Keeping our feet and inches: How the metrification movement of the 1970s never came to pass

Rick Wagner • Nov 8, 2016 at 11:35 AM

Remember the 1970s?

I well remember the time, when I was a middle school-aged student at Surgoinsville High School. Back then, the adjoining campus of Surgoinsville Elementary School was a K-6 facility, while Surgoinsville High was 7-12. (My junior year, we combined with Church Hill and went to Volunteer, with the old Surgoinsville High converted to a middle school and the elementary shifting its older students there.)

Aside from hip huggers and bell bottom jeans, the CB radio craze, Farrah Fawcett and Linda Carter, one of the things I remember vividly from that era was a strong and prolonged focus on the metric system in school. (Well, that and I had a really full head of dark brown hair back then.)

You see, we students were told that we must learn the metric system because the whole United States of America was converting to it, part of an international movement that would have us measuring distances in kilometers rather than miles, liquids in liters instead of gallons. I especially remember the late Curtis Mawk, the football coach, physical education teacher and a drivers education instructor. He told us we'd live in a world of metric measurements and we needed to be sure we understood and could use the system, which had been in use in other countries and had become a standard for scientific endeavors.

Imported vehicles already required metric sockets be used, and American-made ones were going in that direction.

Coach Mawk told us about the metric revolution because his bosses and leaders were told by the federal government and all sorts of folks that everything was going metric. New car speedometers began to have kilometers featured predominately instead of miles, and we were taught both conversion from English to metric and metric to English.

The only problem was someone forgot to tell the American people. Somehow, someway, the nation never did come to accept the metric system and soundly rejected metrification. (Doesn’t that word just roll off the tongue?) According to a 2014 article in the New York Times: “Assailed from both right and left, the United States Metric Board gave up the fight and died a quiet death in 1982.” It was attached as communist and Arab influenced by liberals and conservatives even though the system based on 10's and multiples of 10’s was the brainchild of founding father and former President Thomas Jefferson. That Metric Board simply didn’t stand a chance with Jefferson not here to help. Newspaper columnist Bob Greene and National Cowboy Hall of Fame leader Dean Krakel fought against the conversion to metric.

According to the book titled “Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet” by John Bemelmans Marcianon, the article said Jefferson worked to see that the American coinage and money would be divided into tenths, hundredths and thousandths. When Jefferson’s plan was approved by Congress, the United States became the first country to adopt the decimal system for its currency. Two centuries later, however, measurements based on multiples of 10 didn’t work out in this country except for a few exceptions. Some roads in Arizona are an exception, according to CNN.

Fast forward four decades or so later from the mid 1970s, for me the existence of two-liter soft drink bottles is the most common manifestation of what could have been or what still could be. We still buy gallons, half gallons or quarters of milk and gallons of gasoline, and read speeds as miles per hour. However, I did learn to take photos on 35 millimeter film in college, and some liquids are measured in liters other than soft drinks, as coworkers Ned Jilton and Frank Cannon from the copy desk here at the newspaper recently pointed out to me. We also, in this country have 5K and 3K (kilometer) runs occasional road signs using kilometers in addition to miles. But where would be we without the 50 yard line in football or 50-inch televisions on which to watch football games?

However, a group called the U.S. Metric Association exists with the purpose of promoting full conversion to the the metric system. Some tidbits from its website:

• "Metric is now required along with inch-pound units on most consumer products. (See USMA’s Consumer Products page for examples of products packaged in rounded metric quantities, as well as many other products that are measured in metric.)

• "About 50 percent of measures in the US are metric. (Many of those measures are used in the fields of science, engineering, manufacturing, and international trade.)

• "All inch-pound measures are defined and calibrated to the SI metric system. (Inch-pound units are currently based, by the US government, on the metric system.)

• "Metric is used predominantly in the rest of the world, with the US being the only major holdout. (See USMA’s International page for how most other English-speaking countries switched in the 1970s and are now using metric.)

• "The Metric Conversion Act, first passed in 1975 and amended in 1988, is still in effect in the US (The metric system is the preferred system of measurement in the U.S. and is encouraged by the government.)”

My question is: Preferred by whom in government? I need names.

If you look closely, speedometers still have kilometers, and sockets come in two varieties: standard (English inches or fractions thereof) and metric (millimeters). In other words, the metric revolution never came to fruition. Well, OK, I do drive vehicles noting engine displacement in liters instead of cubic inches and have metric socket sets next to my standard ones. About everything else, including measuring length and height, is still done in inches, feet and yards as it has been done for centuries.

An exception is scientific experiments, which generally use the metric system for measurements. But think of this: Can you say off the top of your head how much you weigh in kilograms? Neither can I.

Most of what I remember is that a yard is a little shorter than a meter and that two liters is a little short of a gallon. Other than that, or finding a socket is a bit lose in trying to remove or tighten a bolt and switching back and forth between metric and standard tools, the metric system never reached anything near dominance over the standard measures.

I wonder what Jefferson would think of this? I also wonder what Coach Mawk would have thought. After all, 90 kilometers per hours just sounded faster than 55 miles per hour did when I was a sophomore in driver's education, and it still does today.

Today’s lesson: The metrification movement of the 1970s failed in the United States, ending as a practical matter unceremoniously after about a decade. Bonus questions: What would a liter of milk taste like and how would a liter of gasoline burn in a car engine?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net.