Today in History: The US "Converts" to the Metric System

Today in History: The US "Converts" to the Metric System

M.C. Millman

President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act into law on December 23, 1975, promoting the conversion from US customary units of measure to the metric system. 

The US is the only industrialized country in the world not predominantly using the metric system. The Metric Conversion Act declared the metric system "the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce." Still, it allowed US customary units to be used in all activities. The Act also established a US Metric Board to plan, coordinate, and educate Americans on the transition.

President Ford, the 38th president of the US, made a statement at the signing of the Act. He intended the bill to "enable our country to adopt increasing use of this convenient measurement language - both at home in our schools and factories and overseas with our trading partners."

Strangely, Ford emphasized that the conversion was voluntary, declaring, "It is important to stress that the conversion contemplated in this legislation is to be a completely voluntary one." No wonder most of us are still going about our day using US Customary Units. 

According to the US Metric Association (USMA), the Metric Board was disestablished in the fall of 1982. The reasoning behind this decision was that the American public largely ignored the Board. Hence, the Board reported its "apparent ineffectiveness"  to Congress.

This outcome aligns precisely with Ford's statement at the signing of the Act. He said, "If the legislation is not founded on public acceptance, it will have less than no effect at all."

David Smith from Federal Highway Administration is one of the many that believe the US should adopt the metric system. Smith believes that "as the only industrialized nation in the world that has not gone metric, the United States faces serious difficulties in international trade, information exchange, and in engineering and construction projects involving other nations." 

While the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was largely ineffective for the public, Congress tried again in 1988 with the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act. This Act amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and designated the metric system as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce. 

According to the USMA, the legislation states that it is the Federal Government's responsibility "to assist industry, especially small business, as it voluntarily converts to the metric system of measurement." Additionally, the legislation requires that Federal agencies use the metric system in their procurement, grants, and other business-related activities by the end of 1992. 

While the US Customary Units make a lot more sense to most of us who grew up with it, the USMA believes that the conversion to metric units will enhance American products and services in world markets. The organization believes that "failure to complete the change to the metric system will increasingly handicap the Nation's industry and economy."

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