By The Metric Maven
Senator Daniel K. Inouye presided over the 1975 Metric Hearings as Chairman. The first person to speak at the 1975 Senate Metric Hearings (SMH) was Senator Clayborn Pell. He was probably the most dedicated Senator in favor of a metric changeover in the US since John Shafroth. After Clayborn Pell, there appears to have been no one to champion The Metric System in Congress. There have only been complete obstructionists or those who see metrication as a non-issue since.
The speech given by Senator Pell at the metric hearing is an odd one for an avowed metric advocate. Senator Pell is convinced that “metric is inevitable” and that the implementation of legislation which is completely voluntary will bring metric to the US. I have to admit, my jaw dropped when I read this. The Legislation proposed by John Shafroth in the 1904-1906 period was mandatory. It’s detractors called Shafroth’s legislation “The Metric Force Bill.” In the end the committee on which Shafroth served was stacked with two anti-metric people. He would be outvoted no matter what he did. Shafroth decided to fight other legislative battles and resigned. In 1921 the persons testifying at the metric hearings stated over and over that voluntary doesn’t work, and that a time limit of 2-3 years maximum worked best for all other countries that changed to metric. Over and over they stressed these points. Over and over the chairman of the 1921 metric hearings stated that voluntary metication was fine and would work. Fifty-Four years passed. It didn’t. Then in 1975 Senator Pell somehow came to believe that a voluntary law, with an oxymoronic ten year time “limit,” would bring about metrication? How could this have happened?
I can only conclude two things. One, that Senator Pell had not researched the history of the metric hearings. It was hard to imagine that his staff didn’t. Assuming that Pell did know the history, then why would he now believe that a voluntary metric bill would have an affect? Unless Senator Pell was a stealth anti-metric mole, then I have to take him at his word that he actually believed this feckless legislation would bring about metric conversion. Here is what he said:
Mr. Chairman, previous efforts to enact metric conversion legislation have foundered on conflicts over mandatory versus voluntary conversion, and over the question of compensation for conversion costs, at least in hardship cases, versus the principle of letting conversion costs lie where they fall. The two issues are closely linked. The case for some Government compensation in cases of hardship is obviously much stronger when the Government mandates conversion action.
To a great extent, however, these disputes have been overrun by events. As you pointed out, Mr. Chairman, metric conversion is going forward at an accelerating pace in the United States, on a voluntary basis.
Indeed, metric conversion is moving ahead so rapidly now that the critical need is for Government action to provide essential mechanisms for coordination, planning, and information among Government agencies, among industrial groups, and between industry, Government, and labor.
The most charitable view I can offer is that Senator Pell relied on what Pat Naughtin called “social norm.” Pat used the example of a group of people standing at a stop light waiting to cross. The crossing sign indicated they should wait. The group waited, but as soon as one person crossed against the light, a few others would feel it was ok to ignore the signal, they would begin crossing, then the group as a whole would accept that it was actually alright to ignore the sign and cross.
Given the times, I think that Clayborn Pell may have actually believed that “metric was inevitable” and that the pressure of social norm from other countries would compel the US to convert to metric. Why would this be? Why would Senator Pell rely on such a notion for US policy? Well in the 1970s country after country was converting to metric. There was an avalanche of metrication occurring. Like the group at the stoplight, Senator Pell may have believed that the pressure of “social norm” would finally compel the US to become metric.
How wrong he would be. Almost 40 years later, we are essentially the last nation on earth who does not have the metric system, And when Ronald Reagan terminated the Metric Board in 1982, who’s function it was to help with this “inevitable” metric changeover, only Clayborn Pell stood up and objected:
It’s inevitable that the United States will change to the metric system, and it would be best for American businesses if the conversion were to take place in 10 to 15 years instead of 30 to 40 years.
Well Senator Pell, you were far too optimistic. It is nearly 40 years later, and the US is as non-metric as ever. The fact that the bill was S-100 clearly was of no consequence. The testimony of the time is enlightening. I offer excerpts below from numerous participants to provide some context:
The DOD Statement in The 1975 Hearings
Department of Defense
Established metrication panel to assist Defense Material Specifications Board in planning.
Departmental plan and policy statement issued by Secretary’s Office; directs the use of the metric system consistent with operational, economical, technical and safety considerations.
I can translate this for my readers as: “Will the DOD become metric?”
It is premature, therefore, for Congress to pass any legislation which would commit the Federal Government to any official policy of facilitating or encouraging metric conversion. Conversion must not be compulsory. We believe conversion to the metric system must be entirely voluntary.
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Senator Inouye. We have heard from educators who suggest that the metric system is much easier to learn and understand than the English standard.
Mr. Hannman. Again, I think that is a subject that can be debated among educators themselves. The customary system is a binary system which divides halves and thus is more rational and easier to conceptualize. I think it would be more difficult for a child to conceptualize a millimeter as opposed to an inch.
This of course should be news to anyone in the US who has actually used “the customary system.” Let’s see 12 inches = 1 foot, 3 feet = 1 yard, 1660 yards = 1 mile. It doesn’t look like it’s based on two for the primary units of length.
It is surprising that Labor would then decide to quote Congressman Symington’s view:
The Committee feels strongly that in any sector, the marketplace—not the Congress or the Metric Board—should provide the impetus in deciding whether, when and how metric conversion activities should proceed.
Well, we’ve been waiting for 160 year or so to witness the power of Market Darwinsim to provide a metric change over in the US. The AFL-CIO seems to only know “weez again’ it.” The Labor Union cited the cost of tools as being prohibitive, and indicated that metrication would cause some small businessmen to go broke from the associated costs of new tools. It is amazing that the cost of his members already having to purchase two sets of tools is not cost prohibitive. Then this bombshell:
The AFL-CIO is concerned about the impact of metric conversion on its members as workers, as consumers, and as taxpayers.
First and foremost, we are concerned that metric conversion will accelerate the deindustrialization of the United States, thus cause soaring unemployment
The AFL-CIO predicts a Metric Apocalypse! Adopting metric will do nothing less than reduce us to an agrarian nation raising sheep and goats! They also assert that if the DOD changes to metric the costs will be so large that “…they cannot be absorbed without deterioration of the military posture.” Not only will metric de-industrialize the United States, it will allow enemies to get us. That’s a serious amount of FUD promotion.
But there is one more snake in the grass, and the AFL-CIO is there to help identify it:
The question is thus reduced to determining if what is good for transnational corporations is also good for the U.S. economy and society in general.
Ironically, these multinational giants, the champions of the private enterprise system, will, as pockets of resistance develop, pressure Congress to force metric conversion. This is the tragic situation in the United Kingdom today.
If only!—-where is my metric!—-after 40 years on? I guess Transnational Corporations just aren’t what they used to be. They were powerless to force congress to impose metric, I guess they didn’t have enough lobbyists.
The American Bar Association
The idea of reading through what lawyers have to say about metric seemed daunting. If I never see another patent to read the rest of my life, I could live with that. Then surprising candor was offered, which completely caught me off-guard:
The point is that Government by its nature cannot be neutral, and in many cases so-called voluntary conversion cannot occur until there has been significant governmental action.
The ABA offers a number of reasons why metric is just untenable in the US, but then is candid again. They state “Given the nature of the foregoing problems, the narrow legal scope of the pending metric bills is remarkable.” And:
The House-passed bill, rather than simply expressing a national policy in favor of a coordinated approach to voluntary conversion and establishing housekeeping details for the proposed Metric Board, makes no change in existing law
“makes no change in existing law.” This is what I’ve been asserting over and over. The 1975 and 1988 metric legislation is just so many empty words on a page. They have as much compulsory affect as declaring it “National Look at Pretty Flowers Day.” The ABA then points out that this does not have to be the case:
By the fifth clause of article I, section 8, of the Constitution of the United States, Congress is given express power to “fix the standard of weights and measures.”
Under this clause, under the commerce clause, and under the necessary and proper clause, Congress unquestionably has adequate constitutional authority to create a “measurement czar ” whose metric conversion directives would preempt all inconsistent State laws.
This observation by the ABA representative essentially states the new metric legislation is feckless:
As H.R. 8674 has emerged from the House, the policy direction apparently given by the Congress is circular: to plan planning.
But what is the objective of this planning? When you plan you ordinarily have an objective?
Engineers Joint Council
Next a surprisingly short amount of testimony was given by a group called the Engineer’s Joint Council. They claim to represent 38 engineering societies and have resolved:
That the Board of Directors of Engineers Joint Council endorse the adoption of a single system of measurement in the United States, and that System shall be the International System of units commonly known as SI, as described by the resolutions of the General Conference of Weights and Measures.
Well, that’s great, I’m glad to see my fellow engineers are supporting metric only without any wishy-washy prose. Then the unexpected is proposed:
We believe that engineers will use SI in engineering design and communication. It is not important, in our opinion, that the general public use every one of these units in their everyday life.
WHAT! SI is just for engineers? Where do they think engineers obtain their preparatory education? They obtain it from the public schools and from common measurement usage in the US. Can’t they see that? I take Mega-Umbrage at the very idea of it’s not important for the public to use metric exclusively. I would argue this is why Aerospace and the DOD along with NASA are not metric. When the multi-generational measurement bias is never broken, and continues to chain us to the past, metric never is adopted. I find the statement irresponsible. The metric system is designed for everyone. It is the easiest way to unambiguously express quantities when used properly.
When asked if he was concerned about what the ABA said “…I think what we do now in a voluntary way is taking care of a great many of the problems and I really don’t anticipate quite the trouble that the ABA does.” Well, with historical hindsight, we know this was a completely ill-conceived viewpoint.
American National Metric Council
The ANMC was created to be a non-partisan arbiter of metric standards for industry like ANSI. The existence of this organization would make sense under a mandatory metrication, but with the vacuous metric “legislation” produced in 1975 there would be no impetus for private industry to meet and establish metric standards for their industries, when metric was not going to happen. They did have an interesting statement about the costs of metrication:
An immediate concern is the cost of metric conversion. There are costs, but experience has shown that realistic cost estimates are difficult to determine. At General Motors Corp. they are finding that their actual costs are far below original estimates.
I might add, sir, that [this] has been generally the reporting of companies that [are] well along in the[ir] metric conversion program. Current cost realizations are lower than their original expectations.
Actual cost is far, far below “fear” driven costs, but that has never altered the view of those who fear. In every metric hearing from 1905 to 1921 to 1975 massive estimates of metric conversion costs are offered, but any actual metrication costs provided by entities who converted to metric are ignored.
Esther Peterson Giant Foods
Guidance in the form of Federal legislation is needed. We need a uniform approach in order to implement a smooth and total conversion in all areas … where standards are set and followed, target dates are met, and uniformity in practice exists. The American Bar Association recently adopted a resolution urging Congress to enact legislation to ease the transition to metric units in statutes and regulations at all levels of government. We need dynamic leadership from the top. Coupled with creative initiative from all sectors of our society, our transition to metric Should be as orderly and easy as possible.
Herbert Johnson Department of Mathematical Sciences Winona State University
A further danger is involved in a lack of congressional action and a subsequent national plan for metrication. Many students at different levels are being taught something about metric measurement. These students who could well be “metric missionaries ” are finding little application in their everyday lives beyond that of a few temperatures being reported in degrees Celsius, a few informational road signs, and an occasional reference to sale of grain in metric tonnage. Their enthusiasm for the simplicity of the metric system is soon dampened since they have no place to apply their new-found knowledge. There are many citizens who will not be convinced of the necessity to learn the metric system until Federal action occurs. There are industries in this country that recognize the need to switch to metric but are deferring action until a Federal plan is announced. I believe we need that Federal plan.
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I have no studies to document my belief; however, I believe that a good many students are “turned off” to mathematics about the time, they are in the upper elementary grades—about the time they are being taught fundamental manipulations with fractions. I have found entering freshmen at the university, and possibly graduates, who cannot manipulate fractions. Why were they taught fractional manipulation? Primarily because our antiquated form of measurement depends upon a knowledge of fractions. The modern metric system does not. Can we not, therefore, rationalize and simplify our curriculum?
Richard L. Thompson Chief of Weights and Measures for the State of Maryland
The United States is the only technologically advanced Nation with weights and measures regulatory programs legislated and administered at the State and local level and the system works primarily because of the success of the National Conference on Weights and Measures and the effort put into the National Conference by the NBS.
Carl Beck National Small Business Association
…and there’s no question that our best conversion period would be about 20 years, and to try to do it in 10 years would be horrendous and practically put us out of business, and we made quite a study of it.
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It is our understanding the Small Business Administration has determined that under existing authority it may make economic disaster-type loans under Section 7(b) (5) of the SBA Act. It is also our understanding that the Office of Management and Budget and the Commerce Department concur in this decision.
We have just in the last couple of days checked again with the Small Business Administration and are advised that they believe that since this is a voluntary conversion act as opposed to a less voluntary act, which was discussed in the House last year, that they would not have authority at present to make hardship loans for metric conversion.
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…but I do feel that if we are to go too fast we tend to ride roughshod over small business, which so frequently is not adequately heard, that it may do a real disservice to the country. In fact, as I said in the closing of my written statement, and as I have said for many years, and I believe it to be very true:
If the United States can complete the metric conversion process in a manner which inures to the economic advantage of small business—the 98 or 99 percent of the private economy—the conversion will have been a success; if this does not occur, the cost of conversion to the U.S. economy will require decades to be overcome, and may actually incur irreparable damage to the position of the United States in the economy of the world.
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Senator Ford. Yes, sir. I understand it a little bit better. I understand what you’re saying about the problems that would face you. It could be an economic disaster to convert involuntarily. There is a problem, even though it could be economically helpful. It also could be an economic disaster if it’s implemented too fast.
Mr. Beck. That’s right. We all recognize that there is a large one-time conversion cost which we want to get through as inexpensively as possible, admittedly, but on the other hand, the only way this is going to work is that there’s going to be a long-term economic benefit. To the small businessman, the large conversion cost, whatever its size may be, is considerable to him because he’s small and he maybe needs help to get over this hump in order that the benefits repay him over a period of years.
So what have we learned from the 1975 hearings?
First, it was believed that “metric would just happen” and so the legislation was “voluntary.” Essentially since the days of John Kasson in 1866 we’ve been running an experiment with “voluntary metrication.” For over 140 years in 1975 it had not worked. Was the legislation naive, or just plain cynical on the part of our legislators? The ABA indicated the law “makes no change to existing law.” Was that the idea? Was it just a sop to prevent social norm from having any affect over the short period of time in the 1970s when the rest of the world completed its metrication and it would never happen again. The other countries will not convert to metric again, as they already are, and not one has decided it was a mistake. Today social norm no longer exerts any influence, so we can just keep wasting money and live with a set of weights and measures so antiquated they can’t even describe electricity.
Second It was also believed that if metric were forced upon us, it would lead to the de-industrialization of the United States, which in turn would produce high unemployment. The coerced implementation of metric would destroy our military posture, and cost so much the US would have to provide disaster relieve SBA loans to small business as if a hurricane had hit them. Senator Ford comes to the conclusion that “It could be an economic disaster to convert [to metric] involuntarily.” This is serious Mega-Histrionics, but it worked, and we still use horsepower in an age when most people have almost no familiarity with a horse.
If it was cynicism that drove the 1975 hearings and legislation, then they set a very low bar. But that would be lowered even further by the 1996 hearings. However, that is another blog. To those who say “we already have the legislation in place” and to the Metric Philosophers who believe in evolutionary metrication, I recommend for your punishment, that you actually read the entire body of the 1975 hearings. It has been punishment enough for me.
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 not of direct importance to metric education. It 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.