An Article by Peter Seymour:
Drastic Measures: The Metric Assault on American Standards
"Nothing is more contrary to the organization of the mind, of the
memory, and of the imagination. . . . The new system of weights and measures
will be a stumbling block for several generations. . . . Its just
tormenting the people with trivia.
Such was the opinion of Napoleon about a novelty concocted by the
Paris Academy of Sciences in the midst of revolutionary fervor: the metric
system of measurement.
that tormenting system, which Frances emperor refused to inflict, has
been forced on British citizens by their own legislators, yielding yet again to
pressure from European Union bureaucrats. With the British bulldog rolling over
to this cultural intrusion, one wonders if the United States will go the extra
mile to defend the yardstick.
Since Americas infancy, metric missionaries have been
frustrated by our steadfast resistance to being converted. Theyve blamed
public ignorance, apathy and stubbornness, unenlightened industry, meager
government funding, and more. But beneath the surface, our enduring allegiance
to the U.S. Customary System of Weights and Measures is rooted in a
commonsense, even if largely intuitive, preference for this finely honed system
of inches, pounds, quarts, and degrees Fahrenheit.
Most Americans can remember, from the late 1970s, when U.S.
metrication (metric conversion) was proceeding like a five-year plan commanded
by the Kremlin. Wall charts and study guides in grade schools indoctrinated
students like me about the superior and more scientific
SI (Le Système International dUnités: the new and improved
version of metric). Although belittled as a hodgepodge of historical oddities,
our customary measurement system withstood insults and assaults from the
inevitably global standard , the most visible vestiges of which are
the kph markings on speedometers, the FDA-required nutrition
labeling on packaged goods, and the liter-based soft drink bottles.
While compliant Canadians dove head first into metrication, we
recalcitrant Americans ignored and laughed at it until it slinked away. Perhaps
you saw the Saturday Night Live skit that lampooned the marvels of
the metric alphabet, comprised of only ten letters! J, K, L, and M were
combined into a single character.
quarter-century later, the metric crusade looks as quaint as the Duck and
Cover campaign of the 1950s. But while the communists dream of
world domination has faded away, the metric zealots persist in threatening our
economic and personal freedom.
their decades-long re-education to metric, defenders of British
weights and measuresand of British sovereigntyrecently suffered a
drastic setback. Beginning in January 2000, merchants throughout the United
Kingdom were ordered to give priority to the gram, liter, and meter in their
measuring, labeling, and oral communication, subordinating their traditional
ounce, pint, and foot to a supplementary status.
According to the London-based Sun newspaper, whose Save Our
Scales campaign regularly features small shopkeepers who run afoul of the
metrication program and incur fines and confiscation of their imperial scales,
Sunderland police and trading standards officers on February 16,
2000, made an undercover purchase of a pound of bananas for 34 pence, from
Steven Thoburn, a local greengrocer. He was thereupon arrested for weighing the
loose produce in pounds instead of grams. A British court convicted Thoburn
last April. Fines and further court costs of at least $150,000 are anticipated.
But the case will be appealed.
Ill serve my customers the way they want, insisted
Thoburn, who, having been dubbed the Metric Martyr, raised over
$40,000 for his defense in this test case, the first trial of its type.
But Ive yet to find anybody whos asked for anything in a
Despite renewed sales pitches, regaling the glories of base-ten
measurement and the progressiveness of global conformity, Americans arent
buying metric. We remain committed to the familiarity, versatility, and greater
accuracy of measurement practices that date back to the pyramids of
Egyptbuilt with the same inch as found on a schoolboys ruler.
Metric in America
Starting back in 1790 Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state,
recommended that Congress introduce a decimal-based measurement system. While
not proposing a specific scheme (the metric system was formalized nine years
later), Jefferson did advise that any new base units should resemble those
already in common use wherever possible. Congress put the issue on the back
burner, thus beginning a policy of benign neglect that continues to the
present. In the first U.S. metric study in 1821, John Quincy Adams, also as
secretary of state, reported to Congress: Weights and measures may be
ranked among the necessaries of life to every individual of human society. They
enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They
are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and
security of every species of property; ...The knowledge of them...is among the
first elements of education, and is often learned by those who learn nothing
else, not even to read and write.
Adams went on to advocate the metric system as a national standard ,
but Congress again left well enough alone. Forty-five years elapsed before
Congress supplied each state with a set of metric weights and measures as it
authorized nationwide use of the new system on a voluntary basis, thus
expanding our choice of measurement methods. In 1875 the United States became
one of 17 nations to found the International Bureau of Weights and Measures,
based on metric. In 1893 the U.S. Bureau of Standards adopted metric as its
fundamental system of standards, which legally defined customary
units in terms of metric equivalents. And thats pretty much where things
sat for the next 75 years.
Today, the use and importance of standardized measurement is vastly
greater than at the dawn of the industrial age. Geodetic, topographic,
climatologic, political, and road maps of the entire earth have been
meticulously calculated with customary coordinates and charted in customary
units. Surveys are the conceptual infrastructure for the layout of streets,
highways, railroads, and parks; for the engineering of bridges, tunnels,
canals, and dams; for the installation of pipelines, water mains, power grids,
and cable networks; and for the positions of navigational beacons and the
orbits of satellites.
Customary units, in blueprints and hardware, are built into our
homes, ships, skyscrapers, churches, monuments, and historical landmarks. The
construction and operation of nuclear power plants, airports and aircraft,
military equipment, and the International Space Station, to name a few, are
predominantly based on customary specifications. Our system is communicated
through countless labels, cookbooks, manuals, textbooks, schematics, menus, and
traffic signs. Preserved in our literature, songs, and movies, thriving in the
daily conversations and habits of a quarter-billion U.S. professionals,
consumers, and students, customary measure serves the diverse needs of everyone
from carpenters to chefs, children to rocket scientists.
With such an enormous investment in physical and human capital, there
ought to be a convincing reason to justify our suffering the stupendous costs,
confusions, and hazards of drastically altering our measurement system.
Size Fits All
primary contention of metric advocates is that adopting a globally uniform
system of measurement would greatly benefit the U.S. economy. Fluency in
metric, the Esperanto of measurement, would facilitate industry and trade by
increasing our nations exports, competitiveness, productivity, and
employment. This one-size-fits-all thinking, typical of metric missionaries, is
plausible, but such assertions are thoroughly refuted by experience and reason.
The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) is a respected government watchdog.
Its Metric Report of 1990 summarized the major economic burdens of a forced
U.S. metrication, and devastated pro-metric arguments with careful analysis:
Imports of metric products would increase because metric products
required for U.S. conversion would have to be obtained from other countries.
Furthermore, due to the additional costs of conversion, U.S. products would be
more expensive than imported products that are already metric. Foreign
countries would benefit from broadened markets and new economies of scale due
to increased production and lower operating costs. The United States would also
be flooded with customary products produced by other countries to meet the
continuing demand by the public for goods during the conversion period.
pamphlet from Americans for Customary Weight and Measure (ACWM), a grassroots
organization, passes along the warning: Thousands of workers would lose
their jobs and older workers would be displaced. Metric conversion would
require massive retraining and would deprive the country of workers with
valuable experience and the intuitive feel for measurement upon which
craftsmen, mechanics, engineers and many other workers depend
(Realities of Metrication by Thomas A. Hannigan, International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1977).
preamble of the U.S. Metric Conversion Act of 1975 enumerated the costs of
clinging to our provincial ways, including: 3. World trade is
increasingly geared to the metric system of measurement. 4. Industry in the
United States is often at a competitive disadvantage when dealing in
international markets because of its non-standard measurement system.
But, reassuring the unconverted , the GAO noted , Worldwide
usage of U.S. customary standards is still much greater than that of metric
standards. Although U.S. usage accounts for much of this, customary
standards persist internationally in numerous forms, ranging from any use of
latitude and longitude, to industry-specific units such as troy ounces and
carats, to any production whose actual dimensions are tooled on customary
clarify the last, the most successful photographic film format continues to be
manufactured to its original specification of exactly 1-3/8 inches in width.
The customary standard of this American invention has been eclipsed by its
subsequent relabeling as 35mm, an approximate metric equivalent.
This kind of soft conversion succeeds in giving the appearance of metric
prominence, of greater precision, and of foreign industrial clout, but it
doesnt alter the hard reality that about two-thirds of global industrial
output remains based on customary specifications.
a shocking retort to those who scoff that America stands alone among industrial
nations in rejecting metric, the GAO concluded, The United States should
not risk its industrial success, obtained under the customary system, by
changing to a new system.
spite of this unqualified verdict and the unswerving popularity of customary
measure among U.S. businesses and consumers alike, the metric system is the
preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and
commerce, or so it was ordained by Congress in Public Law 100-418. In
fairness, because this provision was furtively buried in the two-inch-thick
Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, it is doubtful that any
congressman knew he was voting for it. Less excusably, by signing Executive
Order 12770 in 1991, President George H. W. Bush directed federal agencies to
proceed on their meddlesome path of advancing the national goal of
establishing the metric system as the preferred system for the U.S.
Its Better, the Free Market Will Buy It
1993 former Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island , wrote a letter to
President Clinton in which he pushed for further metrication by stating,
I am sure that you will agree that in order for this nations
businesses to be truly competitive with the rest of the world , we must play by
the same rules. That comment is relevant to Olympic competition, but in
the economic sphere it gives the three false impressions that measurement is a
rule that requires conformity, that such conformity has advantages regardless
of which rules are selected, and that the advantages of such conformity must be
facilitated, if not mandated, by government because they will inadequately be
sought out by market participants.
rules that optimize trade and competitiveness are those that validate property
rights and private contracts, while deterring infringements and fraud.
Pells deception was in representing a measurement system as a principle
of free markets, rather than as it truly is: a tool and means of communication.
As such, options are desirable because measurement functions best when properly
suited to its task.
markets were like sports, with businesses as teams, competitiveness among
nations, as among separate leagues, would require uniformity of rules, which
might include measurement standards. Although sports and commerce have some
similarities (for example, competition among and cooperation within
teams/firms, and success rewarded with points/profits), markets do not specify
procedures, limits, and goals. The free market is an open-ended discovery
process wherein the freedom, of all consumers and producers, to choose a
measurement tool, among many other options, is a vital means of seeking out
efficiency, convenience, pleasure, and safety.
American business interest could and would label, package, and produce in
metric voluntarily and on its own if doing so were profitable as measured by
the customary units of dollars. The competitiveness question is a
non-issue. U.S. manufacturers, large and small, make their products in whatever
units are requiredas did Japanese makers in the fifties (and
still), says Patrick P. McCurdy, a consultant for the American Chemical
Society and editor of several trade journals. (See his Im Just Mild
About Metric, Todays Chemist at Work, June 1994.)
Naturally, compliance with industrial standards is often essential
for a companys survival. Rival firms have even freely created format and
operating standards when they find it mutually advantageous to do so. With no
government prodding, Apple and IBM agreed to collaborate for just this reason
in the mid-1990s, but the practice has a long history.
the mid-nineteenth century, railroads sprang up to serve regional freight and
passenger needs. Because these ventures were mechanically as well as
commercially autonomous, the gauge (width between rails) had not been
standardized. A problem arose when enterprises prepared to cooperate, but their
tracks didnt match up. Due to the increasing pressures of the free
market, these separate lines simply adjusted their gaugessometimes in one
weekendto the prevailing customary standard of 4 feet 8.5 inches.
American railroads even converged in creating a measurement system to
synchronize schedules. Before the nation was connected by instantaneous
communication and one-week coast-to-coast rail travel, local time
meant that each town set its clocks to high noon. This made the charting of
timetables a daunting task. So in 1878 railroad executives simplified roughly
100 different time zones into todays Eastern, Central, Mountain, and
Dont Give An Inch!
Harassed by means dismayingly reminiscent of those presently
persecuting Mr. Thoburn, the post-revolutionary French citizen yielded to the
meter, gram, liter, and centigrade thermometer, but the complete metric utopia,
originally envisioned with a ten-hour clock, ten-day week, and 400-degree
circle, was never consummated. Thanks to informed opposition and our healthy,
intuitive resistance, Americans have never given an inch . . . thus far. But at
the Metric Program Office (annual budget, $500,000 to $600,000 per year), our
tax dollars continue to employ professional meddlers who view our freedom as a
nuisance and take advantage of our trusting assumption that if something
aint broke, nobodys trying to fix it.
Fortunately, there are many easy ways for anybody to stand up for the
foot. The vast majority of weighing and measuring is an integral part of our
daily routines, our language, and our culture. Substantial power is in our
hands. Personally, I use customary measure wherever optional and tell others
about the precision, practicality, and poetry of our traditional measurement
system. In a letter to the New York Times, I thanked an author for writing
one-fifth of an inch when other reports on the same surgical
procedure wrote five millimeters. Any American publisher or
broadcaster can independently favor customary measure as an editorial policy
and convert metric into our language if necessary.
Like other conflicts of common sense versus simplistic dogma, the
metric problem was contrived by government. But unlike a typical program,
compulsory metrication doesnt derive strong support from a particular
region, industry, race, age, income group, and so on. Just the opposite: The
fact that so many people have so much to lose from disruptions to their
customary system of measure presents a rare and tremendous opportunity for
Republican legislators can reassert their conservative and patriotic
values, while Democrats will win appreciation from their trade-union base.
Applause would even come from libertarians, because they trust the individual,
and Greens, because they mistrust international corporations. With overwhelming
support, the 107th Congress and President George W. Bush can readily free us
all from the metric menace by rescinding his fathers Executive Order
12770, by repealing Public Law 100-418, and by canceling the Metric Program
Office (of the National Institute of Standards and Technology).
Todays metric proponents arent mounting a frontal assault
like the one in the late 1970s, much less confiscating the scales of your
neighborhood grocer. Having learned from past failures, theyve
implemented a stealthy strategy of pushing through small changes to nudge out
nonmetric options. The New York State Highway Department, encouraged by federal
initiatives, switched to metric in the 1990s with hopes of being a leader in a
national trend. U.S. metrication is one of those issues that can slide from
seeming too trivial to bother with today into being too large to reverse
tomorrow. So remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Even as our federal government exhorts, The uncertainty is not
whether to move to the metric system, it is how and when to make the move
(U.S. Metric Programs Board Pamphlet), we can take heart in the words of ACWM
metrologist Bob Falk: Our system of measurement is not a haphazard
collection of archaic units or the product of committees of sheltered academics
with no practical experience in the real world. Its the result of more
than seven thousand years of research and development by billions of people
whose lives and livelihoods depended on useful, reliable measurement.
that is why, so long as Americans defend their freedom, the measurement issue
will never be decided in a government office. It will be settled at the Home
Depot checkout counter, in grocery stores and kitchens, on the desks of editors
and draftsmen, on shop floors, highways, and the moon, where thanks to missions
achieved entirely with our out-dated pounds, gallons, and miles, America once
again stood alone.
Peter Seymour, April, 2001
| The above article was
republished with the permission of the author. Peter Seymour is a journalist,
screenwriter and actor from Hoboken, New Jersey.
Drastic Measures was first printed in the July, 2001
issue of Ideas on Liberty, published since 1945 by the Foundation for Economic
Education (www.fee.org). It was reprinted in the November 2001
issue of The European Journal, Britain's main European-related public policy