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.


3 thoughts on “Institutional Myths About The Metric System

  1. To me, the “continuum” of metric usage in various countries appears to stem from several causes:

    1) People’s natural conservatism and their tendency to resist change, especially when mandated by government. This is compounded by illiteracy, inumeracy and poor education.

    2) Resistance to metric use by businesses for fear that they will lose customers. (The real estate business is a noticeable culprit here.)

    3) Lax enforcement of weights and measure laws by government authorities.

    4) The influence of America on world trade, requiring items to be produced in inch/pound/gallon sizes.

    The remedy for item 1 is improvements in education, and increased metric usage so that metric practice is pervasive and unavoidable. People will learn things that are necessary if there is no alternative.

    For item 2 we need better enforcement of weights and measures laws, and removal of exemptions. I have read that Japanese apartments are still advertised as a number of tatami mats in size, and in a country town in Australia last week I saw properties being advertised in square feet and acres, thirty-six years after the Metric Conversion Board reported that their task was complete.

    It’s possible that item 3 isn’t seen as a high priority by governments, and thus it is not sufficiently resourced. In the UK the “metric martyrs” and their noisy supporters have stopped any further prosecutions in this area. The government is just too scared of bad publicity. Trivialising an offence as merely “selling a pound of bananas” does not change it from being an offence. If a business decided to use its own currency the government would step in immediately.

    Item 4 has possibly the biggest reach around the world. Some examples –

    America’s early domination in computers, for instance leaves us with:
    • Point sizes in typography – 72 (and a bit) to the inch – although there are metric type standards developed by Japan and Germany.
    • Printer output in characters per inch for text and dots per inch in graphics, even though my computer is set to use metric measurements. Scanner resolution is also in dots per inch.
    • Screen sizes for monitors in inches, (which has also spread to televisions,) even those produced by Asian manufacturers (eg Samsung, LG, Sony) whose countries are otherwise metric.

    Other instances:

    • America’s aerospace industry’s continued aversion to metric measures means that Australian technical colleges still need to teach aerospace engineering courses in feet and inches.
    • Why is the worldwide standard for tyre sizes a hybrid of inches for the diameter and millimetres for other measurements?
    • I have read that America’s refusal to metricate has had a drag on Canada’s metrication. For example, because Canada still produces metric-sized building products for the US they don’t produce metric products for the Canadian market, so domestic buildings are still constructed in feet and inches.
    • American books and movies on science have all their units converted to US measures, even though the intended audience would be expected to be familiar with the metric system.
    • Products made primarily for the US market are exported to other countries, so I find that jeans in Australia are now sold only in inch sizes, and that tape measures and rulers still have a redundant inch scale.

    When will any of this change?

    • Peter, item 4 simply is not true. There is no requirement to use USC when selling to the US. No product need to be produced to inch/gallon sizes. That is a myth. It would be perfectly legal to produce metric products and many do. The only requirement is that USC be added to the label.

      When will it change? It will change when manufacturers world wide stop catering to USC practices in advertisements and descriptions. TV screens and monitors are made in metric, so describe them in metric primary.

      National governments need to insist that American movies and books provide a metric version for international usage. Many probably do when the book and movie is translated to other languages.

      Tyres are made 100 % metric, only their trade descriptor contains and inch width. That can be stated in metric as well. There is nothing wrong with stating a 15 inch width as 380 mm.

      When will it change? Maybe soon and within the next 4 years. Donald Trump promises to cut the US off from the world. This can be a ray of hope to end the spread of the USC disease around the world. In retaliation to Trump’s actions, the world can react as well and ban USC in every aspect of life. Then in the future, if and when the US returns to the world, it will be forced to accept the metric system and be unable to force USC.

      It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

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