Notable anniversaries in the last hold-out of irrational measures

The following article appeared in March/April 2016 edition of Metric Today, the newsletter of the US Metric Association (USMA). It is being re-posted with USMA’s permission.

USMA and Metric Today anniversaries

The USMA newsletter, Metric Today, was first published in April 1966, 50 years ago. It was started by the USMA President at the time, Louis Sokol. That was a time of increasing interest in metrication, as much of the world that was not yet metric was considering the change. For many countries the change to metric was preceded by their conversion to decimal currencies; many of those countries had been using the former British system of pounds divided into shillings and pence, having been British colonies. That change took place in more than 60 countries, some of them quite small. Most of the decimal currency change took place in the 1950s thru the early 1970s; followed by similar conversion to the metric system in those same countries. Luckily the US already had a decimal currency system, so it did not need to make that change.

The USMA newsletter was first simply called the Metric Association Newsletter, then the USMA Newsletter, and finally Metric Today in 1990. The details of this can be found on the USMA website at

In addition to USMA’s newsletter anniversary, it’s also the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Metric Association in December 1916. Like the newsletter, USMA has had a few name changes over the years, first to Metric Association, and then US Metric Association. Information on USMA history can be found at The Metric Association was initially associated with the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), holding meetings jointly with that organization, later having their own national meetings, including particularly large meetings during the 1970s and 1980s.

Although there was a newsletter in those very early days, called Measurement, that collection is incomplete, as are most of the details of this organization’s history till the current newsletter started 50 years ago.

USMA continues to support the metric cause, as we see more and more metric use in the US. We are not blind to the fact that metric is far from complete here, but we certainly see progress, especially in international activities, and because the US non-metric fraction of the world economy is now smaller than that of other metric countries. We welcome new, active members to USMA, hoping to continue the cause that is still inevitable, but certainly not happening as quickly as most of us would like.


The Metric Maven website contains a three-part series of articles to mark the 100th anniversary of USMA since it was founded in 1916. These articles contain detailed information about the history of USMA over the last 100 years. Readers can access them at the following links:

16 thoughts on “Notable anniversaries in the last hold-out of irrational measures”

  1. As late as this month, Telegraph journalists use “kph” as the abbreviation for kilometres per hour.


  2. @Jackthesmilingblack:

    Interestingly (and perhaps amazingly), the Daily Mail, of all papers, actually used the correct km/h just recently. OK, this was a contributor’s response to a question posed by a reader on speeds reached by the German propeller-driven Zeppelin railcar prior to WW2 , but the contributor submitting the response obviously knew the correct symbol for kilometres per hour – and the DM did not ‘correct’ it to the incorrect kph.


  3. @Jackthesmilingblack 2016-03-26 at 19:47

    You wrote: “As late as this month, Telegraph journalists use “kph” as the abbreviation for kilometres per hour.” Well why not, especially in newspaper prose, as it is a valid and widely used and understood abbreviation?

    On the other hand, if you were writing a technical or scientific report you would probably be expected to use the SI brochure writing guide recommended symbol (as opposed to abbreviation) and write “km/h”.


  4. @Charlie P,
    “On the other hand, if you were writing a technical or scientific report you would probably be expected to use the SI brochure writing guide recommended symbol (as opposed to abbreviation) and write “km/h”.”

    Or labeling a car speedometer for sale in the United States (FMVSS 101 requires and allows only MPH and km/h as units and markings.) Canada requires the same with km/h the primary ring. It is particularly offensive when automotive writers use kph in articles as that marking is illegal on the cars they write about; no driver in North America has ever seen it on a vehicle, which is probably their best shot at “understanding” it. At least here, I’m not sure “kph” has the recognition you think it does; however, the AP does forbid the very symbol the Federal government requires. Ignorant journalists. I suppose the requirement is part of their ongoing effort to marginalize the metric system and that may be generally true of those who attempt to encourage use of “kph.”


  5. @Jackthesmilingblack 2016-04-01 at 22:07

    You disrespectfully wrote: “Where’s the metre, Muppet?” I assume you were questioning the common English abbreviation (no, not symbol) for the phrase “kilometres per hour” – “kph”. As “metre” is not a separate word in the phrase, it would break common abbreviation convention if it nevertheless featured in the abbreviation. If, on the other hand, the phrase was “kilo metres per hour” things would, of course, be different. Is English your native tongue?

    And with “hour” being a non-SI unit anyway, and the SI coherent derived unit for speed being “metres per second”, shouldn’t you, instead, be arguing that the preferred road speed unit should be “metres per second” and the symbol should therefore be “m/s” or even “m s-1”?


  6. @Charlie P:

    Yes, please—that is what I’ll be arguing for. Values to 2 significant digits, preferably increasing only in rational powers of sqrt(2) (e.g. 2.2, 3.1, 4.4, 6.3, 8.8, 13, 18, 25, 35 in UK). After all, this is the unit already used to impose an effective minimum speed limit on walkers at crossings of [many] motor traffic lights. But, of course, not everyone—UKMA amongst them—advocates SI purism to the extent that you and I do :-).

    BTW, Jackthesmilingblack is welcome on this ‘blog irrespective of whether English is his native language or not. It is disrespectful of you to imply otherwise and rude to demand an answer so bluntly. Both of your questions in that one comment are yet further examples of your contrarian posturing which others have criticised you for in the past.


  7. @Mark Williams 2016-04-08 at 22:00

    It was a genuine and sincere question. They could be excused for not knowing the English convention for abbreviating units of measurement (and other phrases too) to their initial letters (think: mpg, mph, psi, cc, etc.) if English was not their first language. On the other hand (otoh) asking where the metre was in kph might strike one as being a rather ignorant question.


  8. @Charlie P,

    Or using the correct symbol (km/h) would answer the question. It is right there between the “k” and the “/”.

    The hour is not an SI unit, but is explicitly accepted for use with the SI. All metric nations (and some non-metric ones) use kilometer per hour for vehicle velocity, Can you find any examples that explicitly symbolize it as kph on the vehicle speedometer? All that I have seen either use “km/h” or omit it entirely because there is no debate about what unit it might be. Exactly what is gained by calling it something other than what the law calls it, except a mild protest against the intrusion of the SI in daily British life.


  9. Mr Steele, what of on signs, such as in Samoa?

    This is an example of a sovereign government that has issued a directive that it be indicated as ‘kph’, which destroys, rather thoroughly, your ‘diagnosis’ of kph as some form of ‘protest’. Utter rubbish. Rather it is an example of how forced-metric agitators got what they wanted, but it is never enough!


  10. Yes, you found an exception.

    I will note that Samoa is neither a member state nor associate of the BIPM and its committees; they are not a signatory of the Treaty of the Meter. For you, it is a form of protest as the UK is a member state (as is the US). Member states should be using it correctly in legislation and teaching their citizens to use it correctly (at least for matters for which they use the SI).


  11. @John Steele 2016-04-15 at 11:18

    There is a time and place for the use of formal scientific annotation and conventions, including the use of the SI style guide specified symbols. Car speedometers probably fall into that category as the style and permitted/required units are probably mandated by build and use regulations which, I guess, will comply with SI guidelines for legal reasons.

    However, the requirement to stick rigidly, or even at all, to those SI conventions does not extend to other, non scientific, non technical and non unit regulated realms, and certainly does not extend to prose as used in creative writing and journalism (in the UK, at least).


  12. @CharlieP 2016-04-19 at 10:25

    Their is also a tyme and a plaise to stik to formal riting convenshuns.


  13. @Charlie P,

    We have the same situation in the US. A car driver sees a speedometer marked km/h. He reads an automotive article about a car, and the speed is described in kph. Does the driver even know it is the same thing? I view this as a problem and possible area of misunderstanding; you view it as a feature and demonstration of creative writing. Well, creative writing may be hard to understand, but journalism shouldn’t be, it should be written for understanding by nearly all readers. We obviously aren’t going to agree so we may as well leave it.


  14. I think it makes sense to use one abbreviation for kilometres per hour, and the abbreviation of choice must be km/h. Yes, other abbreviations may be used, but it would be preferable to use just one abbreviation consistently.


  15. @Charlie P:

    Genuine and sincere it might well be, but still absolutely none of your business. Nobody needs to be `excused’ (or wrongly smeared as disrespectful) for asking such a reasonable question and you are in no position to grant a pardon even if they were.

    English is my native language. IME, using lower case letters for acronyms is a recent phenomenon which appears deliberately designed to muddy the waters and generally used by those determined to foment FUD. The convention, historically and much more logically, has been to use upper case letters for acronyms and foreshortened words followed by a full stop for abbreviations—e.g. approx. MPG, equiv. MPH and max. PSI. This allows them to be easily differentiated from improper nouns or other normal words and symbols—e.g. psi (name of Greek letter), and imperial lbs (or should that be lbs./ LBS? To paraphrase Dr. Metric; no-one cares).

    An acronym of the form Prefix Per Unit is meaningless. I, too, would like to know where the metre is and also the motives of those who write `kph’ and expect the reader to guess that it is supposed to be an acronym or abbreviation for anything, let alone a speed? You are entirely at liberty to consider that an ignorant question.


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