The United States


United States metrication: a series of missed opportunities

The British system, albeit coherent, was not fully uniform. There were therefore some divergences in the value of units used by the 13 colonies who signed the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. Soon these divergences began to hinder trade between the new States. This led to a clause, first in the Articles of Confederation drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, then in the United States Constitution drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1790, empowering Congress to fix uniform standards for money and weights and measures. But which standards? Amongst those who drafted the Articles of Confederation as well as the Constitution were Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin: both had a good knowledge and appreciation of France - they had been ambassadors there. But in 1790 in France, metric system did not exist beyond Talleyrand's speech. A missed opportunity.


Jefferson had been elected President in 1801; he was still sympathetic to a uniform measurement system - that he had the duty to establish to meet the Constitution obligations - as well as to France - more especially as France in 1803 had offered him Louisiana for peanuts (60 millions francs, Talleyrand could have demanded more!). These new territories had to be surveyed to care for their development: Ferdinand R. Hassler, a Swiss immigrate, was in charge of the east coast survey. Thanks to Jefferson he was given an iron copy of the Archives standard of meter. Yes indeed, the first U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey has been done in metric units - thereafter translated in imperial units. Another missed opportunity...


The July 1866 law was unambiguous: "it shall be lawful throughout the USA to employ the weights and measures of the metric system". To be practicable the law gave the conversion factors between the "metric denominations" and the "customary" ones: the yard was there defined as the 3 600/3 937 part of the meter (i.e. 0,914 401 829 m). By the same token Americans gained advantage of avoiding the long and burdensome manufacture of standards. A few years later, following a Congress order, all States had received from the Office of Weights and Measures copies of the meter, liter and kilogram standards. The metric system was legal, however not compulsory. Again a missed opportunity...


In view of such a report the Congress (Democrat in its majority) voted, by 300 to 63, and President Gerald Ford (Republican) signed, the 1975 Metric Conversion Act "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States". No target date, and of course conversion should be voluntary. A U.S. Metric Board was established to develop and implement a large program of coordination and public education. Nice words, but in practice very few Americans were aware of the very existence of the Board! Incidentally, by virtue of a decision - certainly generous - by President Jimmy Carter, the Board included an equal number of pro- and anti-metric members. So much so that in 1981 the Board had to request from the Congress a clear mandate as well as the resources to achieve it. But the period was not favorable: the Reagan administration had just started a drastic program of costs reduction. Of course the Metric Board, the purpose of which did not appear essential, was one of the first victims; it was disbanded in 1982. Another missed opportunity.

How to name such a system?

Obviously it is not the "British" system - it is well known that meter is written metre in English. Even less the "imperial" system. Strange enough the term "American system" is never heard. Some official documents sometimes use the abbreviation "USCU", standing for U. S. Customary Units. Often the system is referred to as "ifp" (inch/foot/pound). A popular game amongst American SI supporters is to find funny nicknames to designate what they consider as not even a system; we hear them speak of the "collection of colonial units" (this is not very kind), of the "King George III units" (even worse), of "the olde English units" (more poetic, is not it?), of "WOMBAT", standing for Way Of Measuring Badly in America Today - by the way a wombat is a marsupial from Australia not really known for its sharp mind... Or, even nastier, of "FFU", i.e. Fred Flintstone Units, referring to a stone age character of a famous comic strip!

A little metric, much ifp

Metric system is taught at school; but not used, with the exception of certain "advanced" courses. Driven by global competition the automotive industry is fully metric since the years 1980. But building materials are still sold and used in customary measures. Wines and spirits are sold in 0.75 l bottles - still usually called "one fifth", a fifth of a gallon, or 0.757 l - or in one liter bottles; the Coca Cola corporation progressively converts to 0.5, 1.5 and 2 liter bottles but its competitor Pepsi Cola keeps caught on fluid ounces. On food products packages nutritional information is given in SI but quantity in usual units, at the best in dual units ifp/SI; and for sure loose products are sold by the pound. Around 1980 a few gas stations were selling by the liter: just because the gas price was getting close to a dollar per gallon and it was difficult to modify the mechanical counters to display an additional digit; since the introduction of pumps with electronic display gas is again sold by the gallon - at much more than a dollar per gallon! Very few weather forecasts give temperature in degrees Celsius, very few radio and TV stations retain metric units when reports come from foreign countries. In the "military time" day is divided in 24 hours, also to be found on cash registers tickets; everywhere else the morning (ante meridiem, a.m.) and afternoon (post meridiem, p.m.) hours prevail - to make things worse 12 pm means noon in the US and midnight in the other countries using the 12 hours time division! The 1992 law on energy conservation ordered to indicate the volume in gallons of water used by toilet flushes - this led to the creation of a new unit, the gpf (gallon per flush). One of the last legislative act signed by President Clinton was concerning the quality of American gruyere cheese: diameter of holes was given in fractions of inches, but was referring to the Codex Alimentarius where same dimensions are given in centimeters. Et cetera...

So, what could break the US isolation and make them joining soon the rest of the world?

Perhaps economics. American economy is unsteady, American industrialists will have to export to compensate losses on domestic market. But, unless the rest of the world, neglectfully or per snobbishness, actually accepts FFU units, American products will have to meet the global, i.e. metric, standards. Another possibility is a governmental action, which would make the use of SI units mandatory, at least in some sectors. Will George W. Bush, in spite of his current concerns, recall that it was his father who implemented the Omnibus Trade and Competitive Act of 1988 ?

Some day America also will be metric. It is just a matter of time.





Treaty of Metre

United Kingdom