Disbanding the U.S. Metric Board in 1982: The Sound of a Swan Song

The truth is that our continued use of the English system of measurement was making us an island in a metric sea.

– Gerald Ford, statement upon signing the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 on December 23, 1975

Logo of the U.S. Metric Board

Logo of the U.S. Metric Board

In 1982 President Reagan officially disbanded the 17-member U.S. Metric Board, the government organization charged with “increasing the use” of the metric system in the United States. Reagan did so citing efforts to reduce government spending. Since that time, as a county, we pretty much haven’t looked back.

In July of that same year, the Board issued a Summary Report, or as I like to refer to it, “Would you like a side of bitter with that?”

Clearly most of its members were not happy with the Board’s dissolution, though this was not, according to various sources—including the report—unanimous. The divisiveness within the Board is revealed through various comments it contains. For instance:

Our country holds dear this spirit of individual independence, liberty, justice and freedom of speech. You will notice that the report reflects this spirit…and different views about the metric system.

– Louis F. Polk, chairman, U.S. Metric Board

As if having people on the board who were not in favor of metric adoption wasn’t bad enough, according to the board’s chair, there were other obstacles as well, including no real sense of direction:

The resolution stated, in effect, that the Board must maintain an objective stance on metrication—it can neither advocate nor discourage conversion. It soon became evident that voluntary conversion and the Board’s policy of neutrality were confusing the American people…

– Louis F. Polk, chairman, U.S. Metric Board

While I cannot speak to everything hinted at in the above statement, since I’m looking back 30 years from the outside, I think it’s fair to say that any organization not allowed to take a stand on something it is supposed to help move forward is in deep trouble. No wonder our last major metric system push in this country failed.

The actual 1975 metric adoption act states:

SEC. 3. It is therefore declared that the policy of the United States shall be to coordinate and plan 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.

One of the recommendations in the Board’s Summary Report was that “national policy on metric conversion should be reassessed,” as in “should metric-system adoption be optional or compulsory?”

…determine if voluntary metrication is in this country’s best interests, if complete or partial conversion should be mandated and if we can compete efficiently in domestic and world markets using two systems of measurement.

– U.S. Metric Board Summary Report

On the anti-mandatory-metric-adoption side, the representative of small business stated (and the bolding is NOT mine):

…Small Business supports voluntary metric conversion activities but will vehemently oppose any attempts by the Federal Government or other groups to impose mandatory conversion.

Interestingly, the representative for the construction industry admits his sector would be loath to convert to metric measures (apparently still true today) but would if forced to do so:

As far as my constituency goes…will, under a voluntary approach, be the very last sector to implement conversion to metric measurement—if at all. However, based on my study of progress in the other English-speaking nations and my knowledge of the constructor and designer mentality, I believe that conversion, if mandated with a reasonable schedule, would be virtually a non-event. My industry would adapt very readily, as the hallmark of construction is change, and to us change is an everyday occurrence.

Wrote the representative for business and industry:

I would urge that Congress explicitly set the goal of predominant use of the metric system in the trade and commerce of the United States, and make that a real national commitment by setting a target date…The fact of setting a date will provide the reality required for all sectors of our society to produce effective conversion programs.

Many of the pro-metric representatives expressed hope that progress made toward metric adopt would continue and our country would—eventually—join the rest of the metric-using world:

Tact, patience, and education will erode the anti-metric fortress.

– State and local government representative

Well, it’s been more than 30 years since we disbanded the Board and we’re still buying our gas in gallons, our produce by the pounds and ounces, and measuring in feet and yards. Clearly, the voluntary approach to metrication did not work in this country and a stronger approach needs to be taken in future.

It will require a political will in the form of a grassroots effort to get the metric system implemented in this country. That will take some small amount of effort on the part of a large number of people—and that  will take knowledge that there is a problem to begin with—something we’ve lost sight of during the last three decades.

I think the Board’s chairman rightly summed up the situation in his own essay when he pointed out:

Centuries ago, it was inconvenient for the Western World to change from Roman numerals to the present Arabic figures. Thank heavens that early world persevered and progress prevailed.

It’s time to let go of our “Roman numerals”—in the form of U.S. Customary units—and embrace the metric system for our own and successive generations, not to mention join with other nations of the world  on some logical common ground.

That seems as basic to me as 1, 2, 3…not I, II, III.


Note: For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase “swan song,” see the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_song