Happy Metric Week! Celebrating 100 Years of the U.S. Metric Association
Don Hillger, President, U.S. Metric Association
This year, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Metric Association (USMA). Our mission is to help the U.S. complete its transition to the metric system. Although we’ve always expected that the adoption of the metric system in the U.S. was just around the corner, all these years later we find we’re still working for the metric cause.
I joined the USMA in the early 1980s. Like many citizens, I had been mostly unaware of the worldwide move to metric, mainly in the former British Commonwealth countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, etc. At the time, metric-adopting countries followed through on their planned transitions without a hitch, according to schedules and deadlines for national metric changes. The U.S. considered following suit, but didn’t exclusively adopt metric to the extent necessary to complete the job.
While many companies and certain industries have recognized the benefits of converting to metric, such as its simplicity and the streamlined access it gives them to global markets and supply lines, no one would really consider the U.S. to be a metric country.
But metric usage in the U.S. is more common than most citizens realize. From automobiles and machinery and medical fields, to nearly everything made in China or the rest of the world, which is a lot these days, metric is everywhere.
It’s true that much of our metric usage is behind the scenes, but it’s not completely hidden from the observant citizen. Take a typical car speedometer that gives readings in both miles and kilometers per hour (in smaller font). While this feature gives you the impression that the car is customary through and through, the truth is that the car was designed and built using metric measurements. This is a good metaphor for the state of metric in the America: Under the hood we’re metric; it’s the part that people see that isn’t.
What I think we need to do is bring metric out of the shadows, stop converting and start conversing in metric. We need to begin using metric in the way that metric countries do, e.g. on road signs, in weather reports, and at the grocery store.
While we’re not there yet, opportunities exist for people like you and me who want to see more metric use in everyday life. Let’s ask for more metric units in media. Let’s simplify product packaging labels to list only metric quantities. Let’s prevent medical dosage errors by using only milliliters, not tablespoons or teaspoons. Let’s help children build familiarity in metric by providing daily opportunities to practice using metric measures as much as they can, at both home and school.
USMA has a number of programs to help in the U.S. metric transition. Besides basic metric information, our website has a section on the laws related to the metric system covering the past 100 years, showing where the U.S. stands legislatively. We also have a ton of information showing metric use in food and other product labeling.
As far as tools and suggestions for members and the public, we have a metric guide , as well as just the basics. If you want to teach metric or consult with businesses, we offer training to make you a metric expert. There’s a large Science Fair Award program to honor students who use metric units especially well in their science projects. Teachers can also download materials for them to use in their classrooms.
We regularly publish a newsletter, Metric Today, that keeps our members informed of metric advances in the U.S., as well as stories of metric use that otherwise are not apparent to the average citizen.
The adoption of the metric system in the U.S. is inevitable. Many advances are yet taking place, slowly but surely. The metric system is not something that was tried here and failed: It’s just taking longer than most metric advocates would like. We can’t predict when we’ll see metric road signs and weather reports, and those may be among the last things to change, but we can quicken the pace of that change by conversing in metric. In the meantime, my colleagues and I at the USMA and our supporters will continue to pursue a metric U.S. because we believe that the adoption of the metric system is in the best interests of this country and its citizens.
This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on October 13, 2016.
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About the Author
Don Hillger became USMA President in 2015. His career, as a meteorologist specializing in weather satellite applications, began in the 1970s. He has been a NOAA meteorologist for nearly 30 years, stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Don has also been a topical philatelist for many years, with numerous publications on the topics of satellites and weather on postage stamps, as well as the metric system and amateur radio.