Everyone knows the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Does this story have a predictive message for metrication in the UK and the US? A recent letter from the US Metric Association to President Obama invites the question: Could the Americans get there first?
The point about the fable is that, in its race with the tortoise, the hare started off at a fast pace and was approaching the finishing line when it felt sleepy. Being so far ahead, it decided to settle down for a nap. Meanwhile, unnoticed, the tortoise was making slow but steady progress and in due course overtook its sleeping rival and eventually won the race.
Of course, the analogy isn’t exact, but it serves to make the point that, after a promising start, UK metrication has slowed down to the point where it seems to have stalled completely, with no Government plans for further action to complete the project. By contrast, although the US has not made as much visible progress as the UK, there has actually been considerable progress behind the scenes, and crucially the legal framework exists to revive the project and bring it to a swift conclusion – if the political will were there.
The following is an edited version of a letter from the Vice President of the US Metric Association to President Obama (reproduced with permission):
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We at the U.S. Metric Association (USMA), Inc., have been encouraged by your State Of The Union message of progress, particularly in your strong support for making U.S. students more competitive globally. However, there remains an 800-kilogram gorilla in the room, which we hope you, as our President, will expose: the continued delay in U.S. changeover to the metric system of measurement as the Nation’s primary, everyday measurement standard.
If there is any one indicator of U.S. national malaise in science, it is our continued reluctance to adopt the world’s measurement system, the International System of Units (SI, the modern metric system) as our own. The process of making the changeover is called metrication. As of now, only three countries have not metricated: Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States of America. How can we be serious contenders in the global game of science, technology, and culture, if we persist in our measurement isolation?
Not only is the metric system the world measurement standard, it is also a very simple system to learn and use. It is a decimal system, much like the U.S. system of decimal currency, which we pioneered for the world. For example, instead of 5,280 feet in one mile, we will be using 1,000 meters in one kilometer, meaning that the scale of the unit can be changed merely by moving a decimal point and using a prefix. The economies involved in using decimal numbers in measurement instead of cumbersome fractions, have yet to be fully realized in daily American practice, but we can take an additional hint from the stock exchanges, which switched to decimal pricing from “pieces of eight” pricing only a few years ago.
As a first step toward U.S. metrication, I ask that you urge U.S. schools to teach the SI metric system only, and cease all teaching and all use of any system of measurement other than SI metric in the classroom. Our students must become fluent in the metric system with all possible speed. They will flock to its ease and its “cool” features!
USMA is a non-profit, national organization that has been supporting U.S. metrication and providing metric information since 1916. Never in our nearly 100-year history has our mission been more vital for the Nation’s future success. We urge you to break the silence on this national goal, and lead us to make the goal a reality.
Paul Trusten, R.Ph. , Vice President and Public Relations Director
U.S. Metric Association, Inc.”
It is not known whether the letter will actually be read by the President personally, but it is assumed that one of his staff will reply reflecting the President’s thinking. However, whatever Mr Obama’s views, there is the problem that the lower house of Congress is dominated by the President’s opponents, so any new initiative – such as the proposal to permit metric-only labelling for most products – will encounter stiff opposition.
Nevertheless, as the letter indicates, the President has considerable executive powers in matters involving the Federal Government and could also use his moral authority and prestige to expedite progress.
It would of course be ironic if the Americans really were to get there first, but it is not entirely impossible. And if the favourite (albeit false) argument of opponents of metrication (that we should continue to use the same system of measurement as the world’s largest economic power) were to collapse, it would be even more difficult to justify the UK’s position as the world’s only user of imperial measurements.
At least it couldn’t then be blamed on “Europe”!
7 thoughts on “Will the Americans get there first? A challenge to Obama”
If the tortoise also gets tired and takes a nap, it won’t win. The last pro-metric action in the US that had actual impact was the dual labeling requirement of FPLA which took effect in 1994. The UPLR, which is model legislation for items regulated by the States allows metric-only, but has only been approved by 48 of 50 States. Due to 2 holdouts and the MANY consumer goods covered by FPLA, no one has really used the permissive metric-only provision of UPLR.
Rule-making Federal agencies do have considerable authority, but only within the bounds laid out by Congress. As an example, the FDA and FTC do not have the authority to allow permissive-metric-only because the text of the FPLA requires dual; those agencies can interpret the details, but they can’t say metric suffices. At most, they can recommend such a stance to Congress.
Executive Order EO12770 started Federal agencies down a path to metrication when signed by G. H. W. Bush in 1992. That path has been checked by a couple of acts of Congress relative to Federal building construction, Federal highway funding, efforts to make State highway departments go metric or encourage metric signage. As a result of the acts, all States, who had been well on their ways to metric highway design and construction reverted to Customary units. The Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) had been published through 2009 in two versions, with Customary and metric dimensions; both version included metric sign messages, which are legal, but little used in the US. Because no one used the metric, the 2010 MUTCD moved all metric dimensions to an appendix and removed the metric sign content entirely. No law says metric signage is illegal, but without examples in the MUTCD, its legality may be in doubt. No President since the first Bush has shown any interest in EO12770 or whether his Federal agencies are moving metrication forward; however, none has rescinded it either.
The posture appears to be that companies and individuals are welcome to metricate but the Federal government won’t force anyone. That won’t get us there. We have the same indecisive, ineffective government, thinking only about its re-election, that you do; only the details differ slightly.
It’s great that Paul Trusten wrote such a strong letter to President Obama about metrication but it’s a pity that he fell for the old CIA canard that Liberia has yet to convert to the metric system. Although the CIA hasn’t noticed it yet, there is strong evidence that Liberia is converting to the metric system. Here is the evidence, with every statement thoroughly documented, in the Wikipedia article on Liberia:
“Weights and measures
“Liberia is currently transitioning to the metric system.
“In 1921, one authority stated, “The metric system is seldom found in Liberia,” and according to the CIA Handbook, Liberia primarily uses a non-metric system of units. However, in 2008, the African Development Bank stated that Liberia used the metric system. Cities of the World in 2008 stated that Monrovia, the capital, used the metric system. and a 2008 report from the University of Tennessee stated that the changeover from English to Metric measures was confusing to coffee and cocoa farmers, that the weighing machines were owned by the buyers and there was no system of weights and measures certification.
“The 2008 Liberian census used square miles to express population densities but the County Development Agendas of that year were inconsistent, some giving measurements in metric units and some giving them in the older units. The 2009 Annual report of the Ministry of Mines, Lands and Energy used kilometres for road distances but acres for land areas.
“In 2010, Government press releases used kilometers for road distances though one report gave the length of a bridge in feet  while another press release gave one road distance in kilometers and another two in miles. In the measurement of land areas, one Government press release used acres while announcements from the Ministry of Agriculture have used hectares.  
“Government use of the metric system has continued in 2011.  In the private sector, the “Daily Observer gives weather temperature forecasts in degrees Celsius. ”
I am a little concerned to read that the USMA (or some of it’s members) perceive the UK as a non metric country. I know that these comments for regular contributors but I would emphasise the considerable inroads the metric system has made. With the exception of roads signs and personal height & weight, metrication IS widespread. It is true that with the widespread import of US culture, progress in these remaining areas are dependent on the US embracing the metric system. Certainly if CSI and Weightwatchers went metric, we’d stand a better chance!
I suppose the question is really “Will the US not get there last?”. The Low Countries got there first, of course, in 1820. But one thing is certain, the last country in the world to prohibit metric distances on road traffic signs is the UK.
But there are road work countdown signs on the A40 that are marked in metres at the moment. And the ‘inn for all seadons’ on the A40 advertises its distance in metres too, as does the Farm Shop outside Broadway. So maybe there is some relaxation. The ‘yard’ is a pointless measure when the metre is so similar.
The DfT (once it was forced to admit its budget estimates for changing road signs is totally ridiculous) could at a minimum start an immediate switch to meters for warning signs (since as a practical matter they are equivalent to yards for the purpose they serve) and begin converting distance signs to kilometers (as the Irish did at the beginning of their transition). This would signal the eventual demise of miles and miles per hour on road signs and allow for thoughtful planning and a publicity campaign for an “M Day” for speed limit signs by putting up decals to cover up the existing numbers on speed limit signs.
But the bottom line is the fact that the current government officials have bought into the idea that there is something noble and heroic about “saving the mile and the pint for Britain” and its symbolic value as a proxy for resisting the EU. Until that mindset changes, no proposal — no matter how reasonable — will be accepted and implemented by this lot.
As I have suggested before, I believe most likely only the most powerful British business interests, should they see the economic value of finishing metrication, could possibly convince the government to change its mind.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the current Government who ‘saved the pint and the mile’. It was the Labour Government whose Europe Minister delivered this message, at a time when it was losing popularity. Like the argument for staying in the EU, the argument for completing metrication is never really voiced. The vocal minority (I suspect they are a minority) and the anti EU tabloid press make sure that we only hear the negative aspects of these arguments, and play on our ‘loss of national identity’. [The original derogation permitting continued use of the mile and the pint as primary measures (in certain circumstances) for a defined period was agreed in 1980. In 2009 it was agreed that the derogation should be indefinite – Editor]