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Ask Your Government: Will the U.S. Go Metric?

By Ed O'Keefe

It's time for "Ask Your Government!" The latest answer comes in response to a user-submitted question from "Ask Your Government" Google Moderator member Glassboro Frank who asks:

Ask Your Government

"One of responsibilities of the federal government is to "fix the Standard of Weights and Measures" and yet we now live with a hodgepodge mix of Imperial and metric units. When are we going to fully commit to becoming a metric country?"

Watch the answer in the video clip above (shot and produced by washingtonpost.com's Emily Kotecki). Special thanks to Tina Butcher, Elizabeth Gentry, Carol Hockert and Ben Stein of the National Institute of Standards and Technology for their assistance in answering the question. For more information on the Metric system, visit www.nist.gov/metric or check out the links posted below after the jump.

Submit YOUR "Ask Your Government" question by joining the Google Moderator group or e-mail it to federaleye@washingtonpost.com.

Suggested Links to Learn More About the Metric System, as Provided by NIST's Elizabeth Gentry:

How Big Are Things?: A physical print-cut-fold-and-tape reference cube provides a nicely tangible and compact presentation of size.

Metric System Reference Points

Metric Weights and Measurement Conversions (NIST.gov)

Metric Cooking Conversion Information (NIST.gov)

Nikon's Universcale: A neat demo of size and length, etc.

Relative Sizes and Detection Devices

U.S. State Record Temperatures and Differences: Compare the nation's most extreme temperatures in Fahrenheit and Celsius.

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 11, 2009; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  Ask Your Government, Video Report  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Eye Opener: March 11, 2009
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Comments

Metric now!

Posted by: thornwalker1 | March 11, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

This is silly. I remember growing up in the 1970's how the U.S. was going to officially change over to the Metric system by 1980, and that went no where because of a lack of will. Can we concentrate on more important issues right now as a country?

Posted by: Anonymous8 | March 11, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Yes by 1973 I think we are told

Posted by: gonville1 | March 11, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

We are already metric in anything important such as medicine and science. So if it's more fun to measure golf courses in yards and homeruns in feet, that's ok with me. Although it is fun to listen to certain people rant about how the liberals and the French want to force us Americans to buy gas by the litre.

Posted by: spidey103 | March 11, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Wow, it really is the 70s again!

Posted by: wapo9 | March 11, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

"The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that's the way I likes it."
--Grandpa Simpson

Posted by: arl09 | March 11, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I doubt we will go metric for the following compelling reasons:

1) Sociology 101: Everyone else in the world uses the metric system. If we do too, we'll be just like everyone else

2) Economics 101: Everyone else in the world use the metric system. It would be easily for foreigners to buy our products.

3) Science 101: All scientists, even American ones, use the metric system. Why would we want our science-iliterate students to know how to become scientists?

4) Math 101: More and more US students are math illiterate. Therefore, we need to continue to put the extra layer in calculations of converting English units to metric units.

5) Religion 101: Jesus never used metric units.

6) History 101: The metric system was invented by a Frenchman.

7) Government 101: Metric units are part of a one-world government conspiracy.

Posted by: jjedif | March 11, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

What will America's conservatives say? On the one hand, they hate anything new, and everything European.
On the other hand, the US military uses metric, and they worship everything the military does.
Just tell them metric is good for killing foreigners, that should get them on board.

Posted by: Bud0 | March 11, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

While we're at it, lose the penny and the paper dollar and raise the retirement age. If you're going shake the dead branches off the tree, then REALLY SHAKE that mofo.

Posted by: info_stuporhighway | March 11, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Ed O'Keefe:
Don't you have enough to do?
There are important issues that the country needs to be focused on instead of talking about Metric.

Are you trying to be cute?

Posted by: 68b2b | March 11, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

may we look at PL 39-183, the "Metric Act of 1866", passed by Congress in - yes! - 1866...

(yawn)...ok everybody, back to sleep...zzzzz

Posted by: frank675 | March 11, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I would like to see this country going metric, but some efforts in that direction are misguided. Several years ago they put exclusively metric signs on the new cross-state freeway in Delaware (Rt. 1). This met with confusion and anger among the public, to the point that they had to go change the signs to miles. A better approach would have been to have the signs both in metric and English so that the public can get used to the idea, and get a sense of the quantities and numbers involved.

Posted by: Max4 | March 11, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse


I am completely comfortable with the metric system, but this doesn't strike me as the highest priority in the world right now.

Posted by: jackrussell252521 | March 11, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Most Americans are too stupid to make the switch. That's why Americans LOOK stupid for being the only county not to use the metric system.

The world makes fun of ignorant Americans.

Posted by: martin6 | March 11, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

What an absurd situation. We had the chance over 30 years ago, but the weak-kneed congress caved into the special interests. "Wah Wah Wah - Don't make us do this. It'll cost too much money."

How much has it cost us since then to not convert? Explain that to me you a-holes!

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | March 11, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

The problem is that the people who are too stupid to take a few days or so to learn the metric system are also too stupid to explain why we shouldn't convert. So the argument never advances and the obvious need to switch is never resolved.

Posted by: AsperGirl | March 11, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Re: PL 39-183, the "Metric Act of 1866":

http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/laws/metric-act-bill.html

This act is ONLY three (3) pages long. It seeks to enact one action - "To authorize the use of the metric system of weights and measures."

The Senator from __________ (remember there were many fewer states and Senators in 1866) did not attach his earmark for pig-odor control.

It does not appear that this became the vehicle for voting on health-care or education under another name.

It does not appear to be part of an omnibus(t) bill of la(r)ding.

We have obviously made progress since 1866! Can we better express our Cognressional appetite for trillion dollar acts in METRIC units - kilograms of pork per page? kilometers of words per omnibus?

Just a suggestion, metrically speaking.

Posted by: Rick74 | March 11, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Hi,
I thought I was the only one thinking of this lately. I was telling myself that with the Obama "we need changed" Administration it is about time the US switch to the metric system like the rest of the world. Even the British who started our present system have switched to metric long time ago. Why is the US still using the old system? Why is the Scientific community not saying anything? We need METRIC now!!!

Posted by: stan7000 | March 11, 2009 11:04 AM | Report abuse

The USA already is metric. We buy soft drinks in liter bottles, and our medicine is in metric units. What this article is really saying is "Do we want to ban and forbid traditional measures." Like in UK, where a greengrocer was arrested for selling greens in pounds. Do we really need to go there? Let's leave it alone. We don't export the weather, so who cares if we think that 72 is an ideal room temperature?

Posted by: george11 | March 11, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Reject European hegemony, METRIC NEVER!

Posted by: SUMB44 | March 11, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I have read that Thomas Jefferson wanted us to switch to the metric system. That's Thomas freakin Jefferson. Progress has not been swift.

Posted by: YUTZ | March 11, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

ok, i wasn't around during the '70's, but i still would like to see this try to go through... it would be totally awesome!

Posted by: evee3 | March 11, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Ah, ignorance. Never dies.

The US has been officially metric since the late 1800's when it signed the metric treaty.

The US military, in particular the Marines and the Army, have been metric since the Korean war. US government scientists, and most scientists in the US work in metric. High school and U. science courses are in metric - so many kids already have a grounding in metric.

The problem is that while in US law the metric system is the primary system, Congress inserted language at the time (late 1800's) allowing continued use of the Imperial system for trade. As the UK was a major trading partner and very reluctant to abandon the Imperial system (and are still kicking and screaming their way to metric) the US continues predominantly to use Imperial. Commerce rules.

The metric system is easy to learn though in some areas it won't go gracefully. Construction, aircraft building, etc. will take 50 years or more to completely switch over.

The benefits accrue in trade with other countries in a common measurement system. As others have pointed out it does appear here and there in liquid measures and so on, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Some states near the Canadian and Mexican borders show dual speed limits, but it is unevenly applied.

Canada has taken 30 years to transition about 95%. Had the US gone lockstep with Canada, it would have taken both countries only 20 years to make the same progress together as major trading partners.

Metric is overdue for the US though first downs might need to be 9 metres...

Thanks JJeldf!!

Posted by: AlanBrowne | March 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

"The entire reason we fought the cold war was so we wouldn't have to use the metric system" - Dave Barry (I think)

Posted by: prayformojo | March 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Switch to metrics? Puh-leese! It took Indiana about 100 years to adopt daylight savings!

I think switching to metrics would be better for everyone since it is more accurate. For example, the freezing point in Celcius is 0 where as in Fahrenheit it's 32! But then again, metrics is used where it matters: in science and industry.

Posted by: AlexandriaMan | March 11, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

there are still three countries in the world that have wisely refrained from precipitously jumping on the bandwagon for metric: liberia, myanmar (burma) and the good old usa.

as long as liberia and myanmar have our back we should be able to successfully resist the temptation to be like everybody else.

if not, we will need to find more visionaries like ronald reagan, jesse helms and george bush.

Posted by: gompa | March 11, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

We need to remove barriers to voluntary metrication. For example, the FPLA makes it a crime to sell a fully metric product (for the products in covers) in a US supermarket. Isn't it about time the FPLA was changed to permit voluntary metrication?

Posted by: BobJordan | March 11, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

BobJordan: The FPLA requires metric as well as imperial units on the products it covers (with some exceptions).
http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/laws/fpla.html
and an amendment in the works would permit metric only labeling - same link above.

Posted by: AlanBrowne | March 11, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

When it was mandated back in the 70's, I used ARCO gas. They had the best price and usually a line at the pumps. Arco switched their pumps to metric and within a week, the station was empty. Personally, I haven't used ARCO products since.

As far as I'm concerned, these foreign but-licking politicans can put their metrics where the sun don't shine.

Posted by: nospam976 | March 11, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

I just wanted to throw more insulting comment out there:

The same people who claim it would be too difficult to switch to the metric system are also not the kind of people who know how to work magic with the imperial system anyways. How many people in the U.S. can scale volume measures at the same time as weight measures?

For example, if I can make my little dog's medicated food and end up with 3.4 cups of puree and it weighs 30 ounces, how many days' dosages of medicine do I add to it, if she eats roughly 6 tablespoons of the medicated food a day? I.e. how many days' worth or medicated puree is that? And if I have to use a scale to accurately divide up the medicated puree after it's made, because using the tablespoon measure is too inaccurate, how many ounces per serving is that?

It's so easy to do with the metric system you can do it in your head!

Posted by: AsperGirl | March 11, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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