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Toward a Metric America The United States and the Metric Toward a Metric America: The United States and the Metric System
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-------------------------------------Toward a Metric America-------------------------------------
The United States and
the Metric System

A Capsule History

The United States is now the only industrialized country in the world that does not use the metric system as its predominant system of measurement.

Most Americans think that our involvement with metric measurement is relatively new. In fact, the United States has been increasing its use of metric units for many years, and the pace has accelerated in the past three decades. In the early 1800s, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (the government's surveying and map-making agency) used meter and kilogram standards brought from France. In 1866, Congress authorized the use of the metric system in this country and supplied each state with a set of standard metric weights and measures.

In 1875, the United States solidified its commitment to the development of the internationally recognized metric system by becoming one of the original seventeen signatory nations to the Treaty of the Meter. The signing of this international agreement concluded five years of meetings in which the metric system was reformulated, refining the accuracy of its standards. The Treaty of the Meter, also known as the "Metric Convention," established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Sèvres, France, to provide standards of measurement for worldwide use.

In 1893, metric standards, developed through international cooperation under the auspices of BIPM, were adopted as the fundamental standards for length and mass in the United States. Our customary measurements -- the foot, pound, quart, etc. -- have been defined in relation to the meter and the kilogram ever since.

The General Conference of Weights and Measures, the governing body that has overall responsibility for the metric system, and which is made up of the signatory nations to the Treaty of the Meter, approved an updated version of the metric system in 1960. This modem system is called Le Système International d'Unites or the International System of Units, abbreviated SI.

The United Kingdom began a transition to the metric system in 1965 to more fully mesh its business and trade practices with those of the European Common Market. The conversion of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth nations to SI created a new sense of urgency regarding the use of metric units in the United States.

In 1968, Congress authorized a three-year study of systems of measurement in the U.S., with particular emphasis on the feasibility of adopting SI. The detailed U.S. Metric Study was conducted by the Department of Commerce. A 45-member advisory panel consulted with and took testimony from hundreds of consumers, business organizations, labor groups, manufacturers, and state and local officials.

The final report of the study, "A Metric America: A Decision Whose Time Has Come," concluded that the U.S. would eventually join the rest of the world in the use of the metric system of measurement.

The study found that measurement in the United States was already based on metric units in many areas and that it was becoming more so every day. The majority of study participants believed that conversion to the metric system was in the best interests of the Nation, particularly in view of the importance of foreign trade and the increasing influence of technology in American life.

The study recommended that the United States implement a carefully planned transition to predominant use of the metric system over a ten-year period. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 "to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States." The Act, however, did not require a ten-year conversion period. A process of voluntary conversion was initiated, and the U.S. Metric Board was established. The Board was charged with "devising and carrying out a broad program of planning, coordination, and public education, consistent with other national policy and interests, with the aim of implementing the policy set forth in this Act." The efforts of the Metric Board were largely ignored by the American public, and, in 1981, the Board reported to Congress that it lacked the clear Congressional mandate necessary to bring about national conversion. Due to this apparent ineffectiveness, and in an effort to reduce Federal spending, the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982.

The Board's demise increased doubts about the United States' commitment to metrication. Public and private sector metric transition slowed at the same time that the very reasons for the United States to adopt the metric system -the increasing competitiveness of other nations and the demands of global marketplaces -- made completing the conversion even more important.

Congress, recognizing the necessity of the United States' conformance with international standards for trade, included new encouragement for U.S. industrial metrication in the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. This legislation amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and designates the metric system as the "preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce." The legislation states that the Federal Government has a responsibility to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement.

Federal agencies were required by this legislation, with certain exceptions, to use the metric system in their procurement, grants and other business-related activities by the end of 1992. While not mandating metric use in the private sector, the Federal Government has sought to serve as a catalyst in the metric conversion of the country's trade, industry, and commerce.

The current effort toward national metrication is based on the conclusion that industrial and commercial productivity, mathematics and science education, and the competitiveness of American products and services in world markets, will be enhanced by completing the change to the metric system of units. Failure to complete the change will increasingly handicap the Nation's industry and economy.


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Metric Conversion Cards to Metric Measures

Metric Conversion Cards from Metric Measures

All you will need to know about Metric

For further information contact:

Director, Metric Program
Building 820, Room 306
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Gaithersburg, MD 20899
(301) 975-3690 phone, (301) 948-1416 fax
URL Address:

NIST LC 1136
October 1997

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