An anniversary for the US Metric Conversion Act

The 1975 Metric Conversion Act (MCA) was signed into law by President Gerald Ford on December 23, 1975. To mark the 40th anniversary of this event, Ronnie Cohen looks at the introduction of the Act and its effect on metrication in the USA.

As stated in the opening words of the MCA, its objective was “To declare a national policy of coordinating the increasing use of the metric system in the United States, and to establish a United States Metric Board to coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system.” It designated the metric system of measurement as the preferred system of weights and measures for US trade and commerce, and aimed to increase understanding of the metric system through public information and education campaigns and to co-ordinate and plan its increasing use in the USA.

What were the drivers for the MCA ? The Act gave several reasons for the US to go metric:

  • The USA is, in the words of the MCA, the “only industrially developed nation which has not established a national policy of committing itself and taking steps to facilitate conversion to the metric system”.
  • The rest of the world was going metric and, consequently, an ever-increasing proportion of world trade was based on metric units.
  • US industry was often at a competitive disadvantage in international markets because the USA used a non-standard measurement system, namely US Customary units. Sometimes US industry was excluded from those markets when it was unable to deliver goods measured in metric quantities.
  • The metric system is inherently simple and standardized weights and measures have helped some US industries to make big cost savings from metric conversion.
  • The US Federal Government has a duty to help US industry to develop procedures and techniques for metric conversion.
  • The US Federal Government can gain big benefits from using the metric system in its own operations.

The promoters of the MCA believed the Metrication Board was crucial to achieving increasing use of the metric system in the USA? However, the Board, like its UK counterpart existed to coordinate the voluntary conversion to the metric system and had no compulsory powers. Only the US Congress could grant it compulsory powers, which never happened.

The MCA defined the structure of the United States Metric Board, stating that it would contain the following members:

  • 1 Chairman
  • 1 Representative of engineering interests
  • 1 Representative of scientists and technicians
  • 1 Representative of manufacturers
  • 1 Representative of traders, retailers and commercial organizations
  • 2 Representatives of workers
  • 1 Representative of State and local government
  • 2 Representatives of small business
  • 1 Representative of the construction industry
  • 1 Representative of standards organizations
  • 1 Representative of educational interests
  • 4 Representatives of consumers and other interests deemed suitable by the President

This makes a total of 17 individuals, including the Chairman. The Chairman was to be appointed by the President, with support from the Senate. A list with at least 3 individuals would be submitted for each vacancy of the Board. The US President would determine the terms of office of the initial members of the Board at the time of nomination, 5 members’ terms would expire after 2 years, another 5 after 4 years and the remaining 6, including the Chairman, after 6 years. Members, including the Chairman, can be appointed for another term of 6 years. Any successors to the Board would be appointed in the same way though their term of office would last for 6 years. If new members had to be appointed mid-term, they would serve the remainder of the term. For the purpose of carrying out the business of the Board, 6 members constituted a quorum. Congress had the power to abolish the Board by law when it determines that its mission has been accomplished.

What did the Board actually do?

The Board was involved in a number of activities, including planning, co-ordination, public education and information, consultation, publicity, research, surveys and information collection and reporting to Congress and the President. It would take others’ interests, views, and conversion costs and avoid duplicating others’ work in metrication. It provided a way for the public to provide feedback and recommend specific programmes for coordinating conversion in each industry and segment thereof and could hold public hearings, set up committees and advisory panels, enter into contracts and delegate authority where necessary. It worked with the public sector, both US and foreign, and international organizations, on engineering standards based on metric units and help to make appropriate changes to weights and measures laws to support metrication.

The Board survived for just seven years. It was abolished by President Reagan in 1982. The MCA established no timetable for conversion, created a toothless Board with weak powers, had no compulsory powers and made metrication voluntary. This was reflected in the powers of the Board. In areas where there was little or no progress on metrication, the Board had no powers to compel others to make faster progress. It existed to support existing efforts to convert to metric units. Its activities could be described as advisory, informative, consultative and facilitative. It had no real power to make things happen as far as metrication was concerned. So what difference did the Board actually make to the US transition to the metric system? What was the impact of the MCA on the use of metric units in the USA? Why was the Board abolished just 7 years after it was formed? Metric Views would be interested to hear readers’ views on these questions.

UK readers may also wish to speculate on the differences between the approaches and muddled outcomes in both countries.

Sources:

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5 Responses to An anniversary for the US Metric Conversion Act

  1. Daniel says:

    The US Metrication Act was a huge joke. Its intent was to make a pretense of metrication with no intent to change anything. Metric opposers were allowed on the board to make sure no progress would be made. Since the program was entirely voluntary, it was thought that no one would volunteer and the whole idea would flop.

    Well the whole idea did flop, but not in the manner expected. There were volunteers and those of significant stature, that is large companies with a lot of influence and wealth. So, the US went from a single "system" standard (USC) to hodge-podge instead of back to a single system standard (SI). What has resulted?

    1.) Metric industries unable to form partnerships with non-metric industries. Such as automotive and aerospace.

    2.) Small companies dependent on big companies having to deal with both USC an metric and incurring additional costs due to stocking, errors and other situations that would cause a loss of productivity and growth.

    3.) The export of jobs to metric countries to avoid a resistant population.

    4.) The decline in American manufacturing that persists to this day.

    5.) Continued anger and arguments over the effects of not metricating versus "we kept this Commie threat away".

    The present weakness and decline in the American manufacturing sector will continue as long as the US continues to resist a unified, standard measurement system harmonised with the rest of the industrial world. I won't hold my breath waiting for this to happen. But it will be interesting to see where a further US decline leads and what will take its place.

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  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Too bad the USA didn't really follow through with metrication. Please see this China Daily USA article for an additional view on why the USA should stop dragging its feet, and metricate:

    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2015-12/07/content_22646089.htm

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    After watching quite a bit of coverage of COP21 on a local American progressive web site, it became painfully clear how isolated the USA now is when it comes to the use of metric.

    All of the people that were interviewed used metric units, and the poor American host constantly had to "translate" what the interviewees said into Imperial.

    It just really highlighted in my mind how alone we Americans are in the metric universe and how we really to need to "get on the stick" (as we say) and start metricating.

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  4. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The American Pharmacists Association has just adopted a new metric-only policy for labeling and measuring oral liquid medications:

    http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/apha-house-delegates-adopts-policy-guide-labeling-measurement-oral-liquid-medications-2107022.htm

    I hope the NHS and other UK bodies are in sync with this as well.

    Editor's note:
    From 3 March 1969, it became illegal to use any system of weights and measures other than the metric system for dispensing prescriptions in the UK. This change occurred around 25 years before the metric changeover became associated in the public mind with EU membership, and took place smoothly without controversy.

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  5. eric burns says:

    There are three important matters that cannot be achieved on a voluntary basis, taxes, conscription and metrication.

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