Inching along

Thirty years later, we're still taking measure the old English way

As years go, 1975 was one of the stranger ones. Disco had begun to grip the charts. Leisure suits were popular. The Red Sox almost won the World Series. Perhaps strangest of all, the United States went metric.

Of course, that last statement is false -- though not for the reason you think. The United States has been metric since 1866 -- you can look it up -- it just has never gone metric in practice. Ah, but 1975 was supposed to change that.

Conversion seemed long overdue. The US Army had switched to metric in 1957. Britain (the origin of the English system of inches, pounds, and gallons that we continue to use) went metric in 1965. Canada did so in 1970.

The train of history was leaving the station, or so it seemed, and on rails measured in meters. How could the country that first put tailfins on cars and invented Tang let itself be left behind?

So Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act, which President Gerald Ford signed into law on Dec. 23, 1975. Christmas, you might say, came a little early that year.

Well, 30 years later, Americans live in a country that continues to be the world leader in science and technology, industry and trade, yet that same country keeps measuring away in good old inches, pounds, and degrees Fahrenheit.

''America knows everything, and if we do it it must be right," Lorelle Young says with a sigh, describing the United States' go-it-alone attitude.

Young has good cause to sigh. She's president of the United States Metric Association, a 1,200-member organization that campaigns for US metric conversion.

''So why do we have to use something anybody else uses -- even if it's everybody else?"

It's not as if Americans are absolute in their attachment to inch-pound units. Film is measured in millimeters, as is barometric pressure. Swimming and track events are in meters; and during its Olympic coverage NBC rarely converts from metric to English.

Metric units are standard in both nutrition and medicine. The US auto industry is almost completely metric. Soda is commonly sold in 1- and 2-liter bottles.

The most famous instance of our mix-and-match attitude toward measurement -- certainly the most notorious -- is the Mars Climate Orbiter debacle in 1998. The orbiter was the $125 million NASA space probe that crashed because one operations team was using metric units while another (ahem) was using English units.

Those are exceptions, though. Something is in the American psyche that clings to the English system.

As the director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame declared in 1975: ''The West was won by the inch, foot, yard, and mile."

Clearly, this is an issue in which emotion matters as much as, and perhaps more than, reason.

''Metrication," suggests John Gardner, director of the British Weights and Measures Association, a group opposed to the metric system, ''is an issue that goes beyond measuring."

Part of the difficulty many opponents have is aesthetic. The very qualities usually cited as prime metric virtues, the system's orderliness and utility, can make it seem technocratic, impersonal, and inorganic.

''Poetically, it's a nonhuman, cold, and ugly system," says Arfon Griffiths, an engineer with an Austin, Texas, computer company who belongs to a Web discussion list,

''My second dislike of the metric system," Griffiths says, ''is its tie-in to socialism and the whole notion of a socialist utopia."

It's not just that the metric system is foreign. After all, the name ''English system" does pose certain problems for nativists. It's that the foreign-ness smacks of one-worldism, the surrender of national sovereignty -- and internationalism isn't exactly in the ascendant these days.

Neither is Francophilia. The nation that started the metric system was France. Worse, France adopted the system in 1795, only months after the Reign of Terror. Not surprisingly, inch-pound people will make an exception, just this once, and use centimeters when giving the dimensions of guillotine blades.

The visceral opposition to the metric system notwithstanding, the biggest impediment to conversion is financial. Advocates argue that going metric will boost US foreign trade. Nonetheless, it's a given that, in the short run, conversion would be very expensive.

''We must face it," says Alex Hebra, a Florida-based engineering consultant who's the author of ''Measure for Measure: The Story of Imperial, Metric, and Other Units." ''To convert the industrial standards from English system to metric units would cost a lot of money. Tools and dyes and fixtures that use inches would be useless."

Hebra has his doubts about America ever going metric. ''I was born in a metric country, Austria, so I'm all for it. But the question whether it will work [here] is another matter."

The idea for a measuring system based on multiples of 10 and derived from the size of the Earth predates the United States by more than a century. A French priest and mathematician named Gabriel Mouton proposed such a system in 1670.

The United States almost beat the French in being the first country to adopt such a system. Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal-based measuring system in 1790.

The meter, the basic unit of distance in the system the French adopted in 1795, was defined as one-ten-millionth the distance from the equator to the North Pole. In 1983, the definition became the distance light travels through a vacuum in one-299,792,458th of a second. That's a far more precise measurement, but you can imagine the abuse inch-pound people direct at its arbitrariness and unwieldiness.

Napoleon's conquests helped spread the metric system across much of Europe. Still, it was Britain that ruled the waves. Global trade was, by current standards, fairly rudimentary. The need for a worldwide standard wasn't pressing, and it was unclear whether the English or metric system would become dominant.

Enter the United States. Uniformity of weights and measures, George Washington said in his first inaugural address, ''is an object of the greatest importance, and will, I am persuaded, be duly attended to." Jefferson, for one, found out otherwise.

The great lost opportunity came in 1832. Congress told the Treasury Department to standardize the system used by customs officials at ports. The department designated use of the English system. Congress accepted that, but never made it official for the nation as a whole. Had the report designated the metric system, or had Congress overridden the report and imposed the metric system, that would have been that. Conversely, had Congress made the English system the official US standard, it might have helped turn the tide against metric.

In 1902, a second opportunity came -- or, depending on your perspective, disaster was averted -- when a bill requiring the federal government to use only metric measurement was defeated by just one vote.

And that, more or less, was how things stood until 1975, when it appeared America's metric moment had finally come.

Consider the climate in which the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 became law. The '60s had been all about turbulence: wars, assassinations, riots. The '70s were all about . . . sensibleness.

End inflation? Hand out WIN buttons (''Whip Inflation Now"). Equality between women and men? Pass an equal rights amendment. Honesty in government? Elect a president who promises ''I will never lie to you."

Think of that archetypal '70s figure: Mary Richards, the heroine of ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show." So agreeable, earnest, reasonable -- she's the metric system made flesh and wearing a knit suit.

Ted Baxter, now there's an inch-pound man if there ever was one. Lou Grant makes two. Not Mary Richards. That big ''M" hanging on her living-room wall? Let's just say her first name isn't necessarily what it stands for. Change only a few syllables and the last line of the show's theme song becomes ''You're going metric after all!"

In 1974 alone, the following books were published: ''Metric Power," ''Let's Go Metric," ''Metrication Handbook," ''Let's Talk About the Metric System," The Metric System -- Measure for All Mankind," ''You and the Metric System," ''Think Metric Now!," and ''Metric Is Here!"

Metric was here, sort of. In February 1976, Coca-Cola and 7-Up began test-marketing 1- and 2-liter bottles. A few weeks later, metric measurements went up on the Green Monster at Fenway Park. Over the next couple of years, Detroit converted to metric. But that's about it. The Metric Conversion Act lacked enforcement powers and stipulated no deadline. The metric fist, such as it was, had been placed in a marshmallow glove.

The Red Sox had put up metric distances at the written urging of David Mofenson, then a Democratic state representative. ''There was a real push to go metric back in the mid-'70s, a sense it was going to happen," says Mofenson, now a Newton attorney. ''Somehow along the way that went off the tracks."

WIN buttons didn't whip inflation. The ERA was never ratified. Jimmy Carter wasn't reelected. And in 1977, the year ''The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Metric System" declared ''The metric system is about to become a fact of life for Americans," ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" went off the air.

So will the United States ever go metric?

''My point of view is a little different from most people's," says Ken Butcher, director of the US Metric Program, which is part of the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology. ''I routinely get calls here from people saying, 'Our company's going metric.' In the last two years, that's happened once or twice a week. It's growing. I don't hear the same reluctance I heard 10 or 15 years ago."

Of course, there's growth and then there's growth. Originally, the Metric Program was the US Metric Board. Mandated by the Metric Conversion Act, it had a staff of 30 and an annual budget of $2.7 million. Ronald Reagan, the man who trounced Jimmy Carter, shut down the board in 1982. Butcher is the successor program's sole staffer, and its budget is under $200,000.

''It's a hard row," concedes the US Metric Association's Lorelle Young. Still, she's optimistic.

''You hear the exact same reasons whenever there's a big change. 'It's the US.' 'It's a big country.' 'Why can't everyone else do it our way?' . . . You know I think there are still some manual typewriters around, and in some communities you can still find icemen. But I don't think we should perpetuate them."

Things do change and, as Red Sox fans know, sometimes momentously. Mofenson's letter came in the wake of two events, not just the Metric Conversion Act but also the team's epic World Series loss to the Cincinnati Reds.

When Mofenson wrote the Red Sox, which did he think would happen first: America going metric or the Red Sox winning the World Series?

''I guess in my heart of hearts," Mofenson says with a chuckle, ''I thought the Red Sox would win. They had some pretty decent teams back then."

Mark Feeney can be reached at 

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