When speaking to Congress in 1816, JMU’s namesake, James Madison, said, “The great utility of a standard fixed in its nature, and founded on the easy rule of decimal proportions, is sufficiently obvious. It led the government at an early stage to preparatory steps for introducing it; completion of the work will be a just title to the public gratitude.” In this speech, Madison is alluding to the necessity of the United States adopting the metric system.
Madison and other founding fathers like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin vehemently supported metrication but met stubborn resistance from the populace. As one can see today, metrication in the early days of America didn’t take hold. However, the founding fathers presumed that the proliferation of scientific reasoning and enlightenment values would inevitably convert the U.S. to the metric system, yet 243 years later, the U.S. still uses the outdated, inaccurate remnants of our British imperial past.
The U.S. may not officially use the metric system, but it’s not for a lack of trying. In 1866, Andrew Johnson, acutely aware that Europe had recently converted to the metric system, signed the Metric Act of 1866, which provided the first imperial to metric conversion chart and decreed it “lawful throughout the United State of America to employ the weights and measures of the metric system in all contracts, dealings or court proceedings.” Soon after, in 1875, the U.S. and 17 other nations signed the Treaty of the Metre, which established the official standards of measure for each ratifying nation. So, technically speaking, the U.S. has legally recognized the metric system for nearly 144 years.
Although the country recognized the metric system, it was never fully adopted by the general public. To remedy this, Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which made the metric system “the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce,” and created a body known as the United States Metric Board that would guide the country through metrication. With these steps, it was assumed that the U.S. would be fully metric before 1980; however, the act emphasized that all conversion should be “completely voluntary,” meaning most people simply ignored it.
According to World Atlas, the U.S., Myanmar and Liberia are the only countries that don’t use the metric system. Even within the U.S., both systems are taught in public schools, and the American scientific community uses the metric system. There should be no debate that the metric system has won the measurement wars; it’s just time for the U.S. to accept it.
When the U.S. Department of Commerce investigated the benefits of teaching the metric system to children before passage of the Metrication Act, they found that the adoption of the metric system would make everyday measurement calculations much more accurate and easier. Converting between units of measure in the U.S. customary system requires the memorization of arbitrary values like three feet in a yard or 1,760 yards in a mile, but the metric system is based on multiples of ten, so conversions simply require moving the decimal. Metrication could simplify public education by only requiring students to learn metric units that’ll be more applicable for modern career paths in business, science, technology, engineering and math, since those fields already rely on metric measurements.
Besides simplifying everyday life and the public education system, metrication would save manufacturers money and remove some barriers for U.S. industry. Since the U.S. refuses to adopt the metric system, all manufacturers in the new global economy have to produce two sets of goods: a special set for U.S. consumers and another for the rest of the world. Metrication could save them money by allowing them to produce a single product for all markets. Additionally, more international companies might consider opening manufacturing plants in the U.S. if they knew American workers were comfortable working with metric measurements.
Metrication could also prevent disastrous mistakes resulting from current attempts at using both at the same time. For example, NASA lost a $125 million Mars rover because of conversion errors between their metric calculations and the customary calculation from Lockheed Martin, as reported by the Los Angeles Time. Additionally, A study in the Journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that nearly 70,000 children in the U.S. are hospitalized because of incorrect dosage errors. Furthermore, in 2017, AARP warned that 1.3 million Americans were affected by medication errors, which can include flawed dosage measurements. According to the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices, some of these errors are due to confusion between the dual printing of both metric and customary units on medicine administration devices. These errors could be avoided by simply dropping the usage of the antiquated customary units.
Globalization and technological innovation have eliminated most barriers between countries and cultures, and the last of such barriers is an international system of measurement. The U.S. could dispose of this barrier by following the blueprint of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and replacing the voluntary adoption clause with a firm deadline and schedule for metrication that could be enforced and implemented by the resurrected U.S. Metric Board. However, for this to happen, politicians must first revive this no-brainer of an issue and finally finish enacting commonsense, standardized measurements.
Charlie Jones is a freshman public policy & administration major. Contact Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.