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…”
In 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,…
A 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.
Louis 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?
In 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.
When 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.
If you liked this essay and wish to support the work of The Metric Maven, please visit his Patreon Page and contribute. Also purchase his books about the metric system:
The first book is titled: Our Crumbling Invisible Infrastructure. It is a succinct set of essays that explain why the absence of the metric system in the US is detrimental to our personal heath and our economy. These essays are separately available for free on my website, but the book has them all in one place in print. The book may be purchased from Amazon here.
The second book is titled The Dimensions of the Cosmos. It takes the metric prefixes from yotta to Yocto and uses each metric prefix to describe a metric world. The book has a considerable number of color images to compliment the prose. It has been receiving good reviews. I think would be a great reference for US science teachers. It has a considerable number of scientific factoids and anecdotes that I believe would be of considerable educational use. It is available from Amazon here.
The third book is called Death By A Thousand Cuts, A Secret History of the Metric System in The United States. This monograph explains how we have been unable to legally deal with weights and measures in the United States from George Washington, to our current day. This book is also available on Amazon here.