Great American Stories

Refusing to give an inch America's only metric road

Only three nations do not use the metric system today: Myanmar, Liberia and the United States. But calling America a nonmetric nation is somewhat of a misnomer. The United States has given more than an inch even though it might not have gone the whole nine yards.

Consider that Coke bottles are sold in liters. So is wine. Medicine, in milligrams. Food nutrition labels are metric. And what about a 100-meter sprint or a 5K race?

Still, America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not conduct business in metric weights and measures.

It's an issue that made the news again recently when Democrat Lincoln Chafee announced his candidacy for the White House. "Let's be bold -- let's join the rest of the world and go metric," Chafee said in launching his campaign, calling the move a "symbolic integration" meant to show good will to the world.

Easier said than done. To be or not to be metric has been a question of great consternation in this country.

Opponents have called pro-metric people communists and other not-so-nice labels. Proponents have called the anti-metric camp plain stupid and hell-bent on making sure America lags behind the entire world.

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There are blogs like "Metric Maven" and even a book on the subject. John Bemelmans Marciano gave up writing the popular "Madeline" children's books started by his grandfather and last year published "Whatever Happened To The Metric System?"

Marciano says his young editor had no idea the United States had come within millimeters of metrication. The book reveals a fascinating history of how this nation ended up keeping a system in which 16 ounces make a pound, 12 inches make a foot and 3 feet make a yard.

The rest of the world calls Americans pennywise and pound foolish for still using a system that on its face makes little sense. And Americans, in turn, shun the metric system as a foreign creation. Never mind that Americans use the thermometer invented by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, a foreigner of Dutch-German-Polish extract.

So how did America end up being so allergic to metric? It's a long story that Marciano unearths in his book. And it begins near the beginning, with Thomas Jefferson.

It's not about science; it's capitalism

The nation's third president proposed dividing America's coins into tenths, hundredths and thousandths, Marciano writes. That makes Jefferson the father of American metrication. Congress approved his plan and (surprise!) the United States became the first country in the world to adopt a currency in decimals.

But the French were the first to adopt a metric system of measures during the French Revolution. Dividing by 10 was much easier than the old system, they argued. Water freezes at zero, not 32, and boils at 100, not 212.

Marciano, however, makes a credible argument for the old way of counting, which is based on everyday things and parts of the body.

"People say the metric system makes sense," Marciano says, "But in nature we don't think about dividing things by 10, do we? We think of halves and feet and thirds."

Acres, for instance, were based on the amount of land a man could plow in a day.

"Throughout history we have measured things by ourselves," Marciano says. "We are really losing something with metric."

And another thing: People think the metric system has something to do with science. It doesn't, Marciano says, except that it is used in science and every scientist will probably put forth a convincing argument for why it's silly not to be metric.

"That's the biggest misconception," Marciano says. "The metric system has everything to do with capitalism. It's all about a selling system."

He explains how virtually every town in Europe once had its own measuring system. As kingdoms unified and became nations -- like Germany -- they wanted one system of money and measures in order to trade with one another. But no one wanted to adopt the system of another nation. So they adopted an international system -- a metric one.

In 1866, the U.S. Congress authorized the use of the metric system and almost a decade later America became one of 17 original signatory nations to the Treaty of the Meter. A more modern system was approved in 1960 and is commonly known as SI or the International System of Units.

Metric accumulated a whole lot more fans when colonialism fell apart and newly independent nations like Indonesia, India, Kenya and others opted to join the international system.

"In America, there was never that push," Marciano says.

The global metric tsunami

What's better known about metric history in America is the last big movement that began in the 1960s.

The journal Metric Today was launched in 1966, Marciano writes, and it published warnings that if America kept resisting the global metric tsunami it would face a depression that would make the one in the 1930s look like a "Sunday picnic."

In 1975, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which declared metric as the preferred system of the United States, and the U.S. Metric Board was created to implement the conversion.

America began testing road signs in kilometers under President Jimmy Carter, who supported efforts to go metric. Interstate 19, which connects Tucson, Arizona, to Mexico, was one of them and today remains the only highway in America with distances posted solely in kilometers.

By the late 1970s, automakers had begun building speedometers that showed both miles and kilometers. Somehow, setting a cruising speed of 88 seemed so much cooler than 55.

But the debate over whether to go metric was acrimonious.

Metric supporters argued the road signs were a crucial step in helping Americans get over any psychological blocks to switching measurement systems. But Republican Charles Grassley, then a congressman and now a senator from Iowa, killed proposed federal regulations that would have forced states to put up signs in kilometers.

"Forcing the American people to convert to the metric system goes against our democratic principles," Grassley declared in June 1977.

Grassley had plenty of supporters in America. Anti-metric Americans came out of all corners and formed an unlikely coalition to make sure this country did not give an inch. They ranged from author Tom Wolfe to NPR chief Frank Mankiewicz.

In 1981, The New York Times reporter attended an anti-metric party at which Wolfe, in his customary white linen, judged a "Most Beautiful Foot" contest.

''I hear that the meter is based on a rod somewhere outside of Paris,'' Wolfe said, according to the Times story. ''To use that as a basis for measurement is completely arbitrary and intellectual. I should say I have tremendous admiration for the French, but a matter of this importance should not be left to them. I like the idea of the foot - as a measurement in relation to the human body.''

The story ended with a quote from a French lawyer, who said it was "fantastic to see Americans giving so much energy to something that is not important. It is much better than selling atomic nuclear bombs.''

But the discussion pretty much ended the next year.

Correspondent Bob Schieffer made it known on the CBS Evening News on February 19, 1982. The newscast highlighted President Ronald Reagan's budget, the Solidarity movement in Poland, atrocities in El Salvador and the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island. But audiences were just as eager to hear the last story of the night.

"After a lot of hoopla and millions of tax dollars spent on commercials and other things to tell us why we needed to go metric, it is the metric system that's about to go," Schieffer said in announcing the dismantling of the Metric Board.

With it died America's efforts to live solely by the meter.

New rationale for going metric

Fast forward to 2015. Many people believe the United States will again have to consider metric now that the world is far more connected.

International business interests may once again provide rationale for going metric. Hawaii and Oregon have recently introduced metric legislation, a reflection perhaps of those states' relationships with Pacific trade partners, tourism and efforts to build a high-tech workforce, says Elizabeth Gentry, metric coordinator for the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"Major opportunities for metrication have occurred when emerging technologies or new products enter the U.S. marketplace, developed from the bottom up using metric measurement practices," Gentry says.

She uses the example of fuel for cars. Americans buy gasoline in gallons but when they start using new fuel sources like hydrogen, they will be forced to use kilograms since sales are based on metric.

Gentry says metric adoption is not a one-time event in America, but rather a process that is happening over time.

"Consumers are often unaware of the level of metric use because gradual changes have taken place around them over time," she says.

Marciano ends his book on the metric system with this thought: Think of America as preserving important ways of thinking that human beings used for centuries.

"If we get rid of our measures, we will never bring them back. To be for a metric America is to be for a global monoculture."

No doubt that many people would argue with Marciano on that point. But for the time being, America is keeping itself on its feet.

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