The October Report Three Decades On

GAO 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.

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.

3 thoughts on “The October Report Three Decades On

  1. Wow. GAO did a great job of putting the if in metrification.

    I have to challenge this statement: “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.”

    I joined the auto industry in late 1978. They had already gone metric. My company had started with “all new” vehicles for the 1975 MY and beyond. Some older vehicles were allowed to run out their inch-based lives even if they had minor “freshenings.” The three domestics were #1, #3, and #10 on the 1978 Fortune 500 list and GAO apparently ignored (or was unaware of) their experience. That certainly casts doubt on how thorough their review was; one of the country’s largest industries HAD gone metric and they either didn’t know or didn’t care — take your choice.

    My prior employer was MUCH smaller and had been trying to go as metric as possible beginning around 1970, given that they couldn’t push their supply base around the way the auto industry could. I was on the metrication committee there. What is now ANSI SI10 was originally a joint publication of IEEE268 and ASTM E380. Even an early 1972 edition (that I used) recommended all dimensions in millimeters for engineering drawings, and was already a practice well-established in Europe (our European business was the main force for us to metricate as fully as practical).

    Apparently the GAO doesn’t know what a pascal is as 1 psi ≈ 6.9 kPa (6.894 757 kPa if you prefer to nitpick). I am not sure why you find the pascal abstract. Is the joule abstract because it is a newton-meter? Knowing the derived units and what they mean is part of knowing the SI.

    • Small business owners protested metrication claiming it would be costly to them. So how did those that service the Auto and Heavy Machinery industries that metricated survive? They either serviced the the industries in metric or lost the business. Which is more costly? Metricating or losing customers?

      Or did most of these businesses only pay lip service to their metric customers by still working in inches and only labelling the parts metric to satisfy their customers?

      • The drawings and specs were metric. There was certainly some manufacturing to converted values on old equipment, initially. However, the QC program had to be metric, and had to demonstrate parts were to (metric) print and spec.

        We required a lengthy report on initial parts demonstrating conformance to the drawings and specs( called PSW, Production Sample Warrant at the time, later Production Part Approval Process, PPAP). Trusted suppliers (holding a certain quality award) were allowed to self-certify; with others we reserved the right to audit, participate, or repeat. Actually, we always reserved it, we just didn’t exercise it with trusted suppliers; failure would make someone an untrusted supplier, and repeated failure, a desourced supplier.

        Over time, they converted their manufacturing to metric.

        I can’t answer for Heavy Machinery industries.

        I would note we did not convert all vehicles in a single model year, only new designs. So they could still run older parts on older equipment, only installing some new equipment each year for new (metric) parts. Also, we generally pay for and own the tooling, but they own the equipment. For example on a molded part, they own the molding machine, but we own the mold (and paid for it).

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