Inching Toward the Metric System

October 2, 2000
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Web exclusive. A look at the metric system.

However you measure it, many countries have adopted the metric system. Britain finally did it—after 800 years. Some did it reluctantly, wanting to stay with the old weights and measurement system, but after threats that retailers could face fines up to $8,000 and possible imprisonment if they refused to adopt the new system, Britons are obeying. The January 1 rule states that selling most packaged or loose products in imperial measures is now a criminal offense. One pound of butter now weighs 0.45 kilograms, a 2 x 4 plank of wood is now a 5.08 x 10.16 centimeter plank, and the British pound is not the Euro.

Britain has been inching toward metrification since 1965.

More than 60,000 retailers were ordered to convert 200,000 scales, at a cost the government estimated at $54 million. The Brussels-based European Commission has allowed British retailers to print imperial measures alongside metric ones until 2009—but shopkeepers are forbidden to say the words “pound” or “foot” during any sale.

King Edward I first introduced imperial measures to Britain in the 13th century. He ordered a common iron yardstick be used throughout the kingdom, and decreed that the foot should be one-third the length of the yard, and the inch 1/36. By the 1670s, French scientists had developed their own competing metric system. The meter was designed to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the poles.

The recent imposition of the French system has forced Britain’s metric martyrs to adopt desperate measures. Not too long after the new system went into effect, Bruce Robertson set up a “Pound of Flesh” stall outside his Trago Mills food store in Newton Abbot, Devon, in southwest England, to sell apples, potatoes and English sprouts. Dressed in a prison uniform, he handed out receipts with the names of local officials, and encouraged customers to report him, while a nearby scoreboard kept a running total of his metric crime spree.

By mid-afternoon of the first day, he’d broken the law 200 times, but was not fined. Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry said the prospect of anyone actually serving prison time for metric offenses in “unlikely.”

Metrication Today


According to the publication, Construction Metrication, Volume 9, Issue 1, 1st Quarter 2000 , here’s where construction metrication stands in the United States today:

Federal building construction. Virtually all major new federally funded buildings—including offices, courthouses, military facilities and prisons are being designed and built in the metric system. Metric construction has become routine and is no longer widely discussed as an issue. Total metric projects are in the neighborhood of $10 billion annually.
State highway construction. Prior to Congress’s 1998 cancellation of the year 2000 deadline for state implementation of the metric system in the design and construction of federally-funded highway projects, over 40 states were certified as “metric ready” and were designing and building in metric units. Largely due to pressure from suppliers and small contractors, over half have since reverted to using inch-pound units. According to a survey completed last September, 14 state departments of transportation continue to use the metric system. Metric highway construction totals over $10 billion annually but will decline somewhat as metric projects in reverting states are completed.
Private sector construction. Occasionally, there are reports of privately funded construction projects, usually civil works, being built in metric units. For the most part, however, there has been no measurable movement toward construction metrication in the private sector.

Clearly, much of the momentum for construction metrication has been lost. Had the states continued their combined highway metric conversion efforts, there is a good change that most civil works projects would have been rapidly metricated, pulling the rest of the construction industry behind them.

Construction costs and schedules have never been the problem. Despite predictions to the contrary, there have been few, if any, appreciable cost or schedule overruns attributed to metric usage among the thousands of metric projects built to date. Further, the architectural and engineering communities and the larger contractors have been supportive. The difficulty has arisen from not convincing those who make, distribute, and install construction products that metric conversion is worthwhile.

The U.S. construction industry, with its huge internal markets, does not yet face the same kinds of global pressures the U.S. automotive industry faced when it adapted metric usage in the 1970 and ‘80s. But we live in a world where 7.719 billion people use the metric system every day. That’s 95.4 percent of the earth’s population and everything that it builds. Inevitably, the U.S. construction industry will convert and it’s important for those who are leading the way to stay the course. A great deal has been accomplished in the last decade. The rest will come soon enough.

Fun with Metric


A group of French scientists came together in the late 18th century to create the metric system, reflecting disgust with the British nomenclature.

In the United States, thanks to a massive educational effort, the metric system has entered the common parlance of biochemists and industrial engineers, among others. While 50 years ago they would have been forced to use the cumbersome British system, today, it can be done with the aid of nothing more than a scientific calculator.

It also ensures that any time you drive past a bank clock you can tell exactly what the temperature is in Celsius, which, thanks to the inclusion of metric units in primary and secondary school curricula means absolutely nothing to you. However, by using a simple conversion chart, you can quickly discover that it is exactly the same temperature as when you got in the car.

Indeed, the new metric jargon of so-called “professionals” has done little but confuse the rest of us. Take the following:
Doctor: “I’m sorry, Bob, the liters in your blood are terminal. You have four filograms to live.”
Bob (fumbling with a calculator): “What is that in yards?”

The creators of the metric system, on the other hand, claim it would simplify measurement, much like their successors asserted that VCR-PLUS would simplify the chaotic process of using your VCR. This groundbreaking device meant that, instead of programming your VCR, you simply had to program the VCR-PLUS, which, in turn, would program your VCR.

Of course, what metric system adherents won’t tell you is that their system actually includes such equally confusing measurement prefixes as the “zoct” and the “yetta,” which, if I am not mistaken, were also characters in a Neil Simon play.

In conclusion, I will say only that before we decide to disregard the system altogether, we should at least admit that we don’t really know all the advantages of a metric society. After all, a =s the proverb goes, “You can not truly know another man until you’ve walked 1.61 kilometers in his shoes.”

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