From the Publisher: ‘Metrics' on Long-Ago Promise

September 1, 2006
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Someone out there thinks Americans are stupid. Or, that we are too slow. Or, perhaps that we are too skeptical. These are the only conclusions I can come to after waiting for a change in this country that was promised to us more than 35 years ago. I am talking about conversion to the metric system.

Recent trips to Canada and Europe had me pondering why the United States has not fully converted to the metric system. The United States still operates on the antiquated English system, something even the English have largely abandoned.

A recent article I read on this subject stated that every country is in the process of converting from traditional to metric systems-some are just further along. That may be true, but most industrialized countries are leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. We have been "converting" for nearly 40 years.

Thinking back to the early 1970s, I remember teachers drilling liters, centimeters and milligrams into our head, telling us that one day, "Everything and everyone will be on the metric system." Surely, in the time that has passed, children could have fully learned the metric instead of the English system. Most children can learn to operate a computer in about 25 minutes. Any student of science or engineering must learn the metric system. And, older-generation Americans have learned to keep up with society's technology and business changes. So, Americans aren't stupid.

Shortly after learning the metric system 35 years ago, I remember seeing 12-ounce cans of pop with the 355 milliliters equivalent printed on it. My dad's new car also had the kilometers per hour right below the miles per hour, and the teacher's "yardstick" was replaced with a meter stick. Surely we have had enough time to "catch on" to the relevant size and speed of objects as measured in the metric system vs. the English system. So, Americans aren't too slow.

Maybe, there is a fear that by abandoning the familiar English units we'll feel "cheated" out of product. We are already being cheated. When you buy a pound of coffee you get only 12 ounces. Existing government agencies already ensure accuracy in measures.

Maybe the delay in conversion is a money issue. Manufacturers that must dual-label consumer products have extra cost and can charge a bit more. Manufacturers can make more money by selling tools and measurement devices sized for metric and English units. A total metric conversion could halve some manufacturers' product offerings. But, many of these same manufacturers are global and only offer metric devices elsewhere-universal offerings would allow them to save money in production, distribution and inventory.

The universal language of business is English. Any industrial nation that wants to succeed in international trade must use it, and have its people learn it. Similarly, the universal set of measures is metrics and any industrial nation that wants to succeed in international trade uses it, including the United States. However, the American people are not yet conversant in the language of metrics. Why?

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