History of the Metric System Part 3 Will America Change?

About the history of the metric system, the simple system of measurement the United States refuses to accept.

Meet the Meter

There is no doubt that metrification will be universal throughout the country--whether Congress acts upon the metric conversion proposals that are before it or not. The price we pay for the dual system is much too high. It has been estimated that the U.S. loses annually between $10 and $25 billion either because customers abroad refuse to buy nonmetrically dimensioned goods or because of the waste in labor, costs, warehousing, inventory-keeping, and so on which results from dual production lines--the nonmetric one for the domestic market, and the metric one for the export market.

Inevitably there will be a certain amount of inconvenience during the transition period; but as the British experience has shown, proper planning can eliminate or at least mitigate the unsettling effects of a changeover. Signs and gauges will have to be printed to show readings in both metric and nonmetric terms. Like tourists in a foreign country who are unfamiliar with the local money units, the average person will at 1st refer frequently to conversion tables in order to translate metric into the accustomed nonmetric terms. Several States, notably Florida and California, contemplate teacher-training programs and a revision of textbooks, so that new generations of schoolchildren are taught the metric system at the elementary school level. Those Americans who have grown up nonmetrically will have to get used to distances and speeds measured in kilometers or kilometers-per-hour instead of as mileage, to buying gas by the liter instead of the gallon, and to purchasing food by the kilogram instead of the pound.

"It's a matter of guesswork how much disorientation a person actually experiences when the dimensions of his life change," said Newsweek magazine. "Does a woman feel temporarily demeaned when her hip size swells from 36 to 91, and does a motorist feel beggared by the 80 liters of gas it takes to fill up his tank? Those who have studied the matter in other countries suggest that children take to the change like a shot--a system universally based on multiples of 10 is a great deal easier and quicker to learn. But older people are likely to be thrown badly by the disorientation of familiar dimensions. When the body temperature registers as 37.5 degree (centigrade), is that good or bad? Just multiply by 9, divide by 5, add 32 and you'll know."

Wherever the cost of a changeover is too high, or if only trivial material is involved, the old units will probably be retained. For example, real estate is expected to remain nonmetric because it would be prohibitively expensive and endlessly complicated to rewrite old deeds or move fences to fit metric dimensions and the inchworm is not likely to become the 2.54 cm.-worm.

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