical effect of no metrication at all. This prior history should have left the USMA forewarned, so they could have pushed for unequivocal mandatory metrication in 1975. One can see that some members may have been swept up in the world wide metric switch-over enthusiasm and were blinded with optimism by the publicity.

The embracing of the centimeter exception, metric conversion rather than metric only, and  the use of dual unit dimensioning, did not help, but they were but peccadilloes when compared with the adoption of voluntary metrication.

How did the USMA react to this loss? What did it learn? We will explore this in Part II