The October Report Three Decades On

october-countryGAO Report Edition

By The Metric Maven

The Beginning and The end

In October of 1978 The General Accounting Office (GAO) of the US issued a report titled “Getting A Better Understanding of The Metric System–Implications If Adopted By The United States.” It is a snapshot of the late 1970s solipsistic view of US metrication as the rest of the world converted to the metric system. The report seems very uneven in its views and understanding of the metric system. It has the look of a report by committee where those who wrote each chapter might have been insulated from one another.

The report is clear on asserting that a decision has not been made to convert to the metric system by the United States of 1978. My reading of the 1975 Metric Hearings are in line with that statement. “…the national policy is not to prefer one system over the other but to provide for either to be predominant on the basis of the voluntary actions of those affected.” It is also stated by the GAO that:

“The [metric] Board is not to advocate metrication, but is to assist various sectors when, and if, they choose to convert.” It is also “…to encourage retention of equivalent customary units (usually by way of dual dimensions) in international standards or recommendations;” (1-10)

The methodology used by the GAO was essentially to undertake extensive polling of multiple US industries, and finally the public, about how they thought metrication would affect them. The polls could only measure emotions as their targets of the inquiry. The US had not experienced any metric change and therefore the participants could only provide a visceral viewpoint. Not surprisingly, small businesses believed the disadvantages would outweigh any benefits.

The GAO begins with responses that are congruent with long-time US economic mythology:

Present sizes have developed over the years in the marketplace to meet demand.  … There is little doubt that increased standardization and rationalization could result in benefits, although this objective could be achieved using the customary system.

This is the sort of false equivalence that can be asserted when no specifics are studied. One can imagine a person who currently uses Roman Numerals, and has never encountered Hindu-Arabic ones, might make the same statement.

The beginning of the report seems like a strange loop of inconsistency (pg vii):

The total cost of metrication in indeterminable in spite of various estimates that have been cited in the last decade by various organizations  and individuals.

and two paragraphs later:

However, based on the limited cost data that was available to the GAO and the input from various representatives from a wide spectrum of organizations throughout the country, the cost will be significant–in the billions of dollars.

In a swelling of ersatz democratic pride the report indicates:

Since a decision will affect every American for decades to come, GAO believes the decision, which is to continue with the current policy or change it, should be made by the representatives of the people–the Congress.

The beginning of the report continues its emphasis on what the current policy is and launches into a short history of the metric system. The Adams Report of the 19th century is quickly encountered. The GAO points out:

Adams concluded in his report that the Congress should not change the existing system but should fix the standards for the units. …. He believed that the time had not yet arrived in which he could recommend

* * * so great and hazardous an experiment * * *, as that of discarding all our established weights and measures, to adopt those of France in their stead.

A discussion of Adams’ Report on Weights and Measures may be found here.

The GAO quickly mentions that the Mendenhall Order was “an administrative action.” In light of their democratic stance, that only Congress should make changes, one might question their view of the validity of the Mendenhall Order. The technical superiority of the contemporary 19th century metric standards and the failure of the British ones was not mentioned as the driving force for this ad hoc legal patch by Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (1841-1924) which Congress ignored.

The 1971 National Bureau of Standards Report  A METRIC AMERICA, A Decision Whose Time Has Come is mentioned with this interjection:

A major area of controversy was the impartiality and completeness of the NBS metric study. The critics, which included former members of the study group and its advisory panel, contended that NBS was biased in favor of conversion while performing the study and reporting the results.

Then an interesting historical tidbit is related:

Metric conversion legislation was passed in the Senate in 1972 providing for a predominantly metric America within a 10-year period. It was introduced into the House where no action was taken.

This may be the closest the US has come, from a legislative standpoint, to becoming a metric nation.

The GAO report generally interprets the metric system through Olde English measurement usage, and not as a new and upgraded way of implementing measures. The report states “Millimeters and centimeters would be used instead of inches and feet.” (2-2) They then offer an inch/centimeter ruler as an example. Think about the statement and it should be clear that millimeters are not like inches or feet, not even with a shoe horned barleycorn. The reader is told that “The metric system is decimal because prefixes are used to indicate multiples and sub-multiples of 10. The majority of metric prefixes use 1000 and this is clearly the best practice for implementing metric quantities. Yes, this practice was known and encouraged in 1978, see the essay: Who Says!?. The GAO has an objection to the pascal that is frivolous: “The major objection to the pascal is that it is too small of a unit with which to work. It takes about 1,000 pascals to equal 1 pound per square inch.”  So a Kilopascal would be about 1 pound per square inch?—and this is a problem how? Just use Kilopascals. That’s a unit.

A more legitimate complaint is that a pascal is rather abstract (a view that I share). This can be remedied easily by using newtons per square meter instead of pascals.

Chapter 3 of the Report highlights ascribed advantages and disadvantages of metric. The initial positive aspects related by the GAO have been covered by Pat Naughtin many times: 1) Conversion would provide opportunities for worthwhile changes [needed industrial reforms to implement efficiency] and 2) Conversion would stimulate the economy. There is no discussion of the advantage of using millimeters versus centimeters, no discussion of whole number usage with milliliters, and grams and how that could simplify matters, just vague platitudes.

The ascribed disadvantages of the metric system begin with an appeal to the mythology of technical Darwinism, and an appeal to the “practical” over the theoretical:

The Customary System is a better measurement system

The U.S. customary system is tailored to meet practical everyday needs of human beings. It is firmly established, and is not obsolete or complex. It came into being by natural selection. Although use of the metric system has been legal in the United States since 1866, the customary system survives because it meets a need. …. “

The same old Goldilocks pseudo-arguments about Ye Olde English measures are paraded about:

The meter, about 4 inches longer than the yard, is too great a length for general application, and the gram is too small to be practical. Metric names are more difficult to say and remember.”

Without a pottle of porrige in an 18 barlycorn wide bowl for Goldilocks, how could she fathom what 250 mL might be?

The Report has no clear conclusions on US trade, as that is the answer which came back from the questionnaires sent to representatives of the Fortune 500. The GAO surveyed people in Business, and discovered that:

“Few of the respondents knew the U.S. policy on metric conversion. As the following chart shows, almost half of the respondents believed conversion to be mandatory.” (5-13). and “Few believed the Government should legislate or enforce conversion.” (5-21).

There are many other chapters in the 1978 GAO Report, but the information they contain would be best examined in separate essays. Here we will look at the overall view of the GAO toward metric conversion. We will now skip to the end of the Report and look at the GAO conclusions for an answer. Chapter 30 of the Report examines lessons learned by foreign countries. If the US decided to become metric, here is the GAO’s list of what we should embrace:

— A firm Government commitment to convert is necessary.

— A central body should be established early to plan and coordinate the conversion and inform the various sectors of the economy and the public of metric activity.

— A well-developed plan and effective coordination by industry and all sectors of the economy must be accomplished.

— A voluntary conversion must eventually become mandatory through laws and regulations, etc., in order to complete the metrication program.

— Overall and specific target dates must be used.

— The public must be adequately informed and educated, and responses must be made to consumer concerns because conversion of the retail sector is most difficult.

— Letting costs lie where they fall can be adopted in whole or in part.

— Government purchasing power can be used to propel the conversion.

— The conversion of certain sectors, such as in sports and weather forecast, can aid in metric education.

— Periods of dual marking should be kept to a minimum

— Hard conversion of products is more desirable than soft conversion whenever practicable to obtain benefits.

I was quite surprised. The list makes for a set of very good guidelines for the most part. I would not allow dual marking at all. Whoever wrote this section has a good understanding of the problems involved. What I was not prepared for was a very self-introspective view:

Another difference between these countries and the United States is the type of governments. Basically, the foreign countries have a parliamentary type of government in which the executive is also the leader of the legislative branch. Two of the foreign countries only had to change national laws to effect metrication. Australia, with six State governments, and Canada, with ten Provinces, had to change some local laws. The changes appeared to be well coordinated. The United states has a Federal Government and 50 State governments. Metrication would necessitate revisions in the laws of each of these government entities. Because of the differences in government, the other countries’ decision making process, including changes to laws, regulations, ordinances, and codes, is less complex than the United States.” (30-4)

The Report points out the frozen nature of our Republic:

Other countries established their metric organizations early in the conversion process. One month after Australia enacted its metric legislation, the metric board had its first meeting. In New Zealand the metric board had its first meeting 10 months after the decision to convert had been made.

The Metric Conversion Act of 1975 provides for a U.S. Metric Board to coordinate the voluntary use of the metric system. …. However, the Metric Board had not become fully operational at the time this report went to print, more than 2 years after passage of the act.” (30-7)

In Chapter 31 the GAO exposes the misuse of the word voluntary in 1975:

In other countries that are converting, “voluntary” means that the various sectors voluntarily agree on how and when to convert within the over-all parameters of a national commitment to convert to the predominant or sole use of the metric system during a specific period of time, usually within 10 years or less.  In other countries voluntary was not a choice of whether to convert or not, as in the United States.

In the 1975 metric hearings, this confusion about the word “voluntary” was used to disingenuously equate the legislation passed by the US Congress with that of Australia and other countries.

The GAO Report then provides a side-by-side summary of the differences between the US approach and other countries. Here I reproduce them in full:


The idea that “we tried to go metric” in the 1970s is simply ludicrous. What is most interesting is the fact that the GAO Report, which starts out as a very anti-metric document, ends by explaining what should be done for the US to become metric. It also lays out the hurdles involved with the legislative molasses known as our government that keep any meaningful reform from occurring.

The GAO report is a 767 page tome of a document. It contains many interesting metric stories which I plan to focus on in future essays. This essay demonstrates that the anti-metric GAO Report is much more complex (and muddled) document than it is generally thought to be. It has some information that is quite relevant to our current zero-kelvin metric situation.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.


Institutional Myths About The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

We were reminded on December 23, 2016 by Elizabeth Gentry, coordinator of NIST’s Metric Program, that on that same date in 1975 (1975-12-23) Gerald Ford signed The Metric Conversion Act. In an essay titled Busting Myths about the Metric System, Ms Gentry indicates that the CIA map of countries that use the metric system is “simply untrue!” and further states:

While it’s true that metric use is mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others, all countries have recognized and adopted the SI, including the United States.

Indeed, the US recognized the metric system in the 19th century, and allowed its use, but did not mandate it. The use of the word adopted by Ms. Gentry is curious, to most people this word means that a person has taken an idea for their own use, usually abandoning the old method.

The only change in our relationship with the metric system, that I’m aware of, was when John Kasson made the metric system legal for people in the US in the 19th century. From that moment on, our association with the metric system, from a legal point of view, remains unchanged. This was pointed out by a member of the American Bar Association in the 1975 metric hearings.

Ms. Gentry goes on to state:

Dr. Russ Rowlett at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill emphasizes on his website that becoming metric is not a one-time event but a process that happens over time. Every international economy is positioned somewhere along a continuum moving toward increased SI use. There are still countries that are amending their national laws to adopt mandatory metric policy and others pursuing voluntary metrication.”

Dr. Rowlett is a retired professor of Mathematics.

The statement that no country is 100% metric, is the sort of argument that anti-metric crusader Fredrick Halsey trotted out in the early twentieth century, as proof that no country has adopted the metric system. This assertion is a version of the continuum fallacy. Suppose you are broke, and I give you a penny, are you rich?, how about a second penny? at what point can I give you one more penny, and you are now “rich?” It is also cast in the form of at what point do you remove a hair from a persons head that he is now “bald?” If one adopts this view, then no country on Earth is metric, and Halsey is right. One can only offer a defined partition that has no firm basis. Should the drinking age be 18? 19? 21?, when does a person become an adult?

A graphic called “The Metric Continuum” is offered for the US, which appears to be an attempt to normalize the fact that the US is not even close to a metric country. The measures in the US are nothing but a farrago of medieval units, and sorting them into a Metric Continuum Fallacy changes that not one yoctometer.

While no one-time event will make a country 100% metric, but it might get it to more than 90% metric very quickly. I recommend Dr. Rowlett read Metrication In Australia. Without that one-time event (if I can use event to mean a decade) Australia might be in the situation that Britain finds itself, stuck about halfway or so–but it’s hard to say how metric Britain actually is. It is difficult to know how metric the US, UK or Australia are as there has never been a professional audit and study to find out. The figure often trotted out, that the US is 50% metric, appears to have its basis in proctology.

Ms Gentry also invokes the idea of mandatory and voluntary “metrication” in her statement. This really obscures the situation in the US. We’ve had voluntary metrication
since 1866. John Shafroth realized that we needed mandatory metric in 1905 or so, but it was soundly defeated. In 1921 it was argued that voluntary metric was the way to go, and again in 1975, people like Clayborn Pell deluded themselves into the idea that voluntary metrication was fast bringing the the metric system to the US.

But wait! Wasn’t the metrication of Australia voluntary! What was voluntary in Australia, was how each industry would become metric, not if industry was going to become metric. There were fines and encouragement to become metric. There were deadlines called M-days for different sectors of their economy to become fully metric. US politicians willfully allowed the public to believe that Australia’s metrication was spontaneous, and quickly appeared without any government intervention or guidance. Alan Harper who directed Australian metrication wrote to Congress and told them so:

It is, of course, not possible to mount a wholly voluntary metric change in the sense that every individual has a free choice. Consider the conversion of statutory speed limits and other changes calling for embodiment in legislation. “Voluntary” in this
context has to be taken to mean that the choice of a program and plan for conversion in a sector is made voluntarily by national leaders in that sector but thereafter it is supported by all the pressures that can be marshalled, through procurement, legislation, appropriate amendment of technical standards, adherence to the program by government and large organizations and so on.

Unless your Metric Board can enlist such support for the programs developed voluntarily, the agreement accorded many of these programs may in the event prove too fragile to ensure their implementation and aspects of your metric operation which provide their own incentives will get out of kilter with those needing some additional stimulus for their accomplishment.

Harper would later tell the Metric Board in person that he could not have made Australia metric with the US laws as they exist.

Voluntary metrication is a myth, and an institutional one embraced within the US government. Another myth is “we tried in the 1970s and it just didn’t work.” Another version of this myth is that the US government tried to impose the horrible metric system on its citizens who then revolted and cowered their representatives into repealing the legislation, showing a true example of democracy in action! That is a common myth and completely false.

Later we are told by Ms. Gentry that:

It’s been legal to use the metric system since 1866, and metric became the preferred system of weights and measures for U.S. trade and commerce in 1988.

Well, let’s talk about the legislation of 1988. First the Reagan administration and Congress wants everyone to know that metric is Voluntary, Voluntary, Voluntary:

6) The Federal Government has a responsibility to develop procedures and techniques to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement.

and not in the Australian sense of the word voluntary when dealing with metrication. One can see from the design of everyday objects that the US, in practice, “prefers Ye Olde English.”

Non-Preferred US Packaging (click to enlarge)

There is some fear that metric countries around the world might suddenly adopt our measures, and put us at a competitive disadvantage if we fully adopt metric. The legislation addresses this imaginary concern:

(b) POLICY. Section 3 of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 is amended to read as

SEC. 3. It is therefore the declared policy of the United States

(1) to designate the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce;

(2) to require that each Federal agency, by a date certain and to the extent economically feasible by the end of the fiscal year 1992, use the metric system of measurement in its procurement, grants, and other business-related activities, Except to the extent that such use is impractical or is likely to cause significant inefficiencies or loss of markets to United States firms, such as when foreign competitors are producing competing products in non-metric units;

(3) to seek out ways to increase understanding of the metric system of measurement through educational information and guidance and in Government Publications; and

(4) to permit the continued use of traditional systems of weights and measures in
nonbusiness activities

By nonbusiness, it is fairly clear that the business defined above is government business. Private industry is completely off-the-hook. So what does preferred mean? Most people would see it as a primary choice with a second acceptable choice in case the first is not available. One might prefer beef to chicken, but chicken is fine.

The very word prefer does not enforce metric in the US, it is just more of a statement of almost equivalent substitution. Two options that are almost on an equal par in the general vernacular. Often the design of our everyday objects reveals that metric is not preferred. Ms Gentry goes on:

It’s impossible to avoid using the metric system in the United States. …..  I envision U.S. metric practice like a huge iceberg. Above the water’s surface, U.S. customary units appear to still be in full effect. In actuality, below the water’s surface we find that all measurements are dependent on the SI, linked through an unbroken chain of traceable measurements.

It is also impossible to avoid Roman numerals in the United States, but I’m not sure what that would exactly mean. Envisioning “metric practice” as an iceberg, which seems to imply that 90% of US usage is metric and 10% is what we see? This is not what I’ve experienced in my visits to US engineering and production facilities that still exist. People can’t even purchase millimeter only tape measures, or rulers, or drill bits, at any US hardware store.

I realize that Ms. Gentry’s position is a difficult one. She operates under a law that has no teeth, and essentially sees metric and Ye Olde English as more-or-less equivalent, and states that one is “preferred” like buffalo over beef in a sandwich. When the public signed a We The People petition requesting that the US Government make the metric system mandatory in the US, her former boss was tasked with the required reply, and told us all how great it is to live in a measurement country which is “bilingual.” This metaphorical assertion is an absurd non-sequitur. I had much to say about his anemic response here.

I realize that given the situation in the US, one would do their best to keep a positive tone, but one of the first things a person must do to remedy a problem is to
recognize its existence. The US has a weights and measurements problem, it is non-metric to the extreme, which makes it complex and prone to error, which in turn wastes resources. There is no everyday usage in the US that compels a person to use metric. Not at the post office, not at the DMV, not on our roadways, not when using our airlines, not when watching a weather forecast, not when buying paper, not when buying a television, not when making purchases at a grocery store, not when cooking with a recipe, not when buying natural gas or electricity (no Kilowatt-hours are not metric), not when at a cafe, not when purchasing gasoline, or a car—even though all the parts of a car are of metric sizes, not when purchasing furniture,  and not when buying parts for home improvement. The metric exceptions in our nation are minor, and examples difficult to come by. Prescription medicine may be metric, but patent medicines are notoriously Ye Olde English. I would wager a majority of Americans could not estimate how much a gram is, despite milligrams and microgram dosages existing on medicines. Metrication in the US is an almost complete failure. Presenting myths that it is otherwise, is, in my view, counterproductive and serves to propagate the current inaction.


The Metric Maven has published a new book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.