Everyone knows the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Does this story have a predictive message for metrication in the UK and the US? A recent letter from the US Metric Association to President Obama invites the question: Could the Americans get there first?
The point about the fable is that, in its race with the tortoise, the hare started off at a fast pace and was approaching the finishing line when it felt sleepy. Being so far ahead, it decided to settle down for a nap. Meanwhile, unnoticed, the tortoise was making slow but steady progress and in due course overtook its sleeping rival and eventually won the race.
Of course, the analogy isn’t exact, but it serves to make the point that, after a promising start, UK metrication has slowed down to the point where it seems to have stalled completely, with no Government plans for further action to complete the project. By contrast, although the US has not made as much visible progress as the UK, there has actually been considerable progress behind the scenes, and crucially the legal framework exists to revive the project and bring it to a swift conclusion – if the political will were there.
The following is an edited version of a letter from the Vice President of the US Metric Association to President Obama (reproduced with permission):
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We at the U.S. Metric Association (USMA), Inc., have been encouraged by your State Of The Union message of progress, particularly in your strong support for making U.S. students more competitive globally. However, there remains an 800-kilogram gorilla in the room, which we hope you, as our President, will expose: the continued delay in U.S. changeover to the metric system of measurement as the Nation’s primary, everyday measurement standard.
If there is any one indicator of U.S. national malaise in science, it is our continued reluctance to adopt the world’s measurement system, the International System of Units (SI, the modern metric system) as our own. The process of making the changeover is called metrication. As of now, only three countries have not metricated: Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States of America. How can we be serious contenders in the global game of science, technology, and culture, if we persist in our measurement isolation?
Not only is the metric system the world measurement standard, it is also a very simple system to learn and use. It is a decimal system, much like the U.S. system of decimal currency, which we pioneered for the world. For example, instead of 5,280 feet in one mile, we will be using 1,000 meters in one kilometer, meaning that the scale of the unit can be changed merely by moving a decimal point and using a prefix. The economies involved in using decimal numbers in measurement instead of cumbersome fractions, have yet to be fully realized in daily American practice, but we can take an additional hint from the stock exchanges, which switched to decimal pricing from “pieces of eight” pricing only a few years ago.
As a first step toward U.S. metrication, I ask that you urge U.S. schools to teach the SI metric system only, and cease all teaching and all use of any system of measurement other than SI metric in the classroom. Our students must become fluent in the metric system with all possible speed. They will flock to its ease and its “cool” features!
USMA is a non-profit, national organization that has been supporting U.S. metrication and providing metric information since 1916. Never in our nearly 100-year history has our mission been more vital for the Nation’s future success. We urge you to break the silence on this national goal, and lead us to make the goal a reality.
Paul Trusten, R.Ph. , Vice President and Public Relations Director
U.S. Metric Association, Inc.”
It is not known whether the letter will actually be read by the President personally, but it is assumed that one of his staff will reply reflecting the President’s thinking. However, whatever Mr Obama’s views, there is the problem that the lower house of Congress is dominated by the President’s opponents, so any new initiative – such as the proposal to permit metric-only labelling for most products – will encounter stiff opposition.
Nevertheless, as the letter indicates, the President has considerable executive powers in matters involving the Federal Government and could also use his moral authority and prestige to expedite progress.
It would of course be ironic if the Americans really were to get there first, but it is not entirely impossible. And if the favourite (albeit false) argument of opponents of metrication (that we should continue to use the same system of measurement as the world’s largest economic power) were to collapse, it would be even more difficult to justify the UK’s position as the world’s only user of imperial measurements.
At least it couldn’t then be blamed on “Europe”!